Cardinal Bessarion with the Bessarion Reliquary

Gentile Bellini's unusual group portrait was commissioned around 1472 when the Venetian confraternity of the Carità (Charity) received a Byzantine reliquary containing fragments of the True Cross from the Greek Cardinal Bessarion (1403 - 1472). Bellini's picture was the door of the tabernacle in which the reliquary was stored. The keyholes at the right of the painting still bear witness to this function.

The picture is as much a portrait of Bessarion's precious reliquary as of the individuals associated with its gift to the Carità. Bellini has captured the essence of the reliquary, particularly in the swiftly painted scenes of Christ's Passion. This contrasts with the very measured portrayals of Cardinal Bessarion and the two confraternity members. Bellini was an acute observer of character, who rarely flattered his sitters. Bessarion is identified by his large bulbous nose, while the stern appearance of the Carità members is heightened by their angular features.

Bellini's painting of the Cardinal and his reliquary commemorates the gift of his most valuable possession to the confraternity that he so admired.

Key facts

Artist dates
active about 1460; died 1507
Full title
Cardinal Bessarion and Two Members of the Scuola della Carità in prayer with the Bessarion Reliquary
Date made
about 1472-3
Medium and support
Egg tempera with gold and silver on panel
102.3 x 37.2 cm
Acquisition credit
Bought with the support of a number of gifts in wills, 2002
Inventory number
Location in Gallery