April 16, 2024

Giovanni Bellini’s St. Francis in the Desert is the largest work on panel at the Frick Collection, the intimate public gallery housed in the former residence of industrialist Henry Clay Frick. Portraying the medieval saint who renounced earthly riches to embrace a life of poverty, simplicity and prayer, this particular painting belongs to a long tradition of legends centered on the life of Francesco of Assisi, who was close in time to the Italians of the Renaissance and hence often a central subject. Yet this image is unlike any other representation. For one, Bellini’s desert bears a striking similarity to the Tuscon hills. Moreover, barefoot with arms extended and ready to receive, the saint appears to be in a state of mystical transport, transfigured by a supernatural radiance that emanates from a thick impasto of clouds at the upper left corner of the canvas. All this and not a furry animal to be found. Almost. It’s a masterpiece of spiritual poetry, made even more vivid following a rehabilitative trip to the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s conservation department. Currently occupying pride of place in the museum’s main gallery the painting can also be viewed up close in a way you’d never be able to experience in person: via high-resolution gigapixel photography courtesy of Google’s amazing new Art Project.

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