La Sacra Allegoria di Giovanni Bellini~Gallerie degli Uffizi

by Marina De Ros

La Sacra Allegoria di Giovanni Bellini, oil on the table, 1490-1500

A visit to the Uffizi to sink our hands in the ancient roots of Occidental culture…

At the Uffizi there is a small painting, a small painting with an unreal and fantastic atmosphere, which contains an enigma not yet solved.

The painting does not have large dimensions, but does not go unnoticed alongside the great giants that populate the Uffizi rooms, because it has a seductive elegance in itself, which attracts the looks of the most demanding visitors into silence.

On the right, two male figures walking close to the precious marble inlaid floor of the square, they are St. Giobbe and St. Sebastiano, identifiable because they were portrayed in the “Pala di San Giobbe” painted Giovanni Bellini, in 1487.

St. Giobbe and St. Sebastiano: the Sage and the Beautiful. The two saints are accompanied by a slow and elegant step, both of them have the same powerful charm, a hieratic and composed Giobbe has nothing to envy to the beautiful and young Sebastiano. They are close, symmetrical, on the same level, are a combination of Rationality and Beauty, and I think it is not blasphemous to think that our painter wanted to make them represent the quintessence of Art, as it was understood in the 1400’s: Art as a construct human, rational (St. Giobbe) and beautiful (St. Sebastiano).

I would say even more: St. Giobbe and St. Sebastiano wandering around the square near a tree that, because of its fallen fruits on the ground, we recognize it as the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, of biblical memory. The main symbol of ethics, placed here in a vase in the center of the square. In front of the entrance gate. Those who leave the square must turn their backs.

The two Saints, who represent the Art, walk beside it, as if to say that Art lives by right in the space of Ethics.

We see that some children play on the ground with the apples of the tree, dropped by a little boy who shakes the tree trunk. Unlike the children, St. Giobbe and St. Sebastiano do not lower themselves to touch the fruits. In fact, in the painting it is only the children who are attracted to the fruit of the tree, just as Adam and Eve were before being driven out of the earthly Paradise. They are only to imbibe. To want to arrogate the right to sentence what is good and what is bad, while the Art, represented by the Sage and the Beautiful, has no interest in this theme, the Art lives in the same place of morals, without taking care of it, proudly carrying the theatrical arrows penetrated in the white flesh of St. Sebastiano.

We are in front of the apotheosis of Art, of its sanctification, as a discipline with a recognized status of heavenly autonomy.

But the allegory does not stop there. On the left in the scene a further scenario opens up and another theme, that of Power, is dealt with. Here appear some women, one of them is sitting on a precious throne, it is the Madonna, identifiable because portrayed with the same clothes worn in the “Pala di San Giobbe” of 1487.

Bellini describes a scene of matriarchy, as if to say that the Power, in the ideal world, should be managed in a feminine way, not in terms of strength but with those qualities attributed to women in the 1400’s, such as Mercy and Justice, as they would mean the two Saints next to her. Perhaps this is a criticism of the artist’s power?

The hypothesis would justify the cryptic language of symbols.

Beyond the balcony you enter the real knot of the painting.

Next to the open door of the square, there are two new saints: St. Giuseppe and St. Paolo, St. Giuseppe identifiable because several times portrayed by the author, for example we meet the same face in the painting, “The presentation to the Temple,” of 1465; St. Paolo identifiable for the sword he holds in his hand.

The first looks at the children, the second defends the square from the entrance of the strangers. Beyond the open door a small beach and then a lake. Beyond the lake is a fairytale natural landscape with curved and jagged lines, completely contrasting with the rationality of the terrace in the foreground.

Here there is a strong contrast between two incompatible elements: the architectural square and the natural landscape beyond the lake. Architecture on one side and Nature on the other, in the middle a mirror of water with deceptive reflections.

The rational human artistic construct, lyrical in its beauty and illuminated by a very clear light, is completely separated from a landscape that is equally beautiful but is placed on a lucidly different plane, completely different, there alternate lights and shadows that, in some places, are even obscure, such as to be able to obscure the beautiful lamp that rises from the throne of the Madonna.

There, outside the rational artistic construct, there is the world of nature, of deceptive instincts.

On the right in a recess hidden under the stairs we can glimpse a half-man and half-horse creature, near the two lovers, at the farthest point, a half-naked man accompanies a donkey. On the mountains: the wind. Below: the solitude of the man who goes down the stairs and the unkindness of the shepherd in the cave.

There is no artistic construction in the landscape beyond the lake, there is only the irrational world in which the mountain above the lovers takes on almost the appearance of a giant monster.

By underlining this fracture, the painting highlights the main characteristic of our culture, that is, the strong indication to prefer the rational aspect of life, rather than the instinctual one.

Capital indication for our culture. Ancient indication, but still present.

Thanks to this strong warning, in the past centuries the Western world has succeeded in creating a rich culture, beautiful and respectful of human rights.

A culture that has always presented a vulnus within itself: the splitting of our soul, which has always been strongly induced to oppose the plane of the mind to that of instinct, and the creation in man of a certain congenital schizophrenia, which more and more needed to be healed.

Giovanni Bellini is the first to search for a balance between these two instances, which he paints as being separated by an open door. He himself will cross this door, in the 1515 painting, “Il festino degli Dei,” completely set in the landscape, free from any architectural form.

Over the centuries, the transgressive forces of the Western world have initiated numerous other attempts to find a balance between two instances, going beyond the open door of the balcony.

The phenomenon of Romanticism is perhaps the highest example, through which the Western man has incurred in the world of nature and instinct, bringing with him art and private life.

All the artistic and cultural movements of the ’70s are self-congratulated to be the highest flag of this attempt, telling us that they have crossed a very high wall, rather than having gone beyond an open gate.

The attempt has been made several times, but the separation for us remains.

This pleasant exercise in the Renaissance, makes us understand what the men of the fifteenth century had in their hearts, the same men who at that time also had the courage to face the ocean to reach the American shores. Men with an ancient culture who were guided by rational warnings. Men who separated the rational part of the soul from the natural and instinctual part.

From them the Western culture was born, that is the place where was arisen the attention and the consequent initiatives of protection of human rights, even of the weakest.

I believe that this was possible thanks to the ancient ability to separate rational instances from the selfish forces of instinct, that wanted to overwhelm these rights. That is, I believe that this was possible only because in us there are the ancient roots of the Renaissance.

Boulevardier Marina De Ros grew up in the Northern mountains of Italy and studied philosophy at the University of Venezia (Venice). She ran a gallery of modern art in Verona and now lives in Rome.

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