These two paintings belong to a pictorial cycle depicting The Lives of Christ and the Virgin Mary, which was installed in the Scuola di San Giovanni Evangelista, in Venice circa 1453. They were commissioned from the founding figure of Venetian Renaissance art, Jacopo Bellini, although as Antonio Mazzotta has recently argued (loc. cit.), stylistic evidence indicates that they were, in fact, painted by a young Giovanni Bellini, who at that time was a leading member of his father’s workshop. The cycle is mentioned by Giorgio Vasari in his Lives of the Artists, although the passage in the 1568 edition is somewhat muddled (ibid., p. 283). As Giancarlo Schizzerotto has observed (loc. cit.), Vasari’s first version of his Lives, published in 1550, provides a clearer and more faithful description of the paintings’ history: 'Furono le prime cose che diedono più fama a Iacopo per gli aiuti de’ figliuli una storia che alcuni dicono che è nella Scuola di S. Giovanni Vangelista, dove sono le storie della Croce. Le quali furono dipinte da loro in tela, per avere del continuo costumato quella città di far lavorare in quella maniera.’ ('The first works that gave greater fame to Jacopo Bellini due to the assistance of his sons was a story that some people say is in the Scuola di S. Giovanni Evangelista, the place where the Stories of the Cross are. These works were painted by them on canvas, because in that city it was common practice to work that way’; quoted and translated in A. Mazzotta, op. cit., p. 283). Vasari thus not only identifies Giovanni and Gentile Bellini as participants in the creation of this cycle, but states that it was due to their assistance that their elderly father became even more well-known. In this passage, the Aretine historian mentions The Stories of the Cross, which were painted in the late 1490s and early 1500s and are today housed in the Gallerie dell’Accademia, Venice, to help the reader properly identify the Scuola and not, as some historians have mistakenly interpreted it, as an indication that it was the subject of Bellini’s cycle (ibid.).
Thus, as Mazzotta has shown, about a century after they were painted, Bellini’s cycle of paintings for the Scuola was largely held to be painted by his sons. The paintings were celebrated in the 20th century by numerous scholars, including Bernard Berenson, who noted that 'they retain something of the simplicity and charm which so especially characterize Venetian narrative painting when nothing in the subject, the place, or the artist’s ambition stands in the way’ (op. cit., 1916, p. 145, although he questioned the attribution to Giovanni) and Roberto Longhi (loc. cit.), who only knew of four surviving canvases – the present two works (which appear to have been painted on linen), and the two in the Galleria Sabauda, Turin, representing The Birth of the Virgin and The Annunciation (figs. 1 and 2). In the second half of the 20th century, in part due to their condition, which made them difficult to read (the surviving paintings were all heavily overpainted in the 19th century), the works gradually fell out of the scholarly literature.
It was Federico Zeri who became their greatest champion, not only advocating Giovanni and Gentile Bellini as their authors, but also eventually identifying five additional canvases from the group. In his diaries, Mai di Treviso, Zeri provides the following colorful description of their discovery:
'Just last year, when I was in a small English town, I was informed that a family living in the nearby countryside was selling an art history library. When I got there, the books had already been alienated, but then my visit, all of a sudden, took a positive turn.
Passing through the now empty library, I recognized, at a glance, hanging resplendently in an adjacent room, five other paintings of the Turin-New York series, like them quite extraordinary.… [I]ndeed, the paintings display the characteristic traits of Jacopo Bellini, who conceived the compositions; while the actual execution reveals the hands of his two sons, Gentile and Giovanni, who were still quite young at the time. There is no need to point out just how important paintings of this sort are; indeed every passage of the work deserves careful, detailed attention' (loc. cit.).
These five paintings, which remain in the private collection in the United Kingdom, represent The Visitation, The Presentation of Christ in the Temple, Christ among the doctors, The Meeting at the Golden Gate, and The Wedding at Cana (for an extended discussion of this group, see J. Hammond, op. cit., figs. 1, 7, 9-11).
In addition to the previously mentioned passage from Vasari, additional documentary evidence establishes that Bellini’s cycle of the Life of Christ and the Virgin was commissioned by the Scuola di San Giovanni Evangelista in the mid-15th century. Originally, the Venetian Scuole were associated with the flagellant movement that started in mid-13th century Perugia. In fact, many of the Venetian confraternities still practiced self-flagellation in public spectacles in the 16th century and were commonly referred to as 'Scuole dei Battudi’ throughout the Renaissance. Early on, however, they assumed a secondary role as a sort of network of 'mini-republics’ for the disenfranchised laity, which had been excluded from the governmental and, often ecclesiastical institutions of Venice. As such, the Scoule became a venue where groups of lay-citizens with similar interests, vocations, national identities, or spiritual convictions could gather to pursue religious and social endeavors as a community. Competition between the Scuole was fierce, and this intense rivalry manifested itself most prominently in public ceremonies and artistic patronage. Ironically, despite the fact that the confraternities were dedicated to philanthropic deeds, on average, the yearly expenditures on alms and charity were only slightly higher than those set aside for processions and public display. Moreover, at times, arguments between confratelli from rival scuole could become so heated that they would escalate to outright physical violence. The most notorious occasions for these incidents were the yearly processions and exhibitions of holy relics during Holy Week, such as the one depicted by Gentile Bellini in 1496 (Gallerie dell’Accademia, Venice), where skirmishes often erupted concerning who would precede whom in the parade before the Doge in the Piazza San Marco (B. Pullen, Rich and Poor in Renaissance Venice: The Social Institutions of a Catholic State, to 1620, Cambridge, 1971, p. 52. It was in this context of fierce artistic one-upmanship that the Bellini’s cycle was commissioned.
The Scuola di San Giovanni Evangelista was founded in 1261 as a flagellant confraternity, which met in the Church of San Aponal in the sestiere of San Polo (it was granted the designation 'grande’ in 1467). In 1301, it moved to a building near the neighboring church of San Giovanni Evangelista, where members met until 1340, when they moved to the piano nobile of a hospice for the aged next door to the church. In July 1414, they took over the entire building, and quickly began a campaign of construction and pictorial decoration, which included the aforementioned cycle of paintings representing The Miracles of the True Cross. In 1421, the Scuola voted to continue a campaign of renovations and decorations for their building, commissioning among other things a narrative cycle of the Old and New Testaments to be installed 'atorno atorno’ (all the way around) the Sala Capitolare, the assembly room for the Chapter General meetings (see P.F. Brown, Venetian Narrative Paintings in the Age of Carpaccio, New Haven and London, 1988, pp. 266-68, no VII; A. Mazzotta, op. cit., pp. 287-88 provides a slightly different chronology). Bellini’s cycle of paintings do not date, however, to this initial campaign, but rather to decades later.
In March 1437, Jacopo Bellini was registered as a member (confratello) of the Scuola, and in March 1441 he was elected to the Scuola’s office of degano (A. Mazzotta, op. cit., p. 288). On 25 February 1453 (1552 on the Venetian calendar), Jacopo was paid 20 ducats by the Scuola to be used as dowry for his daughter Nicolosia’s marriage to Andrea Mantegna. As the confraternity typically provided dowries only to families in need, and 20 ducats was a considerable sum of money, it has been proposed that this sum was in fact intended as payment for Jacopo and his workshop’s creation of the Lives of Christ and the Virgin Mary cycle (ibid.; see also H. Collins, op. cit., p. 468. The purpose of a final payment of 8 ducats to Jacopo on 31 January 1465 has been debated, and it was not necessarily linked to this commission). Further evidence that the 1453 payment was for the completion of the cycle is found on an inscription that was set up on the Scuola’s exterior, celebrating the completion of work on the building’s 'albergo’ and Jacopo’s reelection as degano, an honor which would likely not have been given to him if he had not delivered his paintings in a timely fashion (ibid.).
Antonio Mazzotta has therefore dated the cycle circa 1446-52, noting stylistic and iconographic similarities between several of the paintings and contemporary works, such as the figure of Christ from the Wedding at Cana, which parallels that of the enthroned Herod Agrippa in Mantegna’s St. James before Herod Agrippa from the frescos in the Ovetari Chapel, usually dated to circa 1451-52. He further compares the horses in the present Adoration of the Magi to Donatello’s equestrian statue of Gattamelata, which was well underway at that time and was, in turn, inspired by the four bronze horses at San Marco. Mazzotta concludes that in contrast to Jacopo’s Late Gothic style, the unmistakable genius of Giovanni Bellini is visible in myriad details throughout all of the nine the surviving works from the cycle, which reveal 'the mind and personality’ of the young artist 'at the point when he was emerging from his father’s workshop as the new star of Venetian painting’ (ibid., p. 289). In his earlier analysis of the paintings, Howard Collins was more explicit about the attribution to Giovanni, citing the 'consistent morphology that seems to characterize the heads, particularly the physiognomy, in the earlier works of Giovanni’, which is immediately seen in The Marriage of the Virgin: 'Besides being sensitively and richly painted, the four attendants to the right, as well as the Virgin, possess a common facial conformation. It is a type that appears repeated in Giovanni’s early Madonnas, of between 1450 and 1470; it is characterized by a bulbous forehead – often partly concealed by a hood – a relatively long, straight nose, and an uncommonly short space between the nose and the mouth. The latter is often narrow, and appears compressed. The chin is usually firm and well-formed but unobtrusive’ (op. cit., p. 472). As comparisons, he cites Giovanni’s Davis Madonna in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, and his Madonna and Child in the Civico Museo Malaspina, Pavia, both early works that share this distinct aesthetic.
As noted previously, the cycle of The Lives of Christ and the Virgin Mary was first documented by Vasari in 1550 as a work by Jacopo and his sons. The paintings are next mentioned a generation later, by Francesco Sansovino in his Venetia città nobilissima (1581; loc. cit.), who specified that the cycle included scenes from the Old and New Testaments and the Passion of Christ, and that Jacopo painted the second half of it. The works are next described in 1648 by Carlo Ridolfi, who noted that “By [Jacopo Bellini’s] hand were to be seen at the Confraternity of San Giovanni Evangelista the figure of the Saviour and two angels who compassionately support Him, and in the first room in many medium-sized pictures he had distributed the acts of Christ and the Virgin, that being devoured by time were with various inventions and in other ways renovated by other authors, as they are now seen, thus as they were related [to us] by old painters, we shall describe them” (op. cit.; see also J. Hammond, op. cit., p. 604). It is unclear precisely when the present two paintings left the possession of the Scuola. In the late 19th century, they belonged to Natale Schiavoni and his grandson, Francesco Canella, who apparently also owned the other surviving paintings from the series. Hammond has speculated that since Natale Schiavoni was old enough to have seen the paintings in situ, he likely was able to acquire them directly from the Scuola, when it was suppressed in 1806 (op. cit., p. 609). Schiavoni and Canella sold two canvases to Turin in 1873, and the five UK paintings were first recorded in the London home of the Scottish collector William Graham, who likely bought them from Schiavoni’s heirs in the 1870s (see J. Hammond, op. cit., p. 601).
The Adoration of the Magi and The Marriage of the Virgin passed from the Schiavoni-Canella collection to Ferdinando Ongania, a publisher of the art and architecture of Venice who often displayed paintings owned by the Canella family in his shop window. On 20 November 1902, Ongania sold the paintings to the art historian and painter, Roger Fry. 15 months later, with the assistance of Bernard Berenson, Fry sold them to John J. Chapman, who brought them to America, where they were ultimately acquired by Stanley Moss.