San Zaccaria Altarpiece by Giovanni Bellini
Interpretation of Venetian Renaissance Painting

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San Zaccaria Altarpiece
By Giovanni Bellini.
Considered to be one of the
Greatest Paintings Ever.

San Zaccaria Altarpiece (1505)


Composition and Iconography
Renaissance Altarpieces Explained


Name: San Zaccaria Altarpiece (Madonna Enthroned with Child and Saints)
Date: 1505
Artist: Giovanni Bellini (1430-1516)
Medium: Oil painting on wooden panel
Genre: Religious art
Movement: Renaissance in Venice
Location: Church of San Zaccaria, Venice

For analysis and explanation of other important pictures from the Renaissance, see: Famous Paintings Analyzed (1250-1800).

For other works, see his
intense religious painting
Ecstasy of St Francis
(1480) and his portrait of
Doge Leonardo Loredan

For an explanation of other
forms of Venetian painting,
see our educational articles:
Art Evaluation and
How to Appreciate Paintings.

Analysis of the San Zaccaria Altarpiece

Giovanni Bellini's beautiful and delicate San Zaccaria Altarpiece (Madonna and Child Enthroned with Saints Peter, Catherine, Lucia and Jerome) is one of the great Venetian altarpieces of the 16th century. Like Titian's majestic Assumption of the Virgin (1516-18) in the Church of Saint Maria Gloriosa dei Frari, it is one of a dwindling number of altarpieces which are still in situ in the city. Bellini was responsible for a large number of religious paintings featuring the Virgin and Child, of which more than 60 survive to this day. The differing tones of colour which appear in the painting suggest the influence of Giorgione (1477-1510), while the illusionistic architectural space comes from the praxis of the Florentine Renaissance - for an early example of the technique see The Holy Trinity (1428) by Masaccio - and the meticulous detail derives from Bellini's appreciation of Netherlandish Renaissance art, exemplified bythe work Jan van Eyck and others. The painting is important because it illustrates Bellini's mastery of the Madonna and Child genre.

The altarpiece depicts an architectural niche, complete with domed ceiling, in which the Madonna and Child sit enthroned, flanked by Saint Peter the Apostle, Saint Catherine of Alexandria, Saint Lucy and Saint Jerome, plus a musician angel sitting on a step in the centre. This sort of picture - saints and angels grouped around an Enthroned Madonna - is known as a "sacred conversation" (sacra conversazione) - a form of Christian art pioneered by Giotto (1267-1337) and his followers, but properly established during the Renaissance in Florence by the likes of Fra Angelico (1400-55), Fra Filippo Lippi (1406-69) and Domenico Veneziano (1410-61). The idiom was mastered by Piero della Francesca (1420-92) and Raphael (1483-1520), but above all by Giovanni Bellini, whose sacra conversazione pictures are characterized by slightly more meditative and detached holy figures, as demonstrated by those in the San Zaccaria Altarpiece.

The compositional and architectural structure is similar to Bellini's previous works, like the San Giobbe Altarpiece (1487, Venice Academy Gallery), but it features a few new motifs, including the openings decorated with landscape, possibly inspired by The Virgin and Child Enthroned in a Chapel (1500, British Royal Collection) by Alvise Vivarini (c.1442-1503). Bellini placed the figures in an apse with side openings in order to make the light entering the picture appear more like daylight. Bellini's Renaissance colour palette - see in particular the richly coloured robes - and use of light is reminiscent of Giorgione's mood and style.



Composition and Iconography

The figures of the Virgin and the saints are vividly drawn, although their dignity and individual characteristics are preserved, along with a simple symmetry. (See also Venetian Drawing 1500-1600.) The end result is a grouping of five figures plus the Christ-child, all of whom appear self-contained but are very much aware of the divine presence.

Bellini based his composition on the standard 'pyramid' grouping popular in Renaissance art, placing the most important figures - the Virgin and Child - at the apex of the pyramid. The other figures - none of whom were alive at the same time as the others - are given clear identifying characteristics. Saint Peter (1st century) is on the left, attired in blue and orange robes, clutching the keys to the kingdom - see also: Christ Handing the Keys to Saint Peter (1482, Sistine Chapel) by Perugino. Standing next to him is Saint Catherine of Alexandria (4th century), clearly identified as a martyr due to the palm branch she is holding. The broken wooden wheel which can be seen at her side alludes to the first unsuccessful attempt to kill her, after which she was beheaded. Next in line is Saint Lucy (4th century), noted for being blinded because of her faith, who holds a bowl containing her two eyes. (For a similar motif, see: the St Lucy Altarpiece (Uffizi, Florence) by Domenico Veneziano. And on the far right is Saint Jerome (5th century), responsible for the Latin version of the scriptures, who is shown reading a book. For more about religious symbolism, see: Biblical Art (c.315-present).

Renaissance Altarpieces Explained

For an interpretation of other altarpieces (triptychs, polyptychs etc.) of the Renaissance era, see the following articles:

Ghent Altarpiece (1425-32) St Bavo Cathedral, Ghent.
Netherlandish Renaissance altarpiece by Jan van Eyck.

Descent From the Cross (Deposition) (c.1435-40)Prado, Madrid.
Netherlandish Renaissance altarpiece by Roger van der Weyden.

Isenheim Altarpiece (c.1515) Unterlinden Museum, Colmar.
German Renaissance polyptych by Matthias Grunewald.

Sistine Madonna (1513-14) Gemaldegalerie Alte Meister, Dresden.
Italian Renaissance altarpiece by Raphael.

The Transfiguration (1518-20) Pinacoteca Apostolica, Vatican.
Italian Renaissance altarpiece by Titian.


• For the meaning of other Renaissance altarpieces, see: Homepage.

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