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Gentile Bellini, Cardinal Bessarion with the Bessarion Reliquary

Key facts
Full title Cardinal Bessarion and Two Members of the Scuola della Carità in prayer with the Bessarion Reliquary
Artist Gentile Bellini
Artist dates active about 1460; died 1507
Date made about 1472-3
Medium and support Egg tempera on wood
Dimensions 102.3 × 37.2 cm
Acquisition credit Bought with the support of a number of gifts in wills, 2002
Inventory number NG6590
Location Room 29
Collection Main Collection
Cardinal Bessarion with the Bessarion Reliquary
Gentile Bellini

The figure in black is the Greek archbishop John Bessarion. In 1453, after the fall of Constantinople, the capital of the Byzantine (Eastern Christian) Empire, to the Islamic Ottoman Empire, Bessarion became a permanent resident in Venice. He joined the Scuola della Carità, a religious confraternity, ten years later; the two men in white robes here are high-ranking members of that confraternity.

The men are worshipping a reliquary which Bessarion donated to the confraternity in the hope that it would inspire western Christians to help Greek Christians after the fall of Constantinople. Reliquaries were made to hold relics – in this case two fragments thought to come from the Cross that Christ was crucified on, as well as two scraps of fabric which supposedly came from his garments. The painting was made as a decorated door panel for the tabernacle that contained the reliquary.

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