Over the past few years, I have occasionally busied myself with reading late medieval travel and pilgrimage accounts, hoping that their writers would maybe mention some of the artworks they certainly must have seen during their journey. Unfortunately, this proved to be a (mostly) futile and highly frustrating task. As it turns out, when visiting for example the most splendid ducal palace, late medieval travellers were much more interested in the Duke’s horses or in his artillery than in the Duke’s art collection or the decoration of the palace. And when it came to visiting churches, all they were interested in was relics, relics, relics.
Take for instance the following extract from the account of Duke Friedrich II. of Liegnitz and Brieg who, in 1507, went on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. On his journey he passed through Venice where he had time to do some sightseeing. What the writer of the account – presumably a cleric from Friedrich’s entourage – offers the reader as a “description of Venice”, however, is basically just a long list of church names and the relics those churches contain:
“Item, in Venice there also is a church called San Zaccaria, and there in the High Altar verily lies the body of St. Zachary who was the father of St. John the Baptist; also there lie two other saints, St. Theodorus and St. Gregorius; also there is a phial with the oil of the holy virgin St. Catherine, and there also is the body of St. Stephen, the pope and martyr. Item, before the nuns’ choir there is an altar wherein lie the holy martyrs Achilleus, Nereus and Pancratius. Item, in another altar the body of a holy virgin and martyr called Sabina, and over that same altar there is some miraculous blood of Christ…”
However, unlike most other travellers of that era, the writer of that account wasn’t entirely unfazed by the visual pleasures Venetian painting had to offer. And so, his description of San Zaccaria continues with a brief yet telling mention of what today constitutes the church’s most valuable treasure, Giovanni Bellini’s Pala di San Zaccaria (pictured above), which had only been completed a couple of years earlier, in 1505:
“…also in that same church there is a good, beautiful image of our Lady, with the image of St. Jerome to one side and St. Peter to the other, and it is said that in all of Venice there is no painting more beautiful than this…”
Unfortunately, the writer doesn’t say by whom that claim about the painting’s qualities was actually being made – presumably by the Venetians themselves, one would imagine… But whoever it was, if you ask me, they were absolutely right: There really is no painting more beautiful than this in all of Venice!
Well, that is, of course, with the probable exception of Bellini’s own Frari Triptych:
Hm, let’s call it a tie, ok?