Great Works: Fra Teodoro of Urbino as Saint Dominic (1515), 63.9 x 49.5 cms by Giovanni Bellini

V&A Museum, London

This likeness of an elderly Venetian friar who may have lived in a convent near Giovanni Bellini's own home in the sestiere of Castello was the last portrait that the great Venetian painter was known to have executed.

We can read the date of it – 1515 – relatively distinctly on the marble balustrade directly beneath the characteristic trompe-l'oeil signature of the painter himself. The painting is heavy with symbolism – as if to over-emphasise his piety, the friar is clasping in his right hand both a book inscribed with the name of Saint Dominic and a lily – which would have required some degree of dexterity.

Here is the matter which intrigues us most. Is this a portrait of a saint or a portrait of a man? It is perhaps a little of both. The lily and the book were attributes of the saint himself. You could call the way they are thrust at us slightly excessively pedagogical – the title of the book is attached, unusually, to its back, in order that we shall be quite clear on this point.

The habit the friar is wearing is that of a Dominican, complete with its snugly fitting black cap. See how the white V of the scapular peeks out directly beneath the slightly projecting chin. The cap and the scapular serve a very useful visual purpose. They frame the face, and help to project it forward as the object of greatest visual interest to the onlooker. The lily is a real painted lily, but the way it melds back into the patterning of the curtain behind it, thereby inclining us to regard it as more of a decorative than a symbolic object, slightly reduces its aura of sacredness. And then there is the face itself.

Bellini may have known this man – there was a friar registered at the convent of San Giovanni e Paolo in 1514 called Fra Teodoro of Urbino. This may be that man. What is more, it may be that the Friar is posing as the saint in order to identify himself that much more completely with the founder of his order. Or it may be the friar as the man himself, wearing the habits of his order, showing off his devotion. Or, as the title seems to suggest, it may be a portrait of the saint, modelled by this friar. Three possibilities, then, and all kept in a kind of bewitchingly delectable balance.

He is utterly individualised, this friar, ascetic yet robustly present – there is nothing abstracted or generically saintly about this face. The eyes are fixed but filmy; the eyebrows – like the eyebrows of so many older men – take wing. The lips are pursed, the mouth downturned. The spinning halo seems to be in conversation with the metal quarter moons set at the corners of the book of sacred writings.

There is an instructive comparison to be made between this work and Bellini's portrait of Doge Loredan, also in the National Gallery, and painted a little more than a decade earlier. That portrait too is cut off mid-torso, but its plain blue ground makes it seem both less immediately present to us physically and more remote as a human being. It is smallish within its frame, and somewhat set back. The Friar is more immediately present to us. In fact, he is almost crowded into our presence, nudged forward by the fussy presence of the curtain at his back. The fact that this curtain has clearly defined folds gives it vigour, active virtues. Had that not been the case, it would have played a more humble, supportive and unassuming role.

The cool, brilliant blue at the Doge's back has its own staginess, but its effect is to make him seem somewhat remotely imperious. What is more, we see nothing of the Doge's hands. He is a little like a rather triumphal Roman portrait bust. That too would generally have ended mid-chest. Had Bellini shown the Doge's hands, we might not have been reminded of that link with the greatness of the Roman Empire.

The friar's clasping hand is important. It makes him seem actively engaged in his faith, as warrior, thinker and bearer of the sacred attributes. The Doge is presented to us head-on, the friar in three-quarter view. Their looks are slightly askance. Since the Middle Ages, it had been customary to present sacred portraiture face-on, so the presentation of the Doge in this way was a radical step – and a way of emphasising the symbolic importance of the man. The friar is utterly present to us, both as himself and Saint Dominic. Saint and sinner in one.

The portrait is currently on display in Room 61 at the National Gallery, London WC2

About the artist: Giovanni Bellini (c.1430-1516)

Giovanni Bellini (c.1430-1516) was the greatest of a great family of Venetian painters, which included his father Jacopo and his brother Gentile. His brother-in-law was another great painter, Andrea Mantegna. Having grown up in his father's house, he left for Padua at the age of 18. By 1560, he had returned to Venice, and would work there for much of his later life, creating sacred images for churches, decorative schemes for the Doge's palace and a great deal else.

Arts and Entertainment
books
Arts and Entertainment
The Doctor and the Dalek meet
tvReview: Doctor Who Into the Dalek more than compensated for last week's nonsensical offering
Arts and Entertainment
Star turns: Montacute House
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Iain reacts to his GBBO disaster

TV
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Simon Cowell is less than impressed with the Strictly/X Factor scheduling clash

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Gothic revival: artist Dave McKean’s poster for Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination
Exhibition
Arts and Entertainment
Diana Beard has left the Great British Bake Off 2014

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Lisa Kudrow, Courtney Cox and Jennifer Anniston reunite for a mini Friends sketch on Jimmy Kimmel Live

TV
Arts and Entertainment
TVDessert week was full of the usual dramas as 'bingate' ensued
Arts and Entertainment
Clara and the twelfth Doctor embark on their first adventure together
TVThe regulator received six complaints on Saturday night
Arts and Entertainment
Vinyl demand: a factory making the old-style discs
musicManufacturers are struggling to keep up with the resurgence in vinyl
Arts and Entertainment
David Baddiel concedes his show takes its inspiration from the hit US series 'Modern Family'
comedyNew comedy festival out to show that there’s more to Jewish humour than rabbi jokes
Arts and Entertainment
Puff Daddy: One Direction may actually be able to use the outrage to boost their credibility

music
Arts and Entertainment
Suha Arraf’s film ‘Villa Touma’ (left) is set in Ramallah and all the actresses are Palestinian

film
Arts and Entertainment
Madame Vastra and Jenny Flint kiss in Doctor Who episode 'Deep Breath'

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Steve Carell in the poster for new film 'Foxcatcher'
filmExclusive: First look at comic actor in first major serious role
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Kingston Road in Stockton is being filmed for the second series of Benefits Street
arts + entsFilming for Channel 4 has begun despite local complaints
Arts and Entertainment
Led Zeppelin

music
Arts and Entertainment
Radio presenter Scott Mills will be hitting the Strictly Come Dancing ballroom
TV
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

    The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

    Wife of President Robert Mugabe appears to have her sights set on succeeding her husband
    The model of a gadget launch: Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed

    The model for a gadget launch

    Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed
    Alice Roberts: She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

    She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

    Alice Roberts talks about her new book on evolution - and why her early TV work drew flak from (mostly male) colleagues
    Get well soon, Joan Rivers - an inspiration, whether she likes it or not

    Get well soon, Joan Rivers

    She is awful. But she's also wonderful, not in spite of but because of the fact she's forever saying appalling things, argues Ellen E Jones
    Doctor Who Into the Dalek review: A classic sci-fi adventure with all the spectacle of a blockbuster

    A fresh take on an old foe

    Doctor Who Into the Dalek more than compensated for last week's nonsensical offering
    Fashion walks away from the celebrity runway show

    Fashion walks away from the celebrity runway show

    As the collections start, fashion editor Alexander Fury finds video and the internet are proving more attractive
    Meet the stars of TV's Wolf Hall... and it's not the cast of the Tudor trilogy

    Meet the stars of TV's Wolf Hall...

    ... and it's not the cast of the Tudor trilogy
    Weekend at the Asylum: Europe's biggest steampunk convention heads to Lincoln

    Europe's biggest steampunk convention

    Jake Wallis Simons discovers how Victorian ray guns and the martial art of biscuit dunking are precisely what the 21st century needs
    Don't swallow the tripe – a user's guide to weasel words

    Don't swallow the tripe – a user's guide to weasel words

    Lying is dangerous and unnecessary. A new book explains the strategies needed to avoid it. John Rentoul on the art of 'uncommunication'
    Daddy, who was Richard Attenborough? Was the beloved thespian the last of the cross-generation stars?

    Daddy, who was Richard Attenborough?

    The atomisation of culture means that few of those we regard as stars are universally loved any more, says DJ Taylor
    She's dark, sarcastic, and bashes life in Nowheresville ... so how did Kacey Musgraves become country music's hottest new star?

    Kacey Musgraves: Nashville's hottest new star

    The singer has two Grammys for her first album under her belt and her celebrity fans include Willie Nelson, Ryan Adams and Katy Perry
    American soldier-poet Brian Turner reveals the enduring turmoil that inspired his memoir

    Soldier-poet Brian Turner on his new memoir

    James Kidd meets the prize-winning writer, whose new memoir takes him back to the bloody battles he fought in Iraq
    Aston Villa vs Hull match preview: Villa were not surprised that Ron Vlaar was a World Cup star

    Villa were not surprised that Vlaar was a World Cup star

    Andi Weimann reveals just how good his Dutch teammate really is
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef ekes out his holiday in Italy with divine, simple salads

    Bill Granger's simple Italian salads

    Our chef presents his own version of Italian dishes, taking in the flavours and produce that inspired him while he was in the country
    The Last Word: Tumbleweed through deserted stands and suites at Wembley

    The Last Word: Tumbleweed through deserted stands and suites at Wembley

    If supporters begin to close bank accounts, switch broadband suppliers or shun satellite sales, their voices will be heard. It’s time for revolution