- Bernardo Zenale, Italian, c. 1464-1526
- Lombard School
About the Artist
Bernardo Zenale was born in 1464 and worked as a painter and architect during the Italian Renaissance. He spent much of his painting career in Milan, working on altarpieces for churches. By the time he was 17 years old, Zenale had reached the status of a master painter. His later work seems to have been influenced by the work of Leonardo da Vinci. In this painting, the way in which Zenale uses light to mold his figures and emphasize drapery is reminiscent of Leonardo’s style. Zenale was skilled in the use of perspective in painting, which allowed him to create the illusion of three-dimensions while painting on a two-dimensional surface. He wrote a treatise on the subject late in life, though no known copies remain. By 1513, Zenale appears to have begun devoting his career to architecture, eventually becoming one of two general architects for the Milan cathedral.
What Inspired It
The image of the Virgin Mary with the Christ Child and saints was a common image in Renaissance art and was typically found in altarpieces. The image that we see here was commissioned for a church in Milan, the Church of San Francesco Grande. When an artist is commissioned to create an artwork, there are often guidelines that they have to follow. While Zenale painted according to his own artistic techniques, he would have been told what subject to paint and how large to make it. The Italian Renaissance was one of the most productive periods in the history of art. During the Renaissance, art and science were closely connected. The art of painting benefited greatly from the advancement of two particular fields of study: anatomy and mathematical perspective. Anatomy, which is the study of the human body, allowed artists to more accurately portray realistic figures. Mathematical perspective helped artists represent three-dimensional figures and objects on a two-dimensional surface. Zenale uses a number of techniques in his paintings to show perspective.
The appearance of an object in nature is altered by the air that is between the viewer and the object. It often appears that there is a haze covering objects that are far away. This is known as atmospheric perspective. Zenale makes the mountain in the distance appear lighter in color and slightly fuzzy so that we can tell that it’s far away from where the figures are.
The miniscule size of the figures in the background tells the viewer that they are far away from the much larger figures in the foreground. Diminishing size is another technique that Zenale uses to create perspective.
Mary’s foot appears as though it is projecting into space. Zenale creates this effect by shortening the lines he uses to paint the foot—a technique called foreshortening.
Zenale uses light and shadow to add to the illusion of three dimensions. Notice how changes in shape, like the folds in the cloth, are created by gradual changes from light to dark, rather than sharp lines. It is somewhat difficult to tell where the light is coming from; it almost seems to come from multiple sources.
The man standing on the left side of the picture is Saint Ambrose, who was the bishop of Milan. St. Ambrose is the patron saint of beekeepers, geese, and orators. He was known to be a great speaker. A popular story tells of St. Ambrose as a baby, when a swarm of bees landed on his mouth, foreshadowing his gift as an orator.
Each of the figures in the painting has visual attributes that help the viewer identify who they are. In Zenale’s painting, St. Ambrose is shown carrying a staff, indicating the bishop’s role as a shepherd of Christ’s flock. He also holds a riding whip, which represents his assertiveness. St. Ambrose kneels upon the head of a warrior, which may reference his fight against the Arians, a group of people who denied the divinity of Jesus Christ. Or it could be a reference to a battle that took place in 1338, when St. Ambrose appeared before the troops, miraculously protecting the Milanese forces.
On the right side of the painting sits Saint Jerome, the patron saint of librarians and students. As is common, he is shown with grey hair and beard. He is depicted here as a man of learning, with a pen in his hand and a piece of paper on his knee, a reference to his translation of the Bible into Latin. The lion who sits at Jerome’s feet refers to a story in which a lion came to a monastery looking for help because he had a thorn in his paw. All of the people in the monastery fled, except for Jerome, who could see that the lion was hurt. Jerome removed the thorn from the lion’s paw and from that day forward, the lion remained always in Jerome’s company. The image of a lion is a visual attribute commonly associated with St. Jerome.
Mary sits on a rock formation that resembles a throne. The color blue is a common attribute of Mary’s—here she is shown draped in blue cloth. Her gaze is soft and it is difficult to tell what her eyes are focused on.
A strawberry plant grows out of the rocks upon which Mary sits. The strawberry is the symbol of perfect righteousness and is often seen in reference to the Virgin Mary.
The skull is meant to remind the viewer of the transitory nature of life on earth. When the cross is represented with the skull, as it is here, it suggests meditation on eternal life after death.
Individual brushstrokes create texture in St. Jerome’s beard. The white inside of his robe appears to be furry.
See if you can find the hidden face at the top of the arch to the left.
Quick Classroom Ideas
- All of the figures in the painting are gazing in different directions. Have students identify where each character is looking and how the figures relate to one another. Have them choose a figure, imagine what he or she is thinking and write a short monologue from their point-of-view.
- Explore the various organizational techniques used by Zenale. For example, the three figures of St. Ambrose, The Virgin Mary, and St. Jerome form a triangle. Also, the background is symmetrical with two arched windows on either side of The Virgin Mary. These techniques achieve a sense of balance throughout the painting. Have students discuss how the arrangement of space makes the painting feel. Have them experiment with drawing various ways the painting’s space could be organized and how they would affect the viewer differently.
- For more advanced art students, highlight areas of foreshortening and perspective in the painting and have them try exercises of these techniques on their own. Experiment with foreshortening inorganic and organic objects; for example foreshorten a desk and foreshorten a body part. Is one harder to do than the other? See if students can identify effective techniques to produce realistic perspective and foreshortening.