While my posts are usually confined to art galleries rather than paintings alone, this piece so struck me that I felt the need to dedicate a post to it. I’m sure you don’t mind, dear readers. Now, to the painting. At 26 square metres, it is difficult to picture the scale of the Bellini brothers’ phenomenal rendition of St Mark Preaching in Alexandria.
This pice was originally commissioned by the Venetian confraternity of the Scuola di San Marco in May 1504 from Gentile Bellini. However, unfortunately Gentile died in 1507, and stipulated in his will that his brother, Giovanni (widely considered the greater artist) should finish it. When it was finished, this monumental piece hung in the Scuola di San Marco for three hundred years before being moved to the Pinacoteca di Brera, in Milan.
He specialised in panoramic group scenes like the one reproduced here, full of detail and enlivened by numerous small touches of actuality, such as exotic costumes and architecture. A G Dixon
Moving onto aspects of the painting itself. I like the delicate lighting demonstrating the sheen in St Mark’s robe. Of course the saint is clad in royal purple, which is the only time this colour features on the canvas, giving added pizzaz to St Mark’s position as preacher. I also love the detail in the mosaic on the stairs to his makeshift pulpit.
Another aspect I noted was the wonderful variety of headwear featured in this piece. The Alexandria St Mark will have known was a multicultural city with up to three quarters of a million people living there from Egypt, Greece, Judea, Rome, Ethiopia and Nubia. This also meant a large diversity of religion, including the old Pharaonic religion, Hellenism, Roman Mythology and Judaism. I found it quite striking how the variety of religious groups are represented in this piece and their extraordinary hats. Remember this piece is 26 square metres. Imagine the minute brush strokes needed to produce shading this beautifully. Even the facial features imprinted in the veils, on this scale, are quite impressive.
Observe the wonderful shading in the turbans here and the way the light hits the silken garment worn by the central figure in this section. I’m a sucker for well represented fabric. Look at the scarves, the crumpled white fabric on the ground, the giraffe, the weave of the turban and the puffy sleeves. This is just masterful.
My final point of note is the beautifully depicted Mamluk architecture. we know that Gentile went to the new Ottoman capital Istanbul as part of the peace settlement between Venice and the Turks, but the accuracy in this architectural reproduction suggests he may have gotten as far as Jerusalem, no mean feat in the 15th Century.
Overall, I think this piece is quite stunning and absolutely deserving of a full post. I so look forward to going to Italy later this year and making a detour to Milan to see this fabulous masterwork.