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Museum Gallery: “Madonna and Child with St. John” by Giovanni Bellini Essay


Workshop of bellini: mother and child with st. John: example of the early venetian renaissance and foreshadowing of later renaissance naturalism.

The Indianapolis Museum of Art’s European Gallery is displaying a painting by the Venetian workshop of the Early Renaissance painter, Giovanni Bellini, titled Madonna and Child with St. John (Bellini). It shows an effort to personalize both the mother and the child that is characteristic of the Renaissance. However the background cherubs, wallpaper-style, hearken back to the formal and iconic style of the Medieval Period. Despite these leering faces,[1] the work is a serene and loving portrayal of a mother and her infant, and his cousin.

The picture, painted somewhere around 1490, depicts the Virgin Mary, the mother of Jesus Christ, and St. John[2]. All wear simple robes that were the artist’s idea of biblical apparel. The naked infant Jesus sits nearly upright on the mother’s lap, with her pinky finger pointing to his inguinal region [3]. St. John stands to the mother’s right, with hands folded in prayer and adoration. This is all congruent with contemporary iconography, visible elsewhere in the European collection[4].

The faces are believable, although lacking in any imperfections. The body proportions are relatively realistic as well, unlike the elongated figures of the Gothic period. The cherubs are peculiar and so incongruent with the credible mother and child as to seem irrelevant. Those paintings attributed directly to him rather than to his workshop, for example in other collections, show even more individualization of faces (National Gallery of Art).

The painting is executed in both tempera and oil on a wooden board. Such boards would have been prepared with animal skin sizing (perhaps clippings from parchment), gesso (compounded from plaster of Paris and glue), and a mix of oil and resin. The paints were compounded of water, eggs, and mineral and other items of questionable toxicity, such as lead (Indianapolis Museum of Art).

Bellini began his career working in tempera, but his later work explored the color transparency offered by oils (Brittanica). The mix of these two media must have been challenging given the different drying properties of these two paints. The tempura often results in a brighter set of colors than oil, as is visible in other paintings of the medieval period and the early Renaissance[5]

This work shows a careful use of initial drawing to create the detail of the faces , bodies, and draperies (Indianapolis Museum of Art). This is one use of line in this painting: to delineate the forms of the human and cherubic subjects. There is also the line created by the composition of the painting.

This consists of a slightly asymmetrical triangle, including the Madonna’s body with the head at the apex, the baby on her right knee, and St. John at the left lower edge. However, this asymmetry is balanced by the direction of Mary’s gaze, drawing the eye in the opposite direction.

There is no plausible space in the picture, although the implausible cherubs lean on believable clouds behind her. The colors are intense[6] and the texture is uniformly smooth, with the skin of the baby duplicating the smoothness of the Madonna’s silky clothing. The composition, as noted above, is generally of a triangle, with the emphasis placed on the two children by putting them right next to one another.

There is unity of color intensity and value with no dramatic contrasts except the white headscarf. The figures are all in reasonable realistic proportion, although they fill the space overpoweringly. The repeating motif of weird cherubs adds its own rhythm. The simplicity of this painting differs from the more complex compositions and dramatic lighting of such later artists as Caravaggio.

The work is a representative example of the Early Renaissance trend towards naturalism, of which Bellini was an important part. The composition is straightforward, but unlike the stiff figures of prior centuries of religious art, the figures are believable. The slightly unbalanced triangular composition departs from the rigid symmetry of the Gothic style. Bellini’s workshop, mixing tempera and oils, thus shows the direction that Bellini would take in his later career and points towards the evolution of the Venetian Renaissance.

Works Cited

Bellini, Workshop of Giovanni. Madonna and Child with St. John. Indianapolis Museum of Art, Indianapolis. tempera and oil on wood. 2013. Web.

Brittanica. “” 2013. Brittanica. Web.

Bugiardini, Giuliano. Madonna and-Child with the Infant Saint John the Baptist. Indianapolis Museum of Art, Indianapolis. oil on wood. 2013. Web.

Indianapolis Museum of Art. “Bellini: Creating and Recreating.” 2013. Indianapolis Museum of Art. Web.

National Gallery of Art. “” 2013. National Gallery of Art. Web.

Vall, Pere. St. Stephen and Mary Magdalene. Indianapolis Museum of Art, Indiana. tempera and gold on wood. 2013. Web.

Footnotes

  1. Many of these were repainted much later than the original painting in an effort to cover damaged paint (Indianapolis Museum of Art).
  2. According to the Christian gospel biblical account, this second, slightly older child was the son of Mary’s relative, Elizabeth. This John, grew up to become a preacher and was known as St. John the Baptizer (or John the Baptist).
  3. This is perhaps intended to draw attention to the fact that Jesus could, if he wished as a later adult, engage in the sexual activity that the Roman Catholic Church has always identified with original sin, but chose instead to remain sinless, according to Roman Catholic dogma.
  4. For example in the slightly later Bugliardini painting in oil on wood of the same subject (Bugiardini)
  5. An example from the IMA would be the Pere Vall painting, St. Stephen and St. Mary Magdalene (Vall)
  6. According to the IMA conservationists, the intense white of her head draperies arise from the lead in the paint (Indianapolis Museum of Art)
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IvyPanda. (2019, September 27). Museum Gallery: "Madonna and Child with St. John" by Giovanni Bellini. Retrieved from https://ivypanda.com/essays/museum-gallery/

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"Museum Gallery: "Madonna and Child with St. John" by Giovanni Bellini." IvyPanda, 27 Sept. 2019, ivypanda.com/essays/museum-gallery/.

1. IvyPanda. "Museum Gallery: "Madonna and Child with St. John" by Giovanni Bellini." September 27, 2019. https://ivypanda.com/essays/museum-gallery/.


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IvyPanda. "Museum Gallery: "Madonna and Child with St. John" by Giovanni Bellini." September 27, 2019. https://ivypanda.com/essays/museum-gallery/.

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IvyPanda. 2019. "Museum Gallery: "Madonna and Child with St. John" by Giovanni Bellini." September 27, 2019. https://ivypanda.com/essays/museum-gallery/.

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IvyPanda. (2019) 'Museum Gallery: "Madonna and Child with St. John" by Giovanni Bellini'. 27 September.

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