The earliest years of Giovanni Bellini's life are obscure; he may even have been born out of wedlock. His father, the painter Jacopo Bellini, belonged to the citizen class from which the members of the Venetian state bureaucracy and the Scuole (benevolent societies) were drawn. Jacopo, a pupil of Gentile da Fabriano, was also the first major Venetian painter in the history of Renaissance art, as well as a noted portraitist, draftsman and student of linear perspective. The earliest mention of Giovanni in relation to a work of art dates from 1460. In that year, he, his brother Gentile Bellini and their father Jacopo completed an altarpiece for the Gattamelata Chapel in the basilica of Sant'Antonio in Padua, of which only a single panel by the father survives. Giovanni's earliest independent paintings, such as the Transfiguration (Tempestini, 1992, no. 7; Museo Correr, Venice), reveal the decisive influence of two major artists active in Padua: the sculptor Donatello and Andrea Mantegna, who was to marry his sister Nicolosia in 1453. His masterpiece from these early years is a Pietà (Tempestini, 1999, no. 10; Pinacoteca di Brera, Milan), a work of great expressive power and naturalistic lighting effects. Sometime in the early 1470s he painted his first monumental altarpiece in the new medium of oil paint, the Coronation of the Virgin with Saints (Tempestini, 1999, no. 25; Museo Civico, Pesaro). Its monumental, comparatively more generalized forms bespeak the influence of Antonello da Messina and, very probably, Piero della Francesca.
With the departure of Gentile for Constantinople in August of 1479, Giovanni took over the supervision of the decoration of the Sala del Maggior Consiglio in the Doge's Palace, Venice. This meant that for the remainder of his long career he had to provide a series of large depictions of historical subjects, none of which survive. As recompense for these services Giovanni was appointed the official painter to the Venetian Republic on 26 February 1483. During this time he also enjoyed a steady business as painter of half-length images of the Madonna and Child, of which about eighty examples are known. (see, for example, the Madonna degli Alberetti of 1487 [Tempestini, 1999, no. 58; Gallerie dell'Accademia, Venice], one of the master's few dated paintings). Endlessly creative in their formal arrangement, they were described by one contemporary as 'very beautiful and very devout' (Francesco Sansovino, Dialogo di tutte cose notabili che sono in Venetia, Venice, 1563, n.p. [p.27].)
From the 1480s date several of the master's most compelling large-scale canvases. These include the Stigmatization of Saint Francis (Tempestini, 1999, no. 39; The Frick Collection, New York) from the early part of the decade and slightly later.
The San Giobbe Altarpiece (Tempestini, 1999, no. 51; Gallerie dell'Accademia, Venice), is the first of Bellini's monumental Sacra conversazione paintings that represent the Madonna and Child with saints in an illusionistic architectural setting. The latter heralds the High Renaissance style in Venetian painting. Later examples of the theme, evincing an even greater mastery of chiaroscuro and classical balance are the Frari Triptych of 1488 (Tempestini, 1999, no. 60; Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari, Venice) and the altarpiece, dated 1505, for the church of San Zaccaria (Tempestini, 1999, no. 90; in situ). Both works anticipate the achievement of Giorgione and the young Titian, who may have been one of his students. Even in his final years Giovanni Bellini produced great masterpieces, namely The Feast of the Gods of 1514 (Tempestini, 1999, no. 103; National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.), his contribution to the Camerino dell'Albastro in the ducal palace at Ferrara, and the roughly contemporary Drunkeness of Noah (Tempestini, 1999, no. 106; Musée des Beaux-Arts, Besançon). As Albrecht Dürer reported from Venice in early 1506, Bellini 'though he is old...is still the best in painting'. Giovanni Bellini died in Venice on 29 November 1516 and was buried in the cemetery of the Scuola di Sant'Orsola.
The present two panels are a relatively recent discovery. Originally they would have flanked a wider image of Christ on the Cross, which is lost. The painting of this subject belonging to the Cassa di Risparmi e Depositi in Prato (Tempestini, 1999, no. 48; formerly Niccolini di Camugliano collection, Florence) corresponds in size, but can be rejected as a candidate on several grounds. First, the landscape backdrop in that work is not contiguous with that of the present two panels. There is also reason to believe that Bellini's Christ on the Cross in Prato was intended as an independent work of art, a meditation on the crucified Christ rather than a depiction of a narrative scene, the Curcifixion on Mount Golgotha. Finally, the Prato painting dates considerably later, being close in style to the Transfiguration (Tempestini, 1999, no. 50; Museo Nazionale de Capodimonti, Naples) from the early 1480s.
The present panels can be dated on stylistic grounds to the early 1470s, as a comparison with Giovanni's predella panels for the above-mentioned Pesaro Coronation amply demonstrates. Thus the facial type of the mounted centurion in the Good Thief is consistent with that of the horseman at left in Bellini's Conversion of Saul, while the horse recalls the animal on the right in that predella (for which, see S. Bottari, 1963, op. cit., pl. 108).
The Crucifixion of Saint Peter (illustrated in Bottari, pl. 109), another predella panel from the Pesaro Coronation, has features in common with those of the heads in the present paintings, notably those in full or partial profile in the Good Thief.
One candidate for the missing panel has been tentatively suggested by Anchise Tempestini (op. cit., 1999, p. 38). In 1472 Bellini painted a lost Crucifixion, which included the three Marys and the four Doctors of the Church, for the refectory adjoining Santa Maria della Carità in Venice. However, the description of Carlo Ridolfi in 1648 states that Bellini executed that painting 'à chiaro scuro' (C. Ridolfi, Le maraviglie dell'arte, ed. by D. von Hadeln, I, Berlin, 1914, p. 64), which would lead one to believe that it was monochromatic.
Although the early history of our panels in unknown, it is worth noting that the 'Consul Kraus' listed as a former owner by Heinemann (1962, op. cit.) may in fact be Baron Karl von Krauss from Vienna who served as the Austro-Hungarian 'General Consul' in Venice. (see T. von Frimmel, Geschichte der Wiener Gemäldesammlungen, Leipzig, 1899, p. 480).