Our route will bring us to another Greek church: the S. Greci, which we will visit first. This 16th century church, the San Giorgio dei Greci, is situated at the Rio dei Greci and is the main seat of the Greek brotherhood. Venice was home to many peoples: Greeks, Byzantines, Dalmatians, Arabs, Jews, etc. These communities often had their own churches and scuola. Before we enter this well-hidden church, you can still try to make out the slanted campanile.
The interior offers a tremendous view in how the orthodox religion kept men and women strictly separated from each other during service. The priest performs his rituals from behind the iconostasis. The iconostasis is a wall that separates the priests from the people and often boasts beautifully designed icons, and this one is no different. There is a small museum next to this church that shows many icons (more information on Wikipedia).
We cross the bridge and arrive at the first scuola we will be visiting at the Rio della Pietà. The scuola di San Giorgio degli Schiavoni, also known as the scuola Dalmata, is a small scuola that served as a meeting place for Dalmatian traders.
“Since the early Middle Ages, Venice had intense commercial relationships with Dalmatia, which became even stronger when the whole region was conquered by Venice in the early 15th century. In the city, Croatian immigrants from Dalmatia were called Schiavoni.” Cited from Wikipedia
Between 1502 and 1508, Vittore Carpaccio made a famous cycle of nine paintings for this building. The Web Gallery of Art has some very good images available of that entire cycle and by Thais.it. This is his only cycle of the five paintings still preserved that are still in their original location. The story begins on the left wall with St. George and continues on the right wall via the back wall. The stories and saints depicted here are mostly the patron saints of Dalmatia, namely St. George, St Triphon and St.Jerome. Carpaccio paints the stories of these saints with his usual touch of humour.
His portrayals are so accurate that it takes little knowledge to read and understand the story. Originally, the cycle of paintings was located on the first floor, but during the restoration of 1551 the paintings were relocated to the ground floor. Two paintings are not part of the cycle, namely ‘The Call of Matthew’ and “Christ in the garden of Getshema’, leaving the original cycle as a series of 7 paintings.
St. George and the dragon
The stories are from the Legenda Aurea (1298; an English translation can be read here) as written by bishop Jacobus de Voragine from Genua. The painter does deviate from de Voragine’s tales. The story of the dragon is depicted in two paintings and the third one on the left wall has St. George baptising the heathen king and queen.
In the first painting, George impales the dragon with his lance. In the second painting, he lands the killing blow on the dragon under the watchful eyes of spectators and the king and queen, the parents of ‘our’ princess. A drawing about this has also been preserved (Uffizi).
Circled around the dragon are the remains of his macabre hoard: slain bodies, bones and skulls; half-eaten by lizards, snakes and toads. The background shows the city where St. George will drag the wounded dragon to. Between all the bones and skulls are the bodies of a young man and woman. Both fell victim to their lust. They were to stay virgin until their marriage. Like the toad, the dragon is the symbol of lust.
According to the Leganda Aurea, the princess is a heathen African woman. Yet here she is depicted like a Venetian lady from Carpaccio’s time. She is wearing pearls around her neck. Her posture looks like a Virgin Mary: with folded hands as if locked in prayer while listening. Her expression shows no fear, even though she is faced with a rather ominous scene. Her crown is typical for virgins and martyrs. Behind her we see a green hill with two winding roads leading up: one to the church and the other one to a steep rock across a scary looking bridge with two huts. The paths of life are difficult and winding, but the right one eventually leads to salvation. Two ships: one at full sail and the other one floating aimlessly at sea. These symbols are often used in a Christian context.
Although this artwork is heavy with symbolism, the cycle continues with the painting ‘killing the dragon’ which shows no deeper meaning whatsoever.
The triumph of St. George (George slays the dragon)
The dragon is dragged along with the belt the princess wore around her waist as a sign of virginity. All the townsfolk watch as George lands the finishing blow. A diagonal of the back of the lance that continues up to the end of the dragon’s tale amplifies the effect of the deadly thrust. One’s gaze automatically follows along this line. Some horses, and even some spectators, are not entirely at ease and fear the dragon.
This artwork uses a clear perspective and is easy to read. Like in the Legenda Aurea, George uses the princess’ chastity belt to drag the dragon along. The ‘orchestra’ accompanies this cheerful event where the city of Selene is finally liberated from the dragon’s terror. The red belt as a sign of virginity, which the princess undoubtedly gifted to George, points to engagement and marriage.
But alas, our brave Christian knight ventures on after first baptising the townsfolk of Selene. The adjacent painting shows the baptism of the king and queen by George. It contains Eastern elements even though the setting is definitely Venetian. In the centre of the Triumph of St. George, the architecture is very similar to the Solomon temple as it was known from engravings in the book of Reeuwich back then.
The first two paintings were likely paid for by Paolo Valaresso, who also gave a relic of St. George to this scuola di San Giorgio degli Schiavonni. He in turn had received this relic from the patriarch of Jerusalem. Paola Valaresso was a captain of the Venetian fortress in Morea at the Peloponnesos. Valaresso was coerced by Venice to refrain from fighting the Turks. He had no choice but to resentfully surrender his city to the Ottomans. Valaresso was also a Dalmatian. St. George is a knight who fights for God like the crusaders did. The dragon as a symbol for the Turks has been often used. For instance, the Ottoman flag depicts a dragon. Canons used by the Turks were always referred to as fire-spitting dragons. Valaresso played a role in the first two paintings as the commissioning party. The theme of the paintings can also be interpreted as the dragon, the Turkish, being killed by the Christian knight.
Two episodes from the life of St. Jerome are depicted in the scuola di San Giorgione degli Schiavonni. This story is also from the ‘Legenda Aurea’, but also from a more contemporary source. The story is titled: ‘Life, Death and Miracles of Saint Jerome from 1471 by Pietro de Natali. The cripple lion follows our Saint near a monastery in Bethlehem. Only the abbot, Jerome, greets the lion. He doesn’t seem to understand why others flee from the animal. The lion’s head is wrought with pain, as he has a thorn in his front paw. Our saint cares for the lion and removes the thorn. The lion was eternally grateful and never left Jerome’ side.
We can see the amazement and disappointment in Jeromes’ face when he sees his brothers running away instead of doing their Christian duty. The monks refuse to help the wounded lion while he is a creation of God. The lion doesn’t just come to live in the monastery but is also taught to behave according to Christian norms. The monastery is clearly situated in the Middle-East, given the men with turbans and palm trees. Why are these heathen turbans in this scene? They are walking towards the church, presumably to be converted. No longer are they hostile monsters and persecutors of Christianity, but they come to repent.
The victory on 2 August 1502 – the year when Vittore completed several paintings for this scuola like the two about Hieronymus- marked the end (for some time) of the war between the Turks and the Christian west. The paintings about St. George on the opposite wall also involved this theme.
The building in the background of ‘the death of St. Jerome’ looks like the monastery of the hospital workers in Venice, while the old scuola, prior to the 1551 restoration, is also visible at the left of the image with the excellent bay and round windows. The lion also makes an appearance at the funeral, though not a prominent one. Like in the Legenda Aurea, the lion seems to throw its head back in a mournful roar.
The painting ‘St. Augustine in his Study’ is probably Carpaccio’s most famous artwork. One often asked question about this painting is: why was this theme included in the cycle?
What does Augustine have to do with the rest of the story? There is one interesting thesis floating around: the subject. Augustine does indeed have something in common with the two other paintings about St. Hiëronymus. In Augustine’s work, ‘The Life, Death and Miracles of Augustine’, we read the story that Augustine wanted to write a treatise about the joy of blessed souls. Augustine wanted Hiëronymus to share his opinion about it. As Augustine writes a letter to Hiëronymus asking him for his opinion, Hiëronymus passes away. While he is writing, Augustine, as the story goes, is suddenly confronted by a heavenly, unnatural light. Along with the light sounded the voice of Hiëronymus, as if he held a shell to his ear. With a preaching tone, Augustine was told not to have the arrogance to attempt to describe the joy of blessed souls. Only those who had reached eternity could understand such.
The Dalmatian dog appears to hear the voice and see the supernatural light. But the relation is a very unusual one, and very abstract for the spectator who knows little about theology. What’s more, Augustine has little involvement with the Dalmatians. In addition, this painting as opposed to all other paintings of this cycle has no exterior but strictly an interior with one person. The answer could be that whoever commissioned the cycle wanted a portrait made of himself and that’s why St. Augustine was chosen as a portrait. We will have a look at the actual painting and discuss why it is so typical for the Venetian style.
We walk up the stairs to the first floor. Here too you can see a Saint George piercing the dragon.
There is very little known about Carpaccio, just as with Giovanni Bellini. Unfortunately, Venice never had a writer like Vasari who kept track of all the gossip and facts of great artists. He reputedly worked in Venice between 1499 and 1523. Just like Bellini, Carpaccio also strongly adjusted the Renaissance, which started late in Venice.
We continue our way south, to the San Zaccaria