In Venetian art

Angels in Venetian paintings are easy to find. 

One of my favorite paintings with angels can be admired in the church of San Giovanni in Bragora. In the altar, Cima da Conegliano has left us the Baptism of Jesus, still to be admired in its original frame. While some angels take care of Jesus, holding his clothes, colorful cherubs, seraphs and more create an ethereal rainbow above. 

Baptism of Christ by Cima da Conegliano in the church of San Giovanni in Bragora, Venice, ca 1492

And how can we forget the ephebic apparition in St Ursula’s Dream by Vittore Carpaccio? There, the angel announces the martyrdom enveloped in the sunset light, scaring the cat away while Ursula sleeps placing her right hand on her ear, almost in the act of listening.

Vittore Carpaccio, Dream of St Ursula, Accademia Galleries, ca. 1495, Venice

While some paintings feature angels as mere, although pleasant, decorative elements, some portray angels as mysterious creatures as mysterious is the message they convey. The word “angel” in fact comes from the Latin “angelus” and stems from the Greek ἄγγελος (ánghelos), meaning messenger. So let’s see what Paolo Veronese, Jacopo Tintoretto and Lorenzo Lotto have come up with!

Paolo Veronese, Mystical Marriage of St Catherine of Alexandria at the Accademia Galleries in Venice (1567-68)

The toddler Jesus places a ring on the finger of a kneeling St Catherine. Of course. But there is something about this painting which is not so obvious.

Paolo Veronese, Mystical Marriage of St Catherine of Alexandria, Accademia Galleries, 1567-68, Venice

It happened to be the altar piece in a very peculiar church, that of the Augustinian nuns in the convent of Santa Caterina in Cannaregio. Painted likely between 1567-68, the painting by Paolo Veronese would stand in front of the daughters of the Venetian nobility who received in the convent the education to marriage. In this strictly feminine place, Sergio Marinelli pointed out this altar piece is likely the first feminist painting in art history! No God the Father, no St Joseph. Just women, a baby Jesus and the angels with their asexual nature. 

The abbess at that time was Teodosia Donà, the aunt of future Doge Leonardo Donà who defied the Pope during the Interdict in 1606. In the convent therefore young girls would receive the education which would turn them into perfect wives for the future Venetian political elite. 

St Catherine is wearing a dress featuring the most exclusive “soprarizzo” blue velvet, shimmering of gold yarn and angels accompany the whole scene with their music. The entire scenography, including architecture, expresses nobility. 

And the angels?

Spectacular fabrics, inspired by some Venetian lampas, blond curly hair and rosy cheeks convey a sense of harmony to the scene, too. No sense of conflict as they all mirror the Venetian leading class. However, the angels on the foreground looking at the musical score seem to discuss the interpretation. The slightly upset look of the angel on the right and the raised hand of the one of the left add an ironical, innocent quarrel to the overwhelming harmony of the scene.

Detail of Paolo Veronese, Mystical Marriage of St Catherine of Alexandria, Accademia Galleries, 1567-68, Venice

And I wonder if those girls observing the painting felt entertained, too. Surely they were around thirty years later, when they inaugurated the first tennis court in Venice, in their convent’s premises as you can read in my blogpost here:

Jacopo Tintoretto, Annunciation at the Scuola Grande San Rocco in Venice (1582-87)

Between 1582-87 Jacopo Tintoretto was working at the ground floor Hall at the Scuola Grande San Rocco on a cycle depicting the stories of the Virgin Mary. “Rejoice, favored one! The Lord is with you!” So said the archangel Gabriel to Mary. No wonder she was left quite puzzled and confused. But in Tintoretto’s work she is literally terrified. 

Jacopo Tintoretto, Annunciation, Scuola di San Rocco, Venice, ca. 1582-87

Not just. The version Tintoretto gave of this moment in the Virgin Mary’s life is quite unusual in other ways. Accompanied by successive phases of motion of a crowd of little cupids —just like in chronophotography hundreds of years later— Tintoretto portrayed Gabriel as a powerful, aggressive angel. Well, Gabriel is also translated as “strength of God”. This one is certainly not kind and gentle. Still holding the traditional fleur-de-lis in his left hand, the angel scares the Virgin Mary. What a risk. What about if she said “No, thanks!”? Christianity would have not even begun. 

Is he coming to punch her in the face or what? Tintoretto well expresses the moment when God’s messenger bursts in her life as an earthquake. Nothing is as it was before. Move and educate: this was the motto in the counterreformation movement and this angel is not coming just for Mary, but for us all, too. And, as Ester Brunet points out, if she does not bow in front of the angel, showing courage, so were the brethren of the Scuola also asked to do.

Lorenzo Lotto, The Alms of St Antoninus in the Dominican Basilica dei Santi Giovanni e Paolo in Venice (1542)

This altarpiece was painted by Lorenzo Lotto almost twenty years after the canonisation of Antoninus Pierozzi, Archbishop of Florence, in 1523. Antoninus founded a confraternity for ‘respectable people in reduced circumstances’ who were ashamed to beg. Lotto was commissioned this work by a Venetian nobleman, Benedetto Contarini, and a preacher of the Dominican monastery of San Domenico in Castello in Venice. 

This painting proved to be very important for Lotto as in exchange for a discount, he got his burial assured in the same basilica —which eventually did not happen to be the case as Lotto died far from Venice, in the Marche, and that’s where he is buried. 

Lorenzo Lotto, The Alms of St Antoninus in the Dominican Basilica dei Santi Giovanni e Paolo in Venice, 1542

The scene has been interpreted in different ways. 

Charity is divine but cannot be pursued without a plan

Bernard Aikema suggests the two deacons are supposed to help with their alms the poor. In 1537 a brotherhood had been founded in Venice, similar to the one Antoninus had created in Florence. Among the beggars you can see a lady covering her face —she is likely one of those “new” poor, allowed to hide their identity not to reveal their status of poverty. 

Very realistically, the painting reveals the need for a priority or a rationalization of the alms. If only one could help everyone…, but if this is not possible, what can you do? So the angels help Antoninus choose the ones to help. 

In those years famine and begging had become very serious problems in Venice and the State had to issue several laws to support the poor. A new prior had been sent to the Dominicans of Santi Giovanni e Paolo to re-enforce their poverty ideal, thus arousing conflicts in the friars’ community, not so happy to give up their privileges and their life style, not exactly orthodox. At a certain point they had even replied, they would have preferred to become lutheran rather than stick to the strict discipline of the observant Dominicans!

Moral decay in the Venetian Dominican clergy

Francesco Trentini instead emphasizes the gestures of the angels and writes that the angels are warning St Antoninus that something is going wrong down there. The two deacons are misbehaving. One is not collecting all the alms, the other one does not give out the money. They are too luxuriously dressed, fur coats, rings and jewels. A sign of their moral decay and corruption.

In this unusual role of whistleblowers, Lotto’s angels are the only ones that know the truth. But they surely try to soothe the grief of the crowd of those poor men, women and children begging.

by Luisella Romeo
registered tourist guide in Venice, Italy

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