“Christ Blessing”, Giovanni Bellini, c. 1500, Kimbell Art Museum, Forth Worth, Texas. You can view the painting in higher resolution at https://www.kimbellart.org/collection/ap-196707
The Risen Christ raises his right hand in blessing. The landscape tells us that it is “early on the morning of the first day of the week” (Mk16:2). Three figures move through the early morning as did Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome in Mark’s account of the resurrection (Mk 16:1). By the time the sun has risen they will have found the tomb empty. On the left, the rabbits and the bare tree with its lone bird are familiar from other paintings by Bellini. The tree represents the old order which is passing away. The church tower on right is a symbol of faith in the Risen Christ, the Eucharist, and, therefore of Christ’s sacrifice and presence with us. On the left just below his hand raised in blessing a shepherd watches his flock reminding us that Christ is the Good Shepherd. With his left hand Christ holds a staff. This is the staff on which the banner of the resurrection is unfurled. You can see the wound made by the nail in Christ’s raised hand and that made the spear in his side. There is an unexplained light source to the left so that the raised hand casts a shadow on Christ’s torso, giving visual testimony to the reality of his bodily resurrection. This is a small painting (59 X 47cm), intended for private devotion. The figure of Christ resembles that found in some of his public altarpieces around 1500 and so it may be related to those commissions. But what is extraordinary about this painting is the way the landscape and the figure of Christ co-exist in a delicate and beautiful harmony. Lines from Hopkins’ “The Windhover” come to mind: “the achieve of, the mastery of the thing!” I imagine Bellini’s unexplained bird flying in the dawn light and for me Hopkins’ poem gains new depth. Often resurrection scenes seem a bit awkward, but here, nothing jarrs. Nothing is forced or contrived. Figure and landscape blend like a seamless garment. This is Bellini at his best. A contemporary poet lamented that had a figure of Christ been painted by Bellini, rather than by a lesser artist, it would’ve been “much more human and more divine”. Bellini sets before us a figure of the Risen Christ in which humanity, divinity and the whole creation co-exist beautifully. As we begin our Lenten journey, and as this time of lockdown continues, Bellini reminds me of the beauty of his gentle presence, that at he is always with us and his blessing is always upon us.
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