My favourite painting: Skye McAlpine

The chef and writer Skye McAlpine chooses The San Zaccaria Altarpiece by Giovanni Bellini.

Skye McAlpine on Giovanni Bellini’s Madonna Enthroned with Child and Saints, the altarpiece at San Zaccaria

‘When I was little, my parents would take me to Mass every Sunday morning. Part of the charm of going to church in Venice is the wealth of different churches to choose from – each one more splendid than the next. Most weeks, we’d go somewhere different. My favourite was San Zaccaria, a small, quite cosy church.

‘I would sit and stare at Bellini’s altarpiece, happily gazing at it for hours: the colours so vibrant and yet also gentle, the soft light, the infectious peace of the painting that somehow always made me feel calm inside, and the ornate detailing–more beautiful than any photograph could ever be. Even now, it’s my favourite painting and, every time I walk past the church, I have to pop in to take one more look.’

Skye McAlpine is a chef, food blogger and author. Her book A Table for Friends is out now (Bloomsbury, £26)

John McEwen on Bellini and Madonna Enthroned with Child and Saints

Christian art should be seen as this altarpiece is, placed in church as an aid to devotion. Not all Christian pictures fulfil this role. Lucian Freud used to judge the many in the National Gallery on whether or not they were painted with belief. The critic Roger Fry wrote that Bellini’s artist father and teacher, Jacopo, ‘treated religious subjects with surprising levity’, whereas Giovanni’s sacred works expressed ‘pity and love’ with ‘intimate intensity’.

Ironically, it was on a working trip to Padua, with his father and elder brother Gentile, that the young Bellini was filled with Christian zeal by hearing St Bernardino preach. The altarpiece is of the ‘sacred conversation’ kind, the Virgin and Jesus in company as if in real life, the music-playing angel adding the required transcendence.

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The piece in context at the church of San Zaccaria, Venice.

Two fathers of the church, St Peter (left), with the key to Heaven, and St Jerome, first translator of the Bible, carry Bibles; the virgin martyrs St Catherine (left) and St Lucy, carry martyrs’ palm fronds and signs of their torture: St Catherine a bit of the wheel that gives her name to the firework; St Lucy holding her eyes, which she gouged out to defend herself from men.

The lantern hangs from an ostrich egg, which in Nature is hatched by the sun, thus symbolic of Mary’s Immaculate Conception. Realistic deception is completed by the painted architecture blending with the real church, landscape sides admitting ‘natural’ light. Dürer visited Venice at the time of the picture. He wrote of Bellini: ‘He is very old but still the greatest of them all.’