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A Renaissance Masterpiece from Wawel. Giovanni Bellini’s "Madonna and Child"

Event date: 2024 y.February0223 d. - 2024 y.May0519 d. All events
Palace of the Grand Dukes
In 2023, the Wawel Royal Castle – State Art Collection (Poland) acquired a masterpiece of 15th-century Italian painting – Madonna and Child by Giovanni Bellini (ca 1430–1516), one of the most famous Italian artists of all time and a genius of the Renaissance. This magnificent painting can be traced back to the 19th century and is known to have belonged to famous art collections. It is now a diamond in the Wawel Royal Castle collection.
Giovanni Bellini is considered the founder of the Venetian School of Art – one of the most famous and popular artists of the Italian Renaissance, he was among the first to experiment with oil paints and applied many of the innovations of the time throughout his career spanning six decades. Before developing his style and individual colour scheme, he studied the works of medieval and Byzantine masters, while also drawing on the experience of his father Jacopo Bellini (ca 1400 – ca 1470), his brother-in-law Andrea Mantegna (1431–1506), painter Antonello da Messina (ca 1430 – ca 1479), sculptor Donatello (ca 1386–1466), and the work of northern European artists.
Antonio Paolucci, the long-time head of the Vatican Museums and a renowned Italian art historian, says, “Bellini meditates on the visible world as if the eye of God were caressing it on a sunny spring morning”. Giovanni Bellini’s works are characterised by their distinctive light, aesthetics, poetic mood and emotional impact. They radiate peace and harmony, testifying to the artist’s ability to see the world’s beauty around him. He had a large workshop and many students as an official and privileged artist of the Republic of Venice. Bellini’s work influenced later Venetian painters, especially his students Giorgione (ca 1477/1478–1510) and Titian (1488/1490–1576).
On display at the exhibition, Giovanni Bellini’s masterpiece Madonna and Child features a half-length depiction of the Blessed Virgin Mary embracing the blond-haired Infant Jesus on a stone parapet. This highlights her love and affection, which is rare in earlier art. Nevertheless, Mary’s gaze is rather sad and pensive, emphasising not the joy of the birth of the Redeemer but the sadness of His imminent suffering and death. A green curtain hangs behind the Madonna’s shoulders, emphasising the royal, heavenly status of the Virgin Mary. On either side of the cloth is a landscape with a single tree, barely budding in the spring, indicating not only the time of the Passion but also symbolising Jesus’ brief earthly life.
Signed by the artist, the small-format oil-on-board painting belongs to the typical group of images that decorated the houses of aristocrats and patricians and were intended for personal devotion. The painting is also notable for its authentic gilded architectural frame, decorated with rich floral ornamentation and resembling a tabernacle.
Giovanni Bellini began painting compositions of the Madonna and Infant Jesus around 1460 and continued to paint this iconography, which was very popular at the time, throughout his life. The Wawel painting is similar to other works by Bellini – the so-called Madonna degli Alberetti (Madonna of the Small Trees, 1487), which belongs to the Gallerie dell'Accademia in Venice, and the canvas Madonna and Child (1510) at the Pinacoteca di Brera in Milan.
Giovanni Bellini’s Madonna and Child was shown at the Wawel Royal Castle at the Italian Renaissance Masters’ Exhibition at the turn of 2023–2024, and immediately after the exhibition ended, it came to the National Museum – Palace of the Grand Dukes of Lithuania. The history of the acquisition of this painting is also linked to the Palace of the Grand Dukes of Lithuania since it was here that the directors of the Wavel negotiated the acquisition of the masterpiece.
Bellini’s works, like those of other famous Italian Renaissance masters, were well-known in the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. Works by Venetian masters were in the collections of the Jagiellons, the Vasas and later rulers, as well as the nobility.
During World War II, the painting The Lamentation of Jesus Christ, attributed to Giovanni Bellini, disappeared. It had previously adorned the Kaunas Cathedral and was later kept in the Museum of Church Art in Kaunas. Today, a copy of the painting has survived, commissioned by the Counts Przeździecki at the turn of the 20th century for their Rokiškis residence.
The painting The Circumcision of Christ by Nicolo Rondinelli (ca 1468 – ca 1520), one of Bellini’s closest disciples and a champion of Bellini’s style, can be seen in the Dr Pranas Kiznis Gallery at the National Museum – Palace of the Grand Dukes of Lithuania.
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