Pitture di Luce: The Franciscan Theology of Light and Venetian Painting of the Late-Fifteenth Century

Author: ORCID icon orcid.org/0000-0002-2251-151X
Hupe, Eric, History of Art and Architecture - Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, University of Virginia
Fiorani, Francesca, AS-Art, University of Virginia

The Venetian art theorist Paolo Pino (1534–1564) writes in his Diologo di pittura: “light is the essential part and soul of color.” Paintings such as Giovanni Bellini’s (c. 1430–1516) St. Francis in the Desert (c. 1478) and San Giobbe Altarpiece (1480) exemplify how these two entwined qualities—light and color—have become metaphors for the entire canon of Venetian art. Previous scholars have tried to explain the luminous quality of Venetian paintings by identifying their visual sources in the reflective waves of the lagoon or the resplendent pictures of Flemish artists. Yet Bellini’s paintings are also a profound expression of Franciscan theology and reflect a spiritual tradition that was keenly interested in explaining the mystical and physical properties of light. My research is the first to link the Venetian interest in lume and colore with a theology of light that the Franciscans had been developing since the formation of the order.

St. Bonaventure (1221–1274), one of the fathers of Franciscan theology, wrote in his commentary on Peter Lombard: “God is light in the most literal sense.” Such analogies between corporeal light and the divine abound in early Franciscan writings. Indeed, throughout the thirteenth century, a group of Franciscan theologians known as perspectivists sought to explain the properties of light and nature of sight in scientific and mathematical terms. Their optical investigations were pivotal to the development of linear perspective and pictorial naturalism. But as Roger Bacon O.F.M. (1214–1292) states at the conclusion of his Perspectiva, optical science was meant to confirm a Franciscan theology that aligned bodily sight with a deeper form of spiritual vision. Scholars of art and perspective have neglected this important fact. My research indicates that the luminous effects celebrated in Renaissance art reveal a Franciscan understanding of light that permeated Early-Modern visual culture and informed viewers of not only what they saw, but also how they saw.

Methodologically, my research combines iconography with the close analysis of Franciscan scientific and religious writings—optical treatises, mystical texts, devotional manuals, and recorded sermons. My reading of these sources reveals that both the educated and the illiterate commonly understood light. As a result, Franciscan theologians relied on the natural behavior of light to communicate fundamental mysteries of their faith. In a similar manner, Venetian artists used the pictorial light of their paintings to inspire viewers to practice Franciscan devotion.

PHD (Doctor of Philosophy)
Venetian Painting, Renaissance Art, Giovanni Bellini, Art and Science, Optics, Optics and Theology, Pictorial Light
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