Giovanni Bellini was the rock upon which the great flowering of sixteenth century Venetian art was built. His interest in the primacy of colour and light became the touchstone of the great Venetian masters of the following generations.
Throughout his long life he was remarkably open to new ideas. Even though it is thought that he only left Venice and its environs once — on a visit to Pesaro, not too far along the coast to the south — as an inhabitant of the greatest trading city in the western Mediterranean, he had no need to travel as these novel influences were all around him. The arrival of Antonello da Messina in Venice, not long after this painting was completed cemented Bellini’s interest in the use of oil paint. He also seems to have been aware of the work of Piero della Francesca.
In this relatively early picture one can detect the influence of Netherlandish art but also (perhaps pulling in the opposite direction) that of his brother-in-law Andrea Mantegna. The peculiar outcrop upon which Christ kneels in prayer, the striated rocky land around it, the skeletal tree and the canalised edges of the brook are all reminiscent of Mantegna’s treatment of the same subject which hangs nearby in the National Gallery. But here, some of Mantegna’s edgy severity has been softened — instead of his brother-in-law’s fantasy city clinging to hills which look as if they have been designed for the indoor set of an early Hollywood film, Bellini’s background conforms more with reality.
His northern Italian hills are bathed in the most beautiful early morning light. Scholars have deduced that it is the first sunrise in all Italian art and it must still rate as one of the most wonderful examples from Italy or any other centre of western art. A rosy-apricot glow from the rising sun, still below the horizon, creates silhouettes of the trees in the valley and highlights the buildings of the two hill towns which, being higher, can already feel the first almost imperceptible warmth of the new morning.
Below, the biblical drama unfolds. Christ, knowing the torments that await him, is engaged in fervent prayer, asking that ‘this cup pass from me’. The response is the appearance of an angel sent to strengthen his resolve. After the Last Supper he had led his disciples to Gethsemane, just outside Jerusalem across a brook called Kidron, and there he had asked his followers to wait while he prayed, selecting his three closest disciples to accompany him. Peter, John and James, unable to resist their extreme fatigue are seen sleeping while, not far away we can see that the arrival of Judas and his squad of soldiers is imminent. Soon they will pass over the rather picturesque bridge spanning the Kidron brook and they will make their arrest, sparking the Passion of Christ.
Image: Courtesy of the National Gallery, London
1464 Rogier van der Weyden: Crucifixion, Madrid, El Escorial
1469 Jacopo del Pollaiuolo: Madonna and Child, St Petersburg, State Hermitage Museum
1469 Joos van Ghent: Altarpiece of the Crucifixion, Ghent, St Bavo