The Virgin Immaculate, East to West : Byzantine Stylistic and Iconographic Influence on Madonna and Child Paintings in Venice and Its Development Through the Paintings of Giovanni Bellini
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The career of Giovanni Bellini can be considered the turning point in Venetian art, when the city's Byzantine heritage and Western influences converged at their finest. If we trace the developments of Giovanni's Madonna and Child paintings for private devotion and altarpieces, we can see him struggling to find a balance between Byzantine-influenced iconography and form, and the emerging Renaissance style with its more plastic forms and perspectival innovations. The stage for Giovanni's breakthrough is set by earlier Venetian artists—Paolo Veneziano, the Vivarini, Giovanni d'Alemagna, and Giovanni's father and brother, Jacopo and Gentile Bellini— as they fought to eke out their place in Italian art with their own truly Venetian style. These early Venetian painters began by replicating what they were most familiar with: Byzantine art. This is not wholly surprising, considering the lengthy history of interactions between Byzantium and Venice, and Venice's belief in their divine right to the succession of the Empire after its fall. Tuscan and Northern European artists frequently made visits to Venice and the surrounding cities, such as Padua, to complete commissions as the Venetian school itself was developing to a point of skill great enough to accommodate the aspirations of the Venetian Republic. From these artists, the Venetians learned to free their forms from the flatness of Byzantine art, as well as the Renaissance trick of one-point perspective, and the Northern European use of oil pigments. Yet in order to understand how, with all these Western influences, the Venetian school maintained a decidedly Byzantine flair we must first look at the developing relations between the Republic and the Byzantine Empire and its satellites. Moreover, it is from this connection with the East that Venice develops its special relationship with the Virgin Mary. We can see the transference of tradition and doctrine from Byzantium to Venice in the Venetians' adoption of the procession of the icon of the Virgin Nikopoia, and in their integration of the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception of Mary. It is in light of this special relationship between Venice and Mary, strengthened by Venice's ties to the Byzantine Empire and its traditions that an environment in which such a plethora of Madonna and Child images were in demand is fostered.
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