Giovanni Bellini’s “Saint Francis in the Desert,” at the Frick Collection in New York, is one of the greatest works of Christian art. It is also one of the first Italian masterpieces painted in oils. And for the duration of this summer, we’re being invited to view the Frick’s sacred treasure in a skylit space all to itself, near texts and multimedia that highlight a recent scientific study of it. The experts didn’t uncover much, but that doesn’t matter. The chance we now have to peer long and close at the picture (they’ve even placed a sofa in front of it) confirms that it may be more miraculous than anyone has realized.
Bellini’s “Saint Francis” was begun in about 1475, soon after oils were introduced into Italy, and more than most pictures it embraces the paradox of the new medium: That such a material substance, which can be thick as buttercream, can also be the ideal way to convey immaterial light. And here’s why Bellini’s picture gets at that paradoxical essence so peculiarly well: It tells the story of a moment when the immaterial light of divinity descended to earth, leaving its mark on the material body of a Christian saint. The new oil paint, that is, reveals the sacred story of spiritual light imprinting on matter better than ever before. But that sacred story is also the perfect pretext for telling the story of the new paint, and of how its matter reveals light.
The picture’s action is set in 1224 when, after years of devotion to Christ and His poor, the 44-year-old Francesco Bernardone—soon canonized as Saint Francis of Assisi—retired to a mountain in Tuscany. As he fasted and prayed, he was rewarded with a visit by divinity itself, which left the marks of Christ’s wounds on the holy man’s flesh, making him the first person ever favored with the stigmata. Traditionally, paintings of this subject had depicted a six-winged seraph floating in the sky in front of the saint, with magic rays extending out to pierce him. But Bellini leaves all that out. He uses his new medium of oil paint to show light alone doing the holy work of transmitting spirit onto flesh. (People once thought that maybe a seraph had been cut off or erased at the top of the painting, but the new study indicates that none was ever there.)
Saint Francis stares up into vacant space, as though in contemplation not of God in the abstract, or of a visible mystical presence, but of the sun that is streaming down onto him and everything else in the scene, and casting strong shadows behind them. Where a laurel tree gets between this divine illumination and the man it wants to touch, its branches seem bent by the force, while its leaves are so bright—thanks to the oil paint rendering them—that they look close to catching fire. The golden break in the clouds at the top left of the painting, which according to the latest research has received the painting’s thickest dose of oils, is a close echo, even in its shape, of the flaming seraph seen in earlier paintings. Like the rest of Bellini’s picture, that cloud break replaces the supernatural phenomena of the Middle Ages with a Renaissance notion that God is already and always active in the world, in the workings of nature. This painting is as close to pure landscape as it is to sacred storytelling. (Botanists can recognize almost all the plants depicted by Bellini, however obscure.) Take out the figure of the saint, and you still get a pretty coherent work of art, with plenty going on in it, as could never be said of earlier sacred pictures.
We only know about the natural world Bellini puts before us because of how he captures the light that falls on it.
Francis’s stigmatization, you could say, isn’t a magical exception to the natural order of things, but, in Bellini’s telling, is part of what goes on in a God-infused natural world. God made that world visible and active by means of the light He created in the first moments of Genesis—and then Giovanni Bellini, something like 45 years old and eager to prove his mastery, captures that world and its light by means of his oils.
You could even say that, at a moment when the Church was encouraging Christians to identify directly with its holiest figures, the oil-wielding, light-creating Bellini is identifying with the divinely favored Saint Francis immersed in his light-filled natural scene. Imagine a painter making a live record of the view depicted in this picture—say working outside at a desk like the one behind the saint, which the scientists now say Bellini took extra pains with—and you’re imagining a figure set in nature and bathed in light just as Saint Francis himself is shown to be, in this very picture. There is almost a sense that Bellini, in 1475, is sanctified by Francis and the light in this scene in the same way that Francis himself was sanctified directly by the light sent down from on high in 1224. The painting, that is, yields a record of the saint’s holiness imprinting on Bellini, as a kind of artistic stigmata, just as Francis’s true stigmata showed divinity imprinting very directly on him. It can’t be an accident that a great painting whose subject is light’s power to sanctify the material world also counts as one of the first great demonstrations of art’s power to capture light, through the new material of oil paint.
In fact, more than in almost any earlier Italian painting, we only know about the natural world Bellini puts before us because of how he captures the light that falls on it. The tiny trill of water coming out of the rocks in front, the blocky massing of the castles in the background and the roundness of the clouds above them, the velvety surfaces of the donkey’s hide and of the saint’s robes and, most especially, the angled folds and crinkled edges in the scrap of paper that bears Bellini’s own signature—all of these only come into their own, as precisely what they are, because of the light that plays across them, or rather that Bellini’s oils make us think we see there.
If Bellini’s paints are responsible for that light, and for the world it reveals, then they are the ultimate source, you could say, of the holiness carried by light in this painting.