Towards the end of the 15th century, the Scuola commissioned Alvise Vivarini (1445-1503) to paint the magnificent altar-piece (5 x 2.50 metres). The artist died in 1503 and, thus, the work was completed by his pupil Marco Basaiti. The painting is inserted in a spectacular golden wood altar (1503) with precise carvings in the pillars, the frieze, and the internal and external surfaces of the arch. Two angels, holding torches, are arranged in the mixtilinear triangles between the curve of the arch and the channelled columns which bear the mighty and splendid entablature. The painting portrays an admirable arcade under which sits St. Ambrose, patron saint of Milan, holding a scourge in his right hand and in his left a pastoral staff. Behind him are two standard-bearers holding the unsheathed sword and the cross. Surrounding him on the left are St. Sebastian, St. Louis IX, St. John the Baptist and another Saint, on the right are St. Jerome, St. Augustine, St. Gregory the Great, and another Saint. On the steps to the throne, beneath the feet of St. Ambrose, two angels are playing the lute and the ‘mandola’. Up above, Christ crowns the Virgin. Despite the bitter expressions of certain characters, the altar-piece is truly impressive and beautiful, both in terms of the architecture and the variety and expression of the characters as well as for the natural look of the clothing and brightness of the colours.
This masterpiece of Bernardino Licinio shows influence of Giorgione through his fellow-countryman Palma the Elder. On a tall throne sits the Virgin with the Child, while on the left there are St. Francis, St. Mark, St. Bonaventura, St. Clare, and the profile of F. Antonietto of Venice who commissioned the painting. On the right are St. Anthony, St. Andrew, St. Louis, St. John the Baptist and the half-hidden face of a woman, probably St. Elizabeth of Hungary, copatroness of the Secular Order of Franciscans, founded by St. Francis. Bode wrote that this is the best painting of Bernardino Licinio “not for the nobility of expression, but for the splendour of the colour and sense of motion”.
The painting represents St. Catherine of Alexandria who is spared from torture at the wheel. The frenetic movement of the characters converges towards the kneeling Martyr on a pedestal. The powerful angel swoops down from the sky with a sword in his hand to defend the virgin and, with great force, breaks the wheel into pieces which overwhelm the persecutors.
On the left of the High Altar there is a 13th century Crucifix commissioned in the second half of the 1200s to be hung in the Presbytery of the second church. During the 19th century the Christ was repainted according to the canons of the period and by 1825 it was to be found above the side door of the left transept. Subsequently, probably during emergency restoration and consolidation of the Basilica’s foundations, carried out between 1902 and 1915, the wooden Crucifix was transferred from above the door of the left transept to above the door of the chapel of St. Peter. Today the piece appears to be missing the trilobed ends of the arms of the cross. Missing too are the other painted figures, as is part of Christ’s right leg. During the restoration, a splendid crucifix of Christ was found beneath the 19th century painting. The crucifix was painted in tempera by an artist of the 1200s, probably from an Umbrian School according to some critics. It outlines the figure of a man in the arms of death after having suffered atrociously. A bloodless corpse is hung on the cross: its colour is off-green. Recent research carried out by Clara Santini (1997) attributes this “impressive painted Crucifix […] to the beginning of the work of the so-called «Maestro della Cappella Dotto» of the chapel of the same name in the church of the Eremitani in Padua”.
On the altar, between a rich and elegant cornice, probably sculpted by Jacopo from Faenza, there is a beautiful polyptych signed by Bartolom eo Vivarini (1487). It represents the Virgin Enthroned with the Child on her knees, surrounded by four Saints: on the right of the Madonna, St. Andrew and next to him St. Nicholas. On the left of the Madonna, St. Peter and St. Paul. In the centre there is a painting of the Madonna Enthroned who is leaning towards the child, sat on a white cushion which rests against the Virgin’s leg. The Virgin’s expression is one of sadness, as though She is anticipating the end of Her Son’s life. A dark green drape covers the back of the marble throne. There is a vase on the floor full of green herbs. In the cyma is the Dead Christ between the symbols of the sepulchre and the cross with the inscription INRI which stands out against a clouded sky. Adriana Augusti states: “ The pale light on a vague background, the shades of red from the lake red of the Virgin’s clothes to the orange red of the saints, yet mixed with the greens and the yellow of St. Paul’s mantle, bring out, in this masterpiece, a sense of extraordinary equilibrium which the artist, probably under the influence of Giovanni Bellini, has fully attained”.
It is one of the most beautiful chapels of the Basilica. On the altar, there is the triptych, signed by Bartolomeo Vivarini from Murano (1474), which represents St. Mark, in the act of blessing, sitting on a Renaissance throne capped by four angels, two of which are sitting on a step and playing a lute and a ‘viella’. The throne in white marble is decorated with fine Lombardesque arabesques from the late Renaissance period. Two pillars adorn the throne and, above the capitals which do not have an architrave, there is an arch which acts as a rest for three angels who bear a swag, garnished with fruit and foliage, which hangs to either side in a symmetrical curve. On the left, St. John the Baptist and St. Jerome, and, on the right, St. Nicholas and St. Peter. The entirety of the part carved in golden wood with pinnacles and foliage, bearing the prophets Jeremiah and Jonah, which surround the Madonna, is in Florid Gothic style and acts as the frame through which the sacred scene can be seen, outlined by velvet red oranges which appear darker and lighter depending on how the light falls. The darker shades of red, however, combine perfectly with the gold of the wooden frame. The altar-piece reveals the best of the artist’s deftness and skill especially in painting the saints, depicted with precision and yet in gold and bright, rich colours which recall the splendour of the glasses and enamels produced in Murano, his birth-place.
Above the urn, in the lunette of the arch, is a delightful painting by Paolo Veneziano (active between 1320 circa and 1362), the founder of a school of art which made Venice famous throughout the centuries to come. It portrays St. Francis and St. Elisabeth of Hungary who are presenting the Doge Francesco Dandolo and Doge’s wife to the Virgin (1339). The stiffness and static nature of the figures hints at a fading Byzantine style contrasted against the new Gothic decorative approach.
In the sacristy the observer is at once struck by the splendid polyptych (2.75 metres x 2.50 metres) commissioned to the artist, GiovanniBellini (1430 circa – 1516), by Pietro Pesaro’s three sons, Benedetto, Nicolò and Marco. The artist portrays the apse of a church with a golden barrel vault completed by a golden wood altarpiece which renders the frame the terminal point of the architecture where the holy world and profane world meet and coincide. The colours and expressions are fascinating. From the blue of the Madonna’s mantle to the patches of red, yellow and brown; from the yellows and browns of the clothing, of the wings, of the angels’ hair to the veins of the marble steps. In the central part of the triptych, The Virgin seated on a throne holds in her arms the Christ Child, who raises his hand in a sign of blessing. The perspective is perfect, so much so that the Virgin seems to come away from the painting. The two pilasters support the roof of the open area where the saints stand and, despite the limits imposed by the shape of the triptych, the effect of space is given by the thin strip of landscape on both sides. Madonna’s expression is delightfully tender. The two music playing angels at the foot of the Virgin are perfectly depicted: one of them is playing a flute while the other is strumming a lute. In the golden dome, the artist offers his prayer to the Madonna through the inscription: “Ianua certa poli, duc mentem, dirige vitam, quae peragam commissa tuae sint omnia curae” (O sure gateway of heaven, enlighten my mind, guide my life, and I entrust to you my every deed). The frame around the painting is stupendous and is in perfect harmony with the painting. It was probably designed by Bellini but was carved by Jacopo da Faenza (15th century).
This masterpiece of Venetian art is characterised by further research carried out after the innovation of ‘The Assumption’ (1518). Titian’s genius was that he had moved the Virgin Mary with the child from the traditional central position to the side. Nevertheless the Virgin, seated on a throne resting against a huge column, remains at the summit of the geometric pyramid created by the other characters, and, by virtue of the splendid use of colours, it is the central focus point of the painting. Against a background of velvet clouds, intersected by two almighty columns, which add space and dimension to the arrangement of the shapes, Titian places the Virgin and child at the centre of the dynamics of the painting by employing a deviously intelligent use of perspective and colour. In front of the Virgin, just below her, St. Peter, wearing a delightful blue vestment with a glorious yellow mantle draped over his knees, interrupts his reading and presents to her Jacopo Pesaro, the Bishop and Commander of twenty Papal galleys in the triumphant battle against the Turks at Santa Maura (1503). Next to him, a standard-bearer displays the flag carrying the coat of arms of Pope Alexander VI. The laurel on the flag and the Turk with the white turban are symbols of victory. On the right, the Child, who is playing with the border of the white veil, is smiling at St. Francis who presents the kneeling members of the Pesaro family to the Virgin Mary while St. Anthony looks on. In the foreground, there is Francesco, with an endearing scarlet vestment, raised to the dignity of knighthood. On the same level, Antonio, Fantino and Giovanni can be seen. Just beneath them is the nephew of Francesco, Leonardo, son of Antonio, who is looking at the observer in an innocent and carefree manner with eyes that follow the observer wherever he stands.
Up above, two angels put right a skew-whiff cross while sitting on a dark fluffy cloud which throws its shadow on to the two columns and characters below. The precision of detail, the splendour of colour, the powerful expressions of the characters make this painting one of the most important masterpieces of all time.
The front of the choir is enshrouded by an Istrian stone ‘septo’, added in 1475 when Giacomo Morosini was Procurator of the church. In the stone panels are the busts in relief, emerging from foliage, of the Patriarchs and Prophets of the Old Testament. From the left and up above the observer can view: Abraham, David, St. John the Baptist, Enoch, Jonah, Jacob, Elisha, Daniel, Jeremiah, Zachariah, Moses, Elijah, Isaiah. The last one on the right, containing the inscription: «Soli Deo honor et gloria», portrays Morosini. On the side facing the bell tower: Samuel and Habakkuk; on the opposite side: Isaac and Ezekiel. Beneath the ambos are the four Doctors of the Church: St. Gregory the Great and St. Jerome on the left, while on the right, St. Ambrose and St. Augustine. Above the crowning, with an arch in the middle and two ambos on either side, there are the statues of eight apostles and St. Anthony and St. Francis attributed to Vittore Gambello known as Camelio (1460 circa – 1537). The Virgin and St. John, by the same sculptor, are positioned on top of the grand central arch and flank the stark Crucifix attributed to a Venetian carver. Underneath the two ambos, there are bas-reliefs portraying the four Doctors of the Church, which, together with the busts of St. Bernardino and St. Ludovico of Anjou (sculpted on the sides of the two gracious pillars which support the arch) are the work of Pietro Lom bardo. The rest is the work of his workshop.