Bellini, Giovanni: The Assassination of St Peter Martyr (c1507)

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The Independent Culture

In an essay about this technique, Eisenstein describes a montage from his 1924 film Strike (made before his celebrated Battleship Potemkin). At the climax of Strike, shots of workers being gunned down by Tsarist troops are intercut with shots of an abattoir. 'The shooting is shown only in long and medium shots " workers falling over a precipice, the crowd fleeing, gunfire etc. All the close-ups are provided by a demonstration of the real horrors of the slaughterhouse, where cattle are slaughtered and skinned.' He includes an extract from the editing:

1. The head of a bull. The butcher's knife takes aim, and moves upwards out of frame.

2. Close-up. The hand holding the knife strikes downwards.

3. Long shot: 1,500 people roll down a slope.

4. Fifty people get up off the ground, their arms outstretched.

5. The face of a soldier taking aim.

6. Medium shot. Gunfire.

7. The bull's body rolls over.

8. Close-up. The bull's legs convulse. A hoof beats in a pool of blood.

9. Close-up. The bolts of rifles. Etc.

The purpose, Eisenstein said, was 'to extract the maximum effect of bloody horror'. Later, he used a cooler term: montage as 'emotional dynamisation'. Either way, you get the idea. But now cut back a few centuries, for a similar technique applied to a similar subject.

In those hall-of-fame pictures that show a group of saints standing calmly in a row, each one displaying his or her identifying attribute, St Peter Martyr is the man with the joke-shop cleaver going straight through his head. He was a 13th-century Dominican prior from the north of Italy, an inquisitor responsible for persecuting the heretical Cathars. They got him back. One day, travelling with companions between Como and Milan, he was set upon in a forest and killed by the hired assassins of heretic Venetian noblemen. Martyrdom on home ground was, by that date, a rare occurrence. He was canonised the very next year. For Giovanni Bellini, he was a local and relatively recent saint.

In The Assassination of St Peter Martyr, Bellini shows the bloody act itself. A country road goes straight across the foreground of the picture. Coming along this road, the prior and his companion are attacked by armed men. The martyr sinks to the ground under a blow to the heart. His companion tries to get away. At first glance, the modern viewer may be reminded of a highway-robbery episode in a Robin Hood story.

It's the forest, of course, that causes this momentary, misleading impression. A straight screen of dense trees stretches about four-fifths of the way across the picture, parallel to and directly behind the road; it leaves only a small opening, a view of a city, on the left. This backdrop wood is full of countrymen doing country things, hunting, bird-catching, eating, though you can't see them clearly. (There's a donkey in there, too.) They are inconspicuous background figures. They put a bit of animation into the story's scenery.

Except for two of them: the two woodcutters. They stand out. They're placed at the front of the wood, and in clear view. They're meant to be noticed, though not for their own sake. These two figures, their axes raised to hack down trees, are of course being juxtaposed with the two assassins who cut down their victims on the road in front. Foreground is montaged against background. It's a picture with intercutting.

The juxtaposition is clear, but not forced. The woodmen aren't made too prominent. Bellini allows you to notice a link, while allowing these men to remain almost background figures themselves, part of ongoing everyday life. That's important. We're to see both likeness and unlikeness between the killers and the woodcutters. The bigger the contrast between them, the more shocking the connection becomes.

There's the contrast of outrageous assault, against peaceful and innocent daily labour (see how one of the woodmen has his lunch hanging from a nearby tree). There's the contrast of suffering flesh, against senseless wood. There's the contrast of the singular, sudden acts of murder, against the continuous, repetitive activity of the woodcutting. The layout of the forest " the multiple tree trunks, spread thickly but regularly across the picture " stresses that feeling, making a visual metaphor for repetition and echo.

And then these points of contrast cruelly converge. The assassins' strokes are as casual and conscienceless as the woodcutters'. The steady and repeated knocking of axes on tree trunks (you can hear it) makes a background accompaniment to the foreground murders: a mechanical process that's indifferent to, and a heartless parody of, the violent events in front. The slaughter of these Christians is caught up in a general, pervasive, interminable chopping, just a few more blows falling among the numberless blows that echo through the wood. It's a cool, complex, brutal juxtaposition " brutal because so unbloody " to extract the maximum effect of horror.


Giovanni Bellini (c1430-1516) isn't famous for acts of violence. The leading Venetian painter of his age, his most characteristic pictures are of saints, Madonnas and wounded Christs, and whether they're public altarpieces or made for private devotion, these are contemplative images, with a marked mercy towards the bodies they depict. A sense of firmly rounded solidity, plus luminosity, plus slightly lost focus " this is Bellini's magic trick, his figures glowing and suffusing into the air around them. He is the greatest painter of the maternal bond, in variations on the Madonna and Child and the Mater Dolorosa. He did donkeys well, too.