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Writings on art; ‘Silent music in San Zaccaria’

This is a special place – there is a change in light and atmosphere when you first enter, that you only find in Italian churches. Faint echoes in the vaulted darkness, the sound of empty space, the smell of incense. It’s a relief from the clamour outside. Voices bouncing off the stone courtyard now hushed and distant. Rows of empty seats. Shut doors to side rooms. Wooden cubicles, pillars, candlesticks, crosses, lamps. The sleeping remains of a saint. All still. The darkened building standing mute; for this is an in-between time, suspended, waiting…

The painting is just on the left as you go in, at a side altar. Surrounding it, above and all around, figures cover the walls in near chaos; noble men and women in elaborate garb, turning, kneeling, pointing into space. High circular windows surrounded by yet more scenes in red and gold; all telling unknown stories, hard to discern. In contrast, the altar seems simple and unassuming.

Your time here is limited, a short period away from the busyness of the outside world. Yet we all need these havens of peace, however brief, as a refuge to stop and allow ourselves to recover. But just as the side altars are separate spaces for private devotion, held within the larger building with its more public purpose; so the time spent here feels part of an immense, eternal world of time, going on on another level, somewhere else.

But this is here, this is now. There are no questions, no demands, nothing to be gained, except to look at the painting. Gradually your eyes adjust to the light, the figures and colours get stronger. There is a box in front with a coin slot for illumination, which helps…

Bellini San Zaccaria

No gold. No jewels. No patterned brocades or ostentatious display; only the Byzantine apse gives any indication of the lofty subject. It is all light and airy; restrained, almost austere – but for the bright colours that sing out in simple contrasts, without being strident.

On each side there are glimpses of open landscape with blue sky and clouds behind the apse; a fig tree to the left, distant mountains to the right, adding to the feeling of lightness. In the centre, the Madonna and child; to one side, a man holding a book, looking down. Behind him the delicate frame of a woman dressed in green and red – she reminds you of a friend – her pose is so pensive one cannot help wondering, what is she thinking?…what is she remembering?  On the other side another, older man reads a book – beside him the second woman faces inwards. The two pairs echo each others shape. But none of them are looking at each other; everyone seems lost in their own thoughts, their own world; and unusually for a ‘sacra conversazione’, no one looks out at the observer. This lack of engagement adds to the self-contained, inward-looking atmosphere. As if they are listening to silent music that only they can hear, or played on the viola by the angel in the centre. Even he seems to be thinking of something, as he gazes off to one side…S Zaccaria drawing

It is a world of stillness, clarity, silence – in contrast to the crowded walls. A world where time has stopped. The stillness is palpable, radiating out into the space in front of the altar, silencing anybody who stands before it; almost as if the figures have just paused… This feeling of presence, distinct and powerful, doesn’t come across in reproductions. You have to stand in the space before the altar and wait. There are no important art history lessons to learn, it’s not about perspective, stylistic influences or some arcane symbolism. It doesn’t really matter that it was stolen by Napoleon. The date is unimportant, because it is timeless. Do we detect the hand of his pupil Giorgione in the handling of the faces? That may be so, but it’s just an irrelevant distraction. There is no secret to be discovered that might “explain” the painting. The only secret is in your response, your openness, in listening to the silence.

The money runs out, the light suddenly shuts off, your attention drifts off to soft footsteps and shuffling; someone moving, or leaving. The red cloth has turned into a patch of matte black in the dim light. Details are lost. Bells ring; calling time, or for no reason – for nothing happens.

You put in more coins…

And then you notice the patch of purple-violet against green, the contrast with the white, that takes you up to the solemn, thoughtful face of the man holding the closed book; a bold orange and blue that you often see in Persian miniatures; touching his shoulder, the delicate palm strands in the hand of the woman beside him. It is a shared silence that you feel directly, here in this space. But they are also somewhere else. It’s like a feeling you had as a child; it is a perfect world. They stand, waiting for you to enter their world. They seem to embody a way of being that you feel you may one day attain. So you patiently, obediently stand and listen. You look, and there is something about it that fills you with their calm, their peace, their patience…it is another world and it is this world now, at the same time, and forever.

The light changes. Someone is quietly drawing off to one side. A young man strides quickly up to the picture wearing headphones, the music audible, oblivious of most of what is around him; he quickly takes a photograph on his phone and walks off, only there for a few seconds. He hasn’t really seen the painting, and he hasn’t heard it…

And then, it is only after some time that you notice something special, something gradually being revealed. You now see that, as in so many of Bellini’s paintings, the centre of the picture is an arrangement of hands; her supporting hand beneath his raised foot, the open gesture of blessing, her tender hand on his body, from which everything seems to radiate. The tactile sense of these hands holding and touching is a much more important part of the paintings significance than the painters ability at mere illusionism. It is not just about appearances. There are many paintings that are as realistic as this, yet so often they lack Bellini’s warmth, his humanity, his love. In the end this is a painting that contains and radiates a feeling of love, a mother’s love that we all know. And like the saints in the painting, we stand in that loving space, with our own inner life and thoughts…

When you’ve have run out of coins, that’s it for now. There are many more churches and paintings to see in Venice today, or tomorrow. But you are left with this silent music inside your self. It has changed you somehow, and you take it with you, out into the noisy streets and the seafront, where the boats are bustling across the lagoon, towards distant islands…

Giovanni Bellini’s altarpiece can be found in San Zaccaria, Venice