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The laurel tree

Bellini's representation of St Francis is as controversal as his treatment of landscape in the painting.  The legend tells us that St Francis received the stigmata on Mount Avernia when "he saw a vision of God, a man like a seraph having six wings, standing over him with hands outstretched and feet joined together, fixed to a cross". Bellini however, obmits the winged seraph and the cross and the saints wounds are painted with minimal emphasis. Instead, the focus seems to be a moment of awakening, the act of receiving light itself, with the saint shown open moved, open armed, looking away from the darkness of the cave into the light. Could it be the light of the laurel tree that he is turning to? We see the laurel in the top left corner of the painting described in accute detail, its forground leaves illuminated towards us and the saint. Is he receiving the stimata through the tree?

Finding and documenting an illuminated laurel in a small courtyard in Castello also felt revelatory for me. Not only does it support the botantical identification of the species in the painting, but its illumination is powerful visual evidence that Bellini and his workshop would have been able to paint plants like laurels close up in gardens, courtyards and orti in Venice. This would have been Bellini's immediate world - plants illuminated in closed gardens, in dark calle and courtyards, would have become the subject of landscape similie; observed, drawn and then transfered to the painted panel to take their symbolic position as part of a larger religious narrative.

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