Bellini at the IMA

During the Italian Renaissance, Giovanni Bellini, a Venetian painter, focused much of his work on the creation of virgin and baby Jesus images, painting altarpieces and devotional images for his wealthy patrons. Perhaps it's fitting, then, that one of the Indianapolis Museum of Art's concluding exhibitions before it closes for renovation this January is the small pedagogical exhibition Giovanni Bellini and the Art of Devotion. Bellini's "Madonna and Child" on view at the IMA

It's fitting for the obvious reason that it's Advent. Christmas is upon us. For those to whom Christmas is a religious holiday as well as a secular one, exhibitions such as these serve to remind us of the holy origins of this time of year. Even for those of us who don't practice the Christian faith, we're surrounded by the culture's honoring of the birth of Jesus.

Fiction or fact? Myth or historical truth? Art is what allows us to breathe life into our imaginings, our visions of the past, our notions of truth's essences if not its concrete realities. And the Renaissance was a time of aesthetic joy, when religious fervor was more celebratory in terms of artistic expression. But what makes a work of art a thing of beauty? The IMA's exhibition, which flows into the display of other Renaissance-era paintings in the museum's collection, puts this question in a larger context.

The Madonna and Child in Bellini and the Art of Devotion, it's easily noted, are curiously flat. Mary's face is passionless, even distant; and the Christ child is chalky white and not very cherubic, except for the slight tint of peach adorning his rosy cheeks. It's a known fact that artists of Bellini's caliber often hired students and apprentices to carry out their artistic visions (or commissions); and it was an accepted practice. (Artists do this today as well: The master glass sculptor Chihuly comes to mind.) But one has to wonder, did this detract from the quality of the work, from its potential to move viewers with its inherent emotion?

The IMA's Bellini installation, which includes just three paintings, is intended to be educational. Bellini is said to be one of the foremost painters of the Renaissance in Venice, and this introduction to the workshop methods used is certainly fascinating from a scientific perspective. Paintings from the time period are stunningly preserved in some cases, testifying to the durability of the materials, at that time all naturally derived. The exhibition includes a glass case of the substances used to create various pigments, from lead white to aquamarine. A brilliant scarlet red color is derived from cochineal insects - many of the same materials used by Native Americans for thousands of years.

One is also struck by the many layers artists used (and still use today) to build their colors and images on the canvas or other chosen surface - in the case of Bellini, a poplar wood panel treated with two varieties of gesso (which, incidentally, comes from gypsum - the same stuff we use to make sheet rock). The same materials used by Renaissance painters, and even some oil painters today, were used by those who made the earliest known markings on cave walls.

Science is both the art of discovering what exists as well as the art of creating what is needed. Bellini and the Art of Devotion reminds us of fine art's origins.

Giovanni Bellini and the Art of Devotion is on view through Jan. 2 in the Clowes Pavilion of the Indianapolis Museum of Art, 4000 Michigan Road. Call 920-2650 or visit for information.

Giovanni Bellini and the Art of Devotion

Indianapolis Museum of Art

Through Jan. 2


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