One of my favorite painters is Giovanni Bellini. (Side note: the “Bellini” is also my favorite cocktail. The delicious mix originated in Venice. It is made with Prosecco and peach nectar, and tastes as vibrant as a sky looks in any one of Bellini’s paintings.) Today, I would like to focus on that great painting from the Frick collection: St. Francis in the Desert. Next time you are in New York, put the Frick on your list of must-see attractions for this painting alone. It will not disappoint.
What’s intriguing about this painting? There are many things. The sense of solitude in nature combined with a desk and a book at the ready is infinitely appealing. The painting is rife with symbolism and so is quite poetic. The skull symbolizes mortality and a detachment from worldliness, and the donkey and signature brown robe worn by the saint are images of poverty. The saint looks to heaven with his hands open, willing acceptance of what God has planned, and he is unshod. This indicates not only poverty, but that St. Francis is aware he is standing on sacred ground. “Then the Lord said to him, ‘Take off your sandals, for the place where you are standing is holy ground.” (Acts 7:33, see also Exodus 3:5) Though the saint is in the wilderness, alone with thoughts of mortality, poverty, a servant’s heart, and a book for company, the turrets of Assisi may be seen in the background, so the “city on a hill” is not far away.
Today’s music features my favorite performance of Vincenzo Bellini’s Vaga luna, che inargenti (Beautiful Moon, Dappled with Silver). You’ll find the lyrics, though describing romantic yearning, bear a similarity to St. Francis’s yearning for God evoked by Giovanni Bellini.
Though Vincenzo Bellini, the composer of bel canto opera, is not considered an operatic heavyweight in the same way as say, Richard Wagner, it is interesting that Wagner was once inspired by Bellini. He wrote, “I shall never forget the impression made upon me by an opera of Bellini at a period when I was completely exhausted with the everlastingly abstract complication used in our orchestras, when a simple and noble melody was revealed anew to me.”
Vaga luna, che inargenti
Beautiful moon, dappling with silver
These banks and flowers,
Evoking from the elements
The language of love
Only you are witness
To my ardent desire;
Go tell her, tell my beloved
How much I long for her and sigh.
Tell her that with her so far away,
My grief can never be allayed,
That the only hope I cherish
Is for my future to be spent with her.
Tell her that day and night
I count the hours of my yearning,
That hope, a sweet hope beckons,
And comforts me in my love.