Great Works: Madonna and Child with Saints (1505), Giovanni Bellini
Altarpiece in San Zaccaria, Venice
Friday 19 December 2008
For Christmas: a vision. This happened about 15 years ago. I was walking around in Venice, alone, and I found myself in front of the church of San Zaccaria. I hadn't been inside before, but I had a hunch it held something worth seeing, and I went in. There were other tourists there already. As I walked up the aisle, I turned to look at what they were looking at – the altarpiece on the left wall. My first reaction was, "Oh, so it's that one!". I recognised it from a reproduction. Then I began to have a hallucination.
Normally, in these pieces, I don't say "I". I assume that what I can see, anyone can see. On this occasion, the first person is unavoidable. I hadn't taken any hallucinogens. I don't remember being in a fragile state. And when I say "vision" or "hallucination", I don't mean that what I saw was something that wasn't there – not entirely. The experience I had was firmly focused on this famous painting by Giovanni Bellini. Still, it's unlikely someone else would see it as I did then.
The image transfixed me. Specifically, it was the two male saints, St Peter and St Jerome, that transfixed me. The other figures – the female martyrs, the Madonna and Child, the musical angel – weren't really involved. Of the male saints, it was the figure of St Jerome that especially gripped me: this stout and powerfully self-contained figure, with his beard and his red-and-white hooded robe, looking like Santa Claus, but very dignified.
What was so gripping? It wasn't like looking at a man-made painting, but at an unfolding scene. There was an appearance of real solidity in these figures, and of real space and air circulating them. And the stillness of the figures appeared, not as in a still image, but with the hovering stillness of figures that are holding themselves very still. There was no illusion of action, or any definite alteration in the image. Nor did the saints seem to be addressing me. They had their own business.
In a way, the hallucination was true to Bellini's art. It picked up on actual qualities in the picture. The male saints are made to command our attention – standing in their gathered robes, front-facing but inward and self-absorbed. And the way they're painted, rendering them very solidly but also in slightly soft focus, is designed to create a sense of airiness and mobility. But you could appreciate these qualities, and not at all experience them as a perceptual illusion.
There was another dimension of fascination, too, harder to evoke. The experience had been preceded by, or rather, set off by, a realisation that I knew the image already (from a Bellini book). But in fact, the whole experience was accompanied by a sense of recognition, a feeling that this was to be expected and had been waiting – of course, this is how it was going to be, when I saw this picture.
I suppose it went on for five or 10 minutes. In that time, I wasn't in a trance, or unconscious of my surroundings or of my fellow-viewers. It was a vision that I could move in and out of, and I had to, because the church was dim, and the lighting was on a timer. I had to keep feeding 200 lire coins into the meter to keep the picture lit – no one else felt like contributing – and then go back to the position in the middle of church from which the hallucination seemed to work best. But eventually, as I expected it to, it started to fade.
In his book The Varieties of Religious Experience, William James gives four characteristics of a mystical state. It is transient. It is passive. It is ineffable, defying adequate expression. It is "noetic" – it seems to bring a kind of knowledge, it's an illumination, a revelation, full of significance and importance, even if this can't be articulated. My own experience ticked the first three boxes. But for the last, which seems the crucial one, probably not. Though inexplicable and transfixing, it was clear to me that it came from my mind. It wasn't a message from beyond.
So, I don't consider this vision as a mystical experience. I don't consider it an artistic experience either. Sure, art can excite states of heightened attention, sensation and emotion. This was something different. In its own way, it was marvellous. But I don't think of it as an ideal or peak artistic response, a hit that you should seek from paintings generally. It was a hallucination – sudden, baffling, lucky, meaningless. It is not the function of art to induce hallucinations.
Of course, I went back on later visits and tried to repeat the experience. Of course, it didn't work. I've always kept a special fondness for that figure of St Jerome/Santa. To some people, this kind of thing may happen all the time, with pictures and other objects. To me, it has never happened since.
About the artist
Giovanni Bellini (c1430-1516) was the leading Venetian artist of his age, "the best in painting", as Dürer reported back to a friend in Germany. His characteristic pictures are of saints, Madonnas and wounded Christs. Whether they're public altarpieces or made for private devotion, these are contemplative images, with a serene but resonant stillness, a marked mercy towards the bodies they depict. His figures glow and suffuse into the atmosphere around them. He is a great painter of hands that gently hold. He is the greatest-ever painter of the maternal bond, in numerous variations on the Madonna and Child and Mater Dolorosa themes.
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