Christ is shown resurrected after dying at the Crucifixion, his triumph over death reinforced by the way he cradles the Cross on which he was crucified. His body is weak and pale – we can see his ribcage, and his cheekbones stick out of his gaunt face. The focus of the image is the wound in Christ’s side, which he presses, releasing blood into the chalice held by the angel below. During a Christian Mass, such a chalice would contain wine.
Given its shape, size and subject, it is likely that the painting decorated the inside of a cupboard known as a tabernacle, which stored the host – the bread eaten at Mass. The putty-coloured patches were once blue clouds painted with cherubim and seraphim (red and blue winged angelic beings without bodies). They have been scratched out but we don't know when or why.
Christ is shown resurrected after dying at the Crucifixion, his triumph over death reinforced by the way he cradles the Cross on which he was crucified. His body is weak and pale – we can see his ribcage, and his cheekbones stick out of his gaunt face. The wound in Christ’s side is the focus of the image; he presses it, releasing blood into the chalice held by the angel below.
It is intended to bring to mind the chalice that holds the wine of the ritual of the Eucharist (which Catholics believe transforms into Christ’s blood). By drinking the wine, Christians believe they will attain eternal life; Christ’s triumph was to achieve eternal life through his suffering. The issue of the sanctity of Christ’s blood was controversial at the time that Bellini made this picture. The Dominicans believed that Christ’s blood was divine but the Franciscans believed that it was Christ’s death, rather than his blood, that had saved humanity. It seems likely, then, that the picture was painted for a Dominican community.
Given its shape, size and subject, it seems probable that the painting decorated the inside of a cupboard known as a tabernacle, which stored the host of the Eucharist – the bread eaten at Mass. In the background of the picture a priest in a blue robe – the kind worn by some Venetian priests – is followed by a young boy in black, perhaps an acolyte. The priest carries a white cloth, perhaps the cloth used to protect the wine of the Eucharist, an appropriate reference considering the picture’s likely location. And this location might explain the painting’s good condition, apart from the area around Christ’s legs. The putty-coloured patches were once blue clouds painted with cherubim and seraphim (red and blue winged angelic beings without bodies) – they have been scratched out but we don't know when or why.
Low stone walls decorated with carvings separate Christ from the landscape. The one on the left shows a pagan sacrifice: the figure in the toga seems to be pouring water on an altar where a fire is burning and where there’s an inscription referring to an ancient rite – the worship of the manes, ancestor gods. In the other carving, two of the three figures seem to be deep in conversation, an incense burner between them. The seated figure has a long staff called a caduceus, which was traditionally carried by the pagan messenger god, Mercury. One of his roles was to accompany the dead to Hades, the underworld. The theme, again, is death. Bellini seems to be contrasting pagan rituals with the Christian rite of the Eucharist, showing how Christianity surpassed pagan religions. The priest and the acolyte in the valley behind reinforce this message. They walk away from the desolate ruins of antiquity and towards the brighter, more orderly town, where the church is the central.
Infrared reflectography revealed the underdrawing, the design that Bellini made on the panel before he began to paint. With the point of a fine brush he made simple lines, but there is considerably more detail in the angel’s drapery, where he used short, closely packed brushstrokes to show the areas of shadow in the folds. Bellini’s earliest works, like this one, are painted in tempera on wooden panels, though he used both tempera and oil in his career. His technique was incredibly precise, particularly when painting details. Usually in tempera paintings we can see individual brushstrokes, but Bellini’s were so delicate that they are imperceptible. This is no surprise – he painted miniatures at the very beginning of his career.
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