Gentile Bellini and Giovanni Bellini, Saint Mark Preaching in Alexandria


Bellini imagines Saint Mark preaching in a collage of different times and places: ancient Alexandria, 16th-century Venice, and the Ottoman Empire.

Gentile Bellini (completed by Giovanni Bellini), Saint Mark Preaching in Alexandria, 1504–07, oil on canvas, 347 x 770 cm (Brera Pinacoteca, Milan). Speakers: Dr. Beth Harris and Dr. Steven Zucker


Additional resources

This painting at the Brera Pinacoteca

Caroline Campbell, et al., Bellini and the East (London: National Gallery Company, 2005).

David Carrier, “A Renaissance Fantasy Image of the Islamic World: Gentile and Giovanni Bellini’s ‘Saint Mark Preaching in Alexandria,'” Source: Notes in the History of Art, volume 28, number 1 (2008), pp. 16–19.


Smarthistory images for teaching and learning:

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[0:00] [music]

Dr. Steven Zucker: [0:06] We’re in the Brera, in the city of Milan, looking at an enormous canvas. It’s just overwhelming in its scale and its specificity. This is by the great Venetian painter Gentile Bellini. The painting is a kind of collage of different times and different places.

Dr. Beth Harris: [0:24] The thing that draws me to this painting is the fabulous architecture. It looks like a take on so many different famous buildings. It might remind us of Hagia Sophia, the church in Constantinople. It also reminds us of the great church of Saint Mark in Venice.

Dr. Zucker: [0:42] It’s meant to actually represent the Temple of Serapis in the city of Alexandria in Egypt. According to legend, Saint Mark preached the message of Christ on the site of the Temple of Serapis, an ancient fertility god. That temple was eventually transformed into a Christian church.

Dr. Harris: [1:00] Saint Mark is one of the most important figures in Christendom. He’s one of the four authors of the gospels.

Dr. Zucker: [1:08] In fact, Saint Mark is the patron saint of the city of Venice.

Dr. Harris: [1:13] Saint Mark is ultimately martyred, killed in Alexandria. His body is buried, and centuries later, Venetian merchants steal Saint Mark’s body from Alexandria and bring it back to Venice. A church is built, a place to house his relics. This ultimately becomes the Basilica of Saint Mark’s.

[1:35] Saint Mark himself is the key to, in some ways, the identity and the success of the Republic of Venice. Saint Mark, wearing this beautiful blue robe, and he’s standing on a podium speaking, but when Mark was in Alexandria, he was preaching to pagans. Here we see him in the Muslim world of the eastern part of the Mediterranean.

Dr. Zucker: [2:00] Mark didn’t live when there was such a thing as Islam, so this painting is out of time. It is a collage of different periods and of different architectural styles.

Dr. Harris: [2:10] Bellini is locating us firmly in Alexandria. For example, the column that we see in the background was a known feature of Alexandria. Another landmark that we see is the obelisk. This was brought to Alexandria by the Roman Emperor Augustus.

Dr. Zucker: [2:27] Then we see the minarets, presumably of mosques, and other features of both Byzantine and Islamic architecture. The architecture’s not the only place that we see cultural mixing. We also see that in the very people at the foreground of the painting.

Dr. Harris: [2:43] On the left side, we see contemporary Venetians, members of the confraternity, the Scuola di San Marco, the scuola devoted to Saint Mark, one of the most powerful, if not the most powerful confraternity in Venice.

Dr. Zucker: [2:56] Their presence is not unexpected, because that was the confraternity that commissioned this painting, and this painting originally resided in their building.

Dr. Harris: [3:05] Then we have lots of other figures wearing clothing that might come from Egypt, from Persia, from the Ottoman Empire, North Africa, places where the Venetians were actively trading.

[3:19] In addition to Saint Mark as the hinge of this painting, the other hinge is the artist, who’s self-portrait in red wearing this gold medal, is so prominent. That’s because the Sultan of the Ottoman Empire requested of the Venetian government, one of their great artists, and the Venetian government sent Gentile Bellini.

[3:40] Bellini spent two years there. He probably never made it to Alexandria, so this is a fantasy made up by Bellini from things he knew.

Dr. Zucker: [3:49] Let’s spend a moment with this fantastical basilica in the middle of this painting. Its buttresses almost seem to embrace all of the figures below. I think the building functions as a metaphor for the message of the painting as a whole, that is, the potential for Christian redemption.

Dr. Harris: [4:06] The figures below are both Christian and Muslim, and the site itself was one that transformed from a pagan temple to a Christian church, and then to a mosque.

Dr. Zucker: [4:20] This idea of transformation is embedded in the architecture that’s being represented here. It provides this pathway, this ideal that Egypt could once again become Christian. It’s important to remember that all of this is for a Christian audience in the city of Venice.

Dr. Harris: [4:39] Although there was this powerful religious divide, the Mediterranean world was one that was very interconnected.

Dr. Zucker: [4:47] That interconnectedness was powered by trade, by the importation and sale of luxury goods. Those luxury goods are on display in this painting. We see fine brocades, beautiful silks, brightly colored textiles. The Muslim world was seen as a place that was filled with luxury items, and technologies and knowledge that the West lusted after.

Dr. Harris: [5:10] It’s so clear when we look at the history of painting in Venice that there is this enormous interest in depicting figures from Mamluk Egypt, from the Ottoman Empire, and other places where Venetians were trading.

[5:24] It’s a reminder that artists that are so well known, like Michelangelo and Leonardo, will be asked to work for the Ottoman Sultan in Constantinople. When we think about the Renaissance as a European phenomenon and not as a Mediterranean-wide phenomenon — that even goes as far east as Persia — we’re really limiting our understanding.

Dr. Zucker: [5:46] In fact, this entire canvas seems as if it’s almost a stage that is enacting this promise of the Christianization of the Holy Lands.

[5:56] [music]

Cite this page as: Dr. Beth Harris and Dr. Steven Zucker, "Gentile Bellini and Giovanni Bellini, Saint Mark Preaching in Alexandria," in Smarthistory, August 22, 2023, accessed February 25, 2024, https://smarthistory.org/gentile-bellini-and-giovanni-bellini-saint-mark-preaching-in-alexandria/.