Giovanni Bellini: The Saints Christopher, Jerome, and Louis of Toulouse (1513)
The painting of the Saints Christopher, Jerome and Louis of Toulouse in the church of San Giovanni Grisotomo, Venice, is one of the late works of Giovanni Bellini (1437-1516). It encapsulates several of the problems that are on the ‘Bilderfahrzeuge’ group’s mind.
The depicted space is divided by an arch, carrying a Greek inscription (Psalm 14) for San Giovanni Grisotomo used to house the Greek community in Venice. The arch separates the foreground from the back. Generally speaking, the contemplative act of seeing simultaneously both distances the viewer from the examined object and overcomes this distance at the same time. In this particular case the eye has to cross the painted barrier – the arch – and exit the actual space of the church to enter that of salvific history.
By so doing it passes the two saints that stand to the left and to the right. They almost lean against the archway like guards or, viewed differently, guides. For they are indeed ambiguous figures, true ‘saints of transition’. Christopher being Christ’s own vehicle, while Louis, the son of Charles of Anjou (1254-1309), renounced his right to the throne of Naples, thus migrating from a political sphere to a religious one or, in the terms of St. Augustine with whom Bellini’s figure of Louis has been actually confused for some time, from the civitas terrena to the civitas dei (the earthly city to the city of God).
Typically, there lies only one open book in front of him – although one might expect two texts.
Once the viewer, led by such appropriate guides, has entered the ‘sanctuary’ of the painting, his eye encounters the third of the saints: Jerome. Instead of the Virgin it is he who governs this converted sacra conversazione, being enthroned on a rock and crowned by the open sky. Yet, he could not be less interested in the meaning that is bestowed upon him by this composition. He is too absorbed by his already significant work. Typically, there lies only one open book in front of him – although one might expect two texts: the Greek Scripture and the Vulgate. But carrying out this translation does not simply appear as a piece of assiduous work. It is represented as a contemplative, as a creative act.
Thus, in Bellini’s painting of the three saints various aspects come together that are of interest for studying the mobility of ideas within cultural history on the basis of images. It was commissioned by a group of foreigners, coming to Venice from another cultural background. In its formal composition the artwork itself plays with vicinity and distance. It does so using an artistic technique that, again, locates the piece within a specific tradition of painting that forms an autonomic route through cultural history. Finally, its inventio is evidence of an awareness of a historical diversity and the inspiring dynamic, it brings forth. The latter even seems to be sanctified as Bellini enwraps it in the figure of a sacra conversazione.
This may be worthy of comparison with another Venetian image of Jerome. About the same time as Bellini, Carpaccio (1465-1525), commissioned by the Dalmatian brotherhood, painted several scenes of Jerome’s life for the Scuola di San Giorgio degli Schiavoni. Carpaccio’s Doctor of the Church does not labour out in the wild but in the cosiness of his traditional study. Only – it is not Jerome but Augustine! The athor of De civitate dei has been transformed into Jerome by the surrounding scene. Whereas Jerome, as legend has it, announces Augustine’s near death, appearing here as light shining through the open window to his left.
Augustine becomming Jerome, Jerome dematerialising, a window leading from life to death: nothing seems to be allowed to keep its original form, everything is in constant motion. While, as if sticking out of the frame, unobtrusively, in the lower right corner, a note sheet is depicted as a Trompe-l’œil. The visual quality of the painting is pushed by this illusion out of the screen. At the same time it is blended into an acoustic quality, now spreading in the open space. The scene enters the realm of the mind and free floating ideas. This is exactly where Bellini has situated Jerome: in midair, and how Carpaccio has represented him: as a beam of light – a quiet suitable guise for this champion of transfer.