Middle Ground: Bellini and Breuer, Odes to Light

At Frick Madison, highlights from the collection are in conversation across media, geography, and time—often in unexpected ways. Middle Ground investigates surprising dialogues between pairs of works of art on view, speaking to the connections waiting to be discovered at our temporary home.

Man in a pink sweater sitting on a gallery bench between a trapezoidal window and Bellini's "St. Francis in the Desert"
Giovanni Bellini’s St. Francis in the Desert (ca. 1476–78) in its installation on the third floor of Frick Madison, juxtaposed with one of Marcel Breuer’s iconic trapezoidal windows. Photo: Joseph Coscia Jr., 2021

Foreground: “The Drama of Illumination”

Light, art’s most fugitive subject, is a theme that threads throughout the Frick’s renowned permanent collection—from luminous gold-ground panels and glinting bronze statuettes to the gauzy glow of Turner’s seascapes and the muted rays filtering through Vermeer’s windows. Although the collection’s temporary home at 945 Madison Avenue is more obviously characterized by weight and shadow, Marcel Breuer’s concrete and stone building strategically plays with illumination as well. Most notably, its façade is punctuated by the architect’s instrument for sculpting light itself: an assertive trapezoidal window.

Nowhere does light in its infinite forms appear so arrestingly at Frick Madison as in the juxtaposition between Giovanni Bellini’s St. Francis in the Desert (ca. 1476–78) and one of Breuer’s seven windows, in a third-floor gallery overlooking East 75th Street. Created nearly five hundred years apart, these two works now shed light on each other, both physically and metaphorically, revealing an enduring artistic interest in the drama of illumination.

Background: “Bathed in the Light”

“Praised be You, my Lord, with all Your creatures; especially Brother Sun, who is the day, and through whom You give us light.”

So wrote Saint Francis of Assisi in his Canticle of the Sun. Founder of the Franciscan Order and a patron saint of Italy, Saint Francis was born into a wealthy family but in his twenties became disillusioned with earthly goods and sought spiritual rebirth in Christ, often through secluded contemplation in the wilderness. Bellini’s stunning painting depicts the moment in 1224 when, having isolated himself on Mount La Verna (outside of Arezzo in Tuscany), Francis receives the stigmata, the same five wounds Christ suffered during the Crucifixion.

Bellini depicts Saint Francis’s moment of enlightenment literally, blanketing the scene with an otherworldly glow and activating every element the light touches with a heaven-sent radiance. The light has no articulated source, though shadows suggest it comes from “Brother Sun” at top left, breaking through the clouds and filtering through a tree’s foliage in a possible reference to the biblical Burning Bush. The viewer somehow senses that the alien-green, sun-soaked rocks would be warm to the touch. The saint’s eyes roll up in his head as he faces the light with open arms. Every creature nearby—from a donkey to a heron, a kingfisher, and a rabbit—appears frozen in the moment. They, too, are bathed in the light and view its effects, but it seems that Francis alone perceives the divine splendor.

Oil painting of St. Francis in tan robes on a hillside with green rocks, hands open as he looks in awe toward the sky at top left
Giovanni Bellini (Italian, ca. 1424 or 1435–1516), St. Francis in the Desert, ca. 1476–78. Oil on panel, 49 1/16 x 55 7/8 in. (124.6 x 142 cm). The Frick Collection, New York

An unexpected layer of connection between the painting and a Brutalist window from a distant century lies in one key material: glass. In Bellini’s native Venice, artisans specialized in countless types of fine glassware, whose stunning visual properties of light and color also came to characterize the city’s distinct painting style. (A number of Bellini’s contemporaries, conservators have discovered, even added ground glass to their pigments to heighten the effects of their techniques.) Bellini’s work epitomizes the vivid Venetian aesthetic, with diaphanous colors and the transparent brilliance of layered oil paints enabling such visceral scenes as St. Francis in the Desert to shimmer with the same ethereal energy they depict.

Marcel Breuer was invested in activating architectural spaces to create similarly palpable effects. His ethos as expressed at 945 Madison Avenue defied the norm in mid-century New York City, whose functional steel-and-glass skyscrapers often boasted façades of uniform windows jutting straight up into the heavens. By contrast, the striking windows on Breuer’s sole New York commission help signal the structure as a space reserved for spiritual and sensory retreat—not unlike Saint Francis’s mountaintop refuge, or the private devotional setting for which the panel was possibly commissioned.

Breuer’s windows are placed seemingly randomly on the building’s façades, an asymmetry further magnified by their off-kilter shape. When combined with the building’s gravity-defying silhouette, suspended entry bridge, and stark, variegated surfaces, Breuer’s windows encapsulate the calculated strangeness of 945 Madison Avenue, which defiantly declares its presence in the neighborhood as a place set aside for the mind and the eye.

Side-by-side detail of one of Marcel Breuer's iconic trapezoidal windows (left) and the head of St. Francis by Giovanni Bellini (right)

Middle Ground: “A Transcendent Space”

The choice to display Bellini’s St. Francis in the Desert adjacent to one of Breuer’s few windows affords visitors a well-lit, intimate encounter with one of the collection’s most famed works. But the use of light, the materiality of glass and oil paint, and the theme of transformative space bind these works together in more profound ways. In the chapel-like gallery, the window fills in for the indeterminate source of light within the frame and extends the scene into the room. Standing opposite two portals, one of glass and the other created in paint, the viewer physically mirrors the isolated saint. Both find themselves at a remove from the built environments of urban Arezzo and the Upper East Side, thrust both body and mind into a transcendent space.

In essence, the Frick’s sojourn at 945 Madison Avenue is a grand experiment in unexpected pairings—Old Masters and modernism, and familiar works displayed in fresh configurations. The dialogue between St. Francis in the Desert and Breuer’s bold window exemplifies this vision. Thanks to Bellini, we bear witness to Francis as he is fundamentally changed by what he encounters in the mountains. Our hope is to suggest that, especially when viewed in a new light, great works of art can do the same.

Side-by-side of a detail of Arezzo from Bellini's "St. Francis in the Desert" (left) and the exterior of Frick Madison with all seven of Breuer's windows visible (right)
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