The sacred symbolism of Giovanni Bellini

January 20, 2011

Giovanni Bellini: St. Francis in the Desert

For over 50 years the Frick Museum in New York City has been my favorite museum. It is a small, easily navigated site quite unlike the Metropolitan only a few blocks away on 5th Avenue. Its magnificent collection of paintings, acquired for the most part during the late 19th and early 20th centuries by steel baron, Henry Clay Frick, spans the gamut of Western art from late Medieval to the Impressionists.

Henry Clay Frick

You cannot visit the Frick and fail to notice that patrons invariably stop in the great central living hall to stare and wonder at Giovanni Bellini’s famous, St. Francis in the Desert. On one occasion a museum employee confirmed my guess that this painting, despite the presence of works by the likes of Titian, Rembrandt, and Renoir, is the most popular in the whole collection.

Born in 1430 Giovanni Bellini is arguably the first great master of the Venetian Renaissance. The Venetian version of the Renaissance has long taken a back seat to the Florentine but in the last few decades it has come into its own and today most scholars would agree that Bellini and his younger successors, Giorgione, and Titian, can hold their own as painters with Leonardo, Michelangelo and Raphael.

Indeed, the Bellini family studio is now seen as one of the great sources of the Renaissance. Giovanni and his brother, Gentile, who at one point went to Constantinople to paint Sultan Mehmed II, inherited the studio from their father, Jacopo. Andrea Mantegna, a great painter in his own right, married one of the Bellini sisters and exerted a powerful influence on the studio. Scholars also suspect that both Giorgione and Titian were apprentices at the Bellini studio before they broke out on their own.

Gentile Bellini's famous portrait of the Ottoman Sultan Mehmed II, conqueror of Istanbul. The National Gallery London states it is unknown whether this work is a damaged original, or a copy. 

Although he painted the St. Francis around 1480, Bellini continued to paint well into the next century. Until his death he was sought after and courted by public, religious, and private patrons. He is best known as a painter of Madonnas and groups of figures ranged around the Madonna and Child often called “sacra conversazione.” Nevertheless, the St. Francis is a unique work in the history of Renaissance art.

What is going on in the painting? St. Francis stands in the foreground a little off center wearing his familiar robe.  Behind him is a kind of wooden structure that seems to lead into a cave. The mid-ground is largely made up of a barren landscape whose primary occupant is a small horse or ass. Prominent in the upper left is an oddly shaped tree that appears to be leaning toward St. Francis. In the distant background we see a majestic towered city.

Some have identifed this city as an idealised version of the monastery at La Verna - others are less conviced 

In one interpretation of the painting Francis is receiving the stigmata, the actual wounds of Christ on his own body.  His hands are outstretched but it is hard to see if there are wounds. Moreover, traditional elements usually employed in depictions of the stigmata episode are absent. His companion, Brother Leo, is not shown and neither are Christ or an angel.

I prefer the interpretation of (former) Princeton Literature Professor John V. Fleming (who also has a great blog -HN) in From Bonaventure to Bellini, an Essay in Franciscan Exegesis, published by Princeton University press. . In this often overlooked but extraordinary 1982 monograph Fleming argued that Marcantonio Michiel’s original description of the painting, when he saw it in the home of Venetian patrician, Taddeo Contarini, “St. Francis in the Desert,” was indeed correct.  Fleming saw the subject of the painting and every detail in it grounded in Franciscan spirituality.

St. Francis Monastery at La Verna in Tuscany - photo by satara

The landscape in the painting is not La Verna, the site of the stigmata episode, but the desert of the Old Testament or Hebrew scriptures. In particular, it is the Egyptian desert. The prominent animal in mid-ground is the Onager or wild ass of the desert while the heron standing before it is a bird of the Nile delta.

 A sacred menagerie - shepherd, heron and donkey are common symbols in Christian art

Franciscans often associated their founder with Moses and Elias(Elijah) and their life in the desert. In the background beneath the city there is a shepherd tending his flock just as Moses did before his encounter with the Lord. Indeed, the leaning tree so prominent in the upper left is the famous burning bush in which the Lord appeared to Moses. It is a laurel which at the time was believed to be impervious to fire. We also notice that Francis has removed his sandals and stands barefoot in the same manner as Moses.

Sandals and walking cane have been discarded

The wooden structure behind Francis is a Sukkah, variously translated as tent, hut, booth, or tabernacle, a kind of portable structure used by the Israelites in their wanderings in the desert. (In Judaism, this is celebrated in the Festival of Sukkot -HN) The Sukkah also recalls the scene of the Transfiguration when Christ was revealed in His glory accompanied by Moses and Elias to the three apostles, Peter, James, and John. Dumbfounded, Peter offered to build three booths or Sukkoth for the Lord and his guests.

Close examination reveals St. Francis palms with stigmata and the rabbit symbolising Moses
If we look closely, we will see beneath the right hand of Francis a rabbit in a hole in the rock, and beneath his left hand a jug. The rabbit was a symbolic reference to Moses who hid his face from the Lord and the jug is a reference to Elias.

Indeed, the abundant vegetation sprouting around Francis is a garden or carmel, another reference to Elias who was supposed to have been the founder of the Carmelite order. Francis stands between Moses and Elias in the same way as Christ stood between them at the Transfiguration. In Franciscan spirituality and imagery, Francis was the new Christ.

The Transfiguration of Christ is a popular theme in sacred art - this version, commenced by Raphael is one its most famous depictions. It was unfinished at Raphael's death in 1520, and believed to be completed by his student Giulio Romano.

Perhaps the most curious symbol in the painting - a drainpipe - see comments below for explanation

Just as Moses came to lead his people out of the slavery of Egypt, so too did Francis come to lead his followers out of the slavery of sin. The city in the background then is a place of danger and peril, both physical and spiritual. The desert is symbolic of the life of poverty and humility preached by the famous founder of the Franciscan order.

Most of the paintings acquired by Henry Clay Frick had a special meaning for him. A committed Mason, Frick admired Francis because of his love of Nature. Others who have viewed the painting since Frick added it to his collection perhaps have had their own reasons for admiring it. Even if we know nothing of Franciscan spirituality, Bellini’s painting is still an image of a human being standing open and receptive to the divine light and transforming the world because of it.

 Giovanni Bellini proudly inscribes his name in Latin

Dr. Francis P. DeStefano is a retired associate professor of history, who now dedicates his time to writing and lecturing independently on history and art history. His key area of interest is Venetian Renaissance art, particularly the works of Giorgione. His ongoing research into historical and sacred themes influencing artists in the Renaissance can be read at Giorgione et al, and its parent site Tempesta News.


Unknown said...

Cheers for the guest post Frank!

I'm curious as to why the city can not be a reference to Alverna(La Verna)? The architecture is very typically European, looking at the bridge and turreted towers.

There are rolling, plowed hills, and apart from the turrets, there are no symbols of danger, no encircling hawks or weapons, soldiers etc.

The heron itself (as recently discussed here at 3PP)and the donkey are common symbols of Christian spirituality, and perhaps are moreso representative of the events that occured in the 'Christian Wilderness' so often seen in Venetian and Northern art in particular - rather than geolocating St Francis to Egypt specifically.

What has me most curious however, is that drainpipe! It is not something commonly associated with a desert - a place barren of rain! Have your researches uncovered anything about this feature?

Thanks again for the super post! As one who has difficulty comprehending the spirtual intensity of this work, there are still great revelations to be made looking at the traditions of sacred symbolism in art :)


Anonymous said...

Thank you writing such an inspiring blog entry. Your explanations are insightful and the artwork is simply beautiful.

Unknown said...

Cheers Susan! Welcome to 3PP!

I can't take the credit for the explanations in this one though - that was all Frank's great work!

Kind Regards :)

Dr. F said...


Mille grazie for adding your beautiful images and informative links to my post. You are a true wizard.

Fleming writes "that every pictorial item in the painting is guilty of symbolic intention." His discussion of the "cartolino" or "chartula" (the little note tucked into the belt of Francis which can be seen in your detail image) is amazing.

Again, according to Fleming the "drainpipe" illustrates that Francis drew spiritual water from the rock in the same way as Moses. Also, he made a garden (carmel) out of the desert in the same way as Elijah.

I've been to LaVerna and it still does not resemble any city. Why would Francis be standing beneath it?

Thanks again for making this post so beautiful.


Unknown said...

Cheers Frank - thank you for providing the explanation of the drainpipe!

I wonder if that has been depicted in similar manner in another painting, by another artist?


Dale Tiernan said...

I went to the Frick in October and really loved it. They have a terrific audio guide. I never noticed the little rabbit when looking at this painting, thanks for pointing that out.

Dr. F said...


The rabbit is hard to see even when standing right in front of the painting, H did a great job with the image details. I've rarely seen such detail even in the best books.


Alberti's Window said...

I love the Frick as well! (Really, I love any museum which displays art in the home of a collector - the Phillips Collection in DC is another similar museum which is fantastic.) I remember being so pleasantly surprised to find that this Bellini painting was in the Frick collection. If I remember right, it's placed rather high on the wall (perhaps above a fireplace)? I was a little frustrated that I couldn't look at the painting as closely as I wanted. I'm glad that H provided a lot of great detail images in this post!

You have a really interesting argument regarding the Egyptian desert setting. Like H Niyazi said, I don't think that Christian symbols are necessarily site-specific (in terms of a pinpointing a geographic location included within the scene), but it's a really interesting idea.

I've always been curious about the rock formation. I wonder if there are particular formations which could be found in La Verna (or even Egypt!) that could suggest a specific setting. Or, perhaps it's more of an imaginative setting on Bellini's part?

Unknown said...

Cheers for the comments!

@Dale - Welcome to 3PP! I didn't notice the rabbit either until I saw a high resolution image. I was checking to see if the stigmata were visible and out popped the rabbit I'd read about in Frank's piece :)

The high-res image is available for all to see via wiki commons

@M/Frank - I'd love to visit the Frick one day, it looks like a nice place to view art in a degree of quietude.

I'm particularly fond of one of the portraits in the collection, which is contriversial for the ongoing debate as to whether it's by Titian or Giorgione. There is even a great book on it by Charles Hope which I'd love to get my hands on one day. Entitled 'Titian or Giorgione?' It's essentially the same query I have with regards to the Pastoral Concert.

Kind Regards

Dr. F said...


All the arguments about the painting are from John Fleming's monograph, especially the desert motif which is central to his thesis. I did the post not only to draw attention to the St. Francis but also to Fleming's work which I do not think has garnered the attention it deserves.

You are close about the location in the Frick, There is a magnificent El Greco St. Jerome above the fireplace flanked by Holbein's portraits of Thomas More and Thomas Cromwell. The St. Jerome faces the St. Francis on the opposite wall.

I've been to La Verna and seen the cave that Francis used. I don't recall it looking like Bellini's rock formation.


The Bellini, Giorgione, Titian 2006 exhibition catalog gives the portrait of a man to Titian.


Hels said...

I too loved the Frick.

"Most of the paintings acquired by Henry Clay Frick had a special meaning for him." Do you mean a meaning other than "he loved the painting" or "his wife gave him a very special present"? I am assuming the special meaning was some sort of symbolism _within_ the painting.

Would you say this was equally true of his association with Rembrandt, Hals and Terborch?

Dr. F said...


Last year when I read a biog of Frick, I got the impression that his paintings had a special meaning for him but I don't think it had much to do with symbolism. He had tragedy in both his business and family life but sometimes the meaning seems to have been more mundane.

He was the largest holder of railway stock in the country and was supposed to have called Rembrandts the "railways" of the art world. Coincidentally, the Frick's coming exhibitions include ones on Rembrandt as well as the Bellini St. Francis. See


Unknown said...

Just an addendum to this post:

This painting is now featured in an amazing hi-resolution render at the Google Art project.

James Elkins also did a great feature on this work at the Huffington Post. It's interesting to compare and contrast different approaches to the same work.

The most beautiful painting in the world


Anonymous said...

superb analysis of a superb painting Thank you for sharing

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