The drama is in the details

A heron, a shepherd and a rabbit all add to a sense of dazzling profusion and potential

Giovanni Bellini (c. 1430). St. Francis in the Desert, 1475-1480. On view at the Frick Collection in New York.
Giovanni Bellini (c. 1430). St. Francis in the Desert, 1475-1480. On view at the Frick Collection in New York. (The Frick Collection, New York)

Giovanni Bellini’s “St. Francis in the Desert” is regarded by many as the most beautiful painting in America. I’m with the many — although I reserve the right to nominate another painting if asked the same question tomorrow. It hangs in the Frick Collection in New York. Just look at the thing!

The painting’s protagonist — an oddly stiff Harry Dean Stanton look-alike — is St. Francis, who died in Assisi, Italy, in 1226. Two-hundred-and-fifty years later, Bellini depicted him in a state of ecstatic transport, his arms open to receive an indefinable radiance that all but overwhelms him.

Born in the late 12th century, Francis was the son of a wealthy silk merchant and a noblewoman from Provence. Like Siddhartha Gautama, the Buddha, Francis was a handsome, intelligent young man who renounced a life of privilege to preach a doctrine of poverty, good works and spiritual attunement. He cherished the natural world and identified deeply with Jesus.

If humble Francis — friend to the animals, advocate of “enkindling love” — is one of the most popular of Catholic saints, Bellini is similarly beloved in the field of Italian old masters. And for similar reasons: As stone walls emit heat after sundown, the Venetian’s pictures seem to generate light and beneficence from within.

His St. Francis stands on the ledge of a rocky outcrop, against a backdrop that is pure Tuscan landscape, in no way resembling a “desert” (as advertised in the title). It appears to be early spring. A laurel tree leans in from the left. Vines grow over a frame at the entrance to Francis’s retreat. Some trees remain bare while others are in flower. A handsome town and hilltop fortress can be seen in the distance beneath a bright blue, cloud-flecked sky.

The rocky outcrop resembles the Tuscan mountain of La Verna, where, near the end of his life, Francis went to fast for 40 days. Notice the wavy, corkscrewing contours of the turquoise ledge and the dark, differently shaped leaves and slender saplings silhouetted against sunlit terrain. The painting’s variety and specificity and the subtlety of Bellini’s paint application are all minor miracles in themselves.

It was at La Verna, legend tells, that Francis received the stigmata, the wounds of the Passion — a sign of his profound identification with Jesus. It is said that a donkey carried Francis up the mountainside at La Verna — hence Bellini’s donkey in the middle ground, with its sympathetic eyes and gangly, girlish legs. Nearby is a gray heron — a solitary water bird evoking hermit life. Farther back, we find a flock of sheep. A shepherd — the only other human in the picture — turns to look at us. There is magic in this detail alone since it establishes a triangle of curiosity and concern, a kind of near-synchronous “I’m working, you’re watching me, and oh, look at him!” that pulls us deeper into the scene.

Below Francis’s extended right hand you can make out a rabbit peering out of its burrow. Its innocent expression — straight out of a children’s book — provides a playful counterpoint to the saint’s dazed, awestruck face. The creature’s shy, peek-a-boo presence provides tender ballast to the hallucinatory vividness of Francis, who is undergoing something that can only be registered with awe.

Other details — running water, a smudged kingfisher — appear only to evanesce. What remains is a minty freshness, as of vegetable patches at dawn or tulips breaking through frost, and on a spiritual level, a sense of dazzling profusion and potential, like the heart of a person at morning prayer.

Sebastian Smee is a Pulitzer Prize-winning art critic at The Washington Post and the author of “The Art of Rivalry: Four Friendships, Betrayals and Breakthroughs in Modern Art." He has worked at the Boston Globe, and in London and Sydney for the Daily Telegraph (U.K.), the Guardian, the Spectator, and the Sydney Morning Herald.

The drama is in the details

A heron, a shepherd and a rabbit all add to a sense of dazzling profusion and potential

Giovanni Bellini (c. 1430). St. Francis in the Desert, 1475-1480. On view at the Frick Collection in New York.
Giovanni Bellini (c. 1430). St. Francis in the Desert, 1475-1480. On view at the Frick Collection in New York. (The Frick Collection, New York)

Giovanni Bellini’s “St. Francis in the Desert” is regarded by many as the most beautiful painting in America. I’m with the many — although I reserve the right to nominate another painting if asked the same question tomorrow. It hangs in the Frick Collection in New York. Just look at the thing!

The painting’s protagonist — an oddly stiff Harry Dean Stanton look-alike — is St. Francis, who died in Assisi, Italy, in 1226. Two-hundred-and-fifty years later, Bellini depicted him in a state of ecstatic transport, his arms open to receive an indefinable radiance that all but overwhelms him.

Born in the late 12th century, Francis was the son of a wealthy silk merchant and a noblewoman from Provence. Like Siddhartha Gautama, the Buddha, Francis was a handsome, intelligent young man who renounced a life of privilege to preach a doctrine of poverty, good works and spiritual attunement. He cherished the natural world and identified deeply with Jesus.

If humble Francis — friend to the animals, advocate of “enkindling love” — is one of the most popular of Catholic saints, Bellini is similarly beloved in the field of Italian old masters. And for similar reasons: As stone walls emit heat after sundown, the Venetian’s pictures seem to generate light and beneficence from within.

His St. Francis stands on the ledge of a rocky outcrop, against a backdrop that is pure Tuscan landscape, in no way resembling a “desert” (as advertised in the title). It appears to be early spring. A laurel tree leans in from the left. Vines grow over a frame at the entrance to Francis’s retreat. Some trees remain bare while others are in flower. A handsome town and hilltop fortress can be seen in the distance beneath a bright blue, cloud-flecked sky.

The rocky outcrop resembles the Tuscan mountain of La Verna, where, near the end of his life, Francis went to fast for 40 days. Notice the wavy, corkscrewing contours of the turquoise ledge and the dark, differently shaped leaves and slender saplings silhouetted against sunlit terrain. The painting’s variety and specificity and the subtlety of Bellini’s paint application are all minor miracles in themselves.

It was at La Verna, legend tells, that Francis received the stigmata, the wounds of the Passion — a sign of his profound identification with Jesus. It is said that a donkey carried Francis up the mountainside at La Verna — hence Bellini’s donkey in the middle ground, with its sympathetic eyes and gangly, girlish legs. Nearby is a gray heron — a solitary water bird evoking hermit life. Farther back, we find a flock of sheep. A shepherd — the only other human in the picture — turns to look at us. There is magic in this detail alone since it establishes a triangle of curiosity and concern, a kind of near-synchronous “I’m working, you’re watching me, and oh, look at him!” that pulls us deeper into the scene.

Below Francis’s extended right hand you can make out a rabbit peering out of its burrow. Its innocent expression — straight out of a children’s book — provides a playful counterpoint to the saint’s dazed, awestruck face. The creature’s shy, peek-a-boo presence provides tender ballast to the hallucinatory vividness of Francis, who is undergoing something that can only be registered with awe.

Other details — running water, a smudged kingfisher — appear only to evanesce. What remains is a minty freshness, as of vegetable patches at dawn or tulips breaking through frost, and on a spiritual level, a sense of dazzling profusion and potential, like the heart of a person at morning prayer.

Sebastian Smee is a Pulitzer Prize-winning art critic at The Washington Post and the author of “The Art of Rivalry: Four Friendships, Betrayals and Breakthroughs in Modern Art." He has worked at the Boston Globe, and in London and Sydney for the Daily Telegraph (U.K.), the Guardian, the Spectator, and the Sydney Morning Herald.