Great Works: Madonna and Child with Saints (1505), Giovanni Bellini

Altarpiece in San Zaccaria, Venice

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.

Suggested Topics
Arts and Entertainment
British author Helen Macdonald, pictured with Costa book of the year, 'H is for Hawk'
booksPanel hail Helen Macdonald's 'brilliantly written, muscular prose' in memoir of a grief-stricken daughter who became obsessed with training a goshawk
Arts and Entertainment
Tom DeLonge has announced his departure from Blink-182

music
Arts and Entertainment
The episode saw the surprise return of shifty caravan owner Susan Wright, played by a Pauline Quirke (ITV)

Review: Broadchurch

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Ava DuVernay and David Oyelowo are teaming up for a Hurricane Katrina drama

film
Arts and Entertainment
Just folk: The Unthanks

music
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
In the picture: Anthony LaPaglia and Martin Freeman in 'The Eichmann Show'

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Anne Kirkbride and Bill Roache as Deirdre and Ken Barlow in Coronation Street

tvThe actress has died aged 60
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Marianne Jean-Baptiste defends Joe Miller in Broadchurch series two

tv
Arts and Entertainment
The frill of it all: Hattie Morahan in 'The Changeling'

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Gillian Anderson and David Duchovny may reunite for The X Files

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Jeremy Clarkson, left, and Richard Hammond upset the locals in South America
TV
News
A young woman punched a police officer after attending a gig by US rapper Snoop Dogg
people
Arts and Entertainment
Reese Witherspoon starring in 'Wild'

It's hard not to warm to Reese Witherspoon's heroismfilm
Arts and Entertainment
Word up: Robbie Coltrane as dictionary guru Doctor Johnson in the classic sitcom Blackadder the Third
books

Arts and Entertainment
The Oscar nominations are due to be announced today

Oscars 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Hacked off: Maisie Williams in ‘Cyberbully’

Maisie Williams single-handedly rises to the challenge

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne in The Theory of Everything and Benedict Cumberbatch in The Imitation Game are both nominated at the Bafta Film Awards
Arts and Entertainment

Academy criticised after no non-white actors nominated

Arts and Entertainment
Damian Lewis shooting a scene as Henry VIII in Wolf Hall
TV

Arts and Entertainment
A history of violence: ‘Angry, White and Proud’ looked at the rise of far-right groups

tv

An expose of hooliganism masquerading as an ideological battle

Arts and Entertainment

art

Lee Hadwin can't draw when he's awake, but by night he's an artist

Arts and Entertainment

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Michael Keaton in the 1998 Beetlejuice original

film

Arts and Entertainment
Olivia Colman and David Tennant star in 'Broadchurch'

TV

Latest stories from i100
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.

    Greece elections: In times like these, the EU has far more dangerous adversaries than Syriza

    Greece elections

    In times like these, the EU has far more dangerous adversaries than Syriza, says Patrick Cockburn
    Holocaust Memorial Day: Nazi victims remembered as spectre of prejudice reappears

    Holocaust Memorial Day

    Nazi victims remembered as spectre of prejudice reappears over Europe
    Fortitude and the Arctic attraction: Our fascination with the last great wilderness

    Magnetic north

    The Arctic has always exerted a pull, from Greek myth to new thriller Fortitude. Gerard Gilbert considers what's behind our fascination with the last great wilderness
    Homeless Veterans appeal: Homeless in Wales can find inspiration from Daniel’s story

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    Homeless in Wales can find inspiration from Daniel’s story
    Front National family feud? Marine Le Pen and her relatives clash over French far-right party's response to Paris terror attacks

    Front National family feud?

    Marine Le Pen and her relatives clash over French far-right party's response to Paris terror attacks
    Pot of gold: tasting the world’s most expensive tea

    Pot of gold

    Tasting the world’s most expensive tea
    10 best wildlife-watching experiences: From hen harriers to porpoises

    From hen harriers to porpoises: 10 best wildlife-watching experiences

    While many of Britain's birds have flown south for the winter, it's still a great time to get outside for a spot of twitching
    Nick Easter: 'I don’t want just to hold tackle bags, I want to be out there'

    'I don’t want just to hold tackle bags, I want to be out there'

    Nick Easter targeting World Cup place after England recall
    DSK, Dodo the Pimp, and the Carlton Hotel

    The inside track on France's trial of the year

    Dominique Strauss-Kahn, Dodo the Pimp, and the Carlton Hotel:
    As provocative now as they ever were

    Sarah Kane season

    Why her plays are as provocative now as when they were written
    Murder of Japanese hostage has grim echoes of a killing in Iraq 11 years ago

    Murder of Japanese hostage has grim echoes of another killing

    Japanese mood was against what was seen as irresponsible trips to a vicious war zone
    Syria crisis: Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more refugees as one young mother tells of torture by Assad regime

    Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more Syrian refugees

    One young mother tells of torture by Assad regime
    The enemy within: People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back – with promising results

    The enemy within

    People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back
    'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

    'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

    Survivors of the Nazi concentration camp remember its horror, 70 years on
    Autumn/winter menswear 2015: The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore

    Autumn/winter menswear 2015

    The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore