Giovanni Bellini's Baptism of Christ in its visual and devotional context: transforming sacred space in Santa Corona in Vicenza


  • This article derives from a section of my doctoral thesis submitted to the University of Warwick in 2009, funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council. I would like to thank my supervisor, Donal Cooper, for his continued encouragement and advice. Further research was conducted while I was the Rubinstein Post-doctoral Fellow of the Society for Renaissance Studies, and was also supported by the University of Warwick Arts Faculty Postdoctoral Project Funding. An earlier version of this paper was presented at a Warburg Institute seminar in October 2010 and I am grateful to audience members, especially Paul Hills, for their insightful comments. I also wish to thank Joanna Cannon, Glyn Davies, Cristina Guarnieri and Giovanna Valenzano for their support and suggestions.


The Dominican church of Santa Corona in Vicenza owed its status and nomenclature to its prestigious relic from the crown of thorns. In the early fifteenth century, the reliquary and its procession were enhanced; the community appeared to increase in number and was taken over by a reform movement. From the late 1470s, an ambitious spatial transformation involved removing the prominent choir precinct from the upper nave; constructing an extended high altar chapel to house new choir stalls; and the creation of a crypt in which the precious relic would be displayed. In 1500, textile merchant Battista Graziani was granted a side chapel location in the newly liberated space of the upper nave. Giovanni Bellini's Baptism of Christ altarpiece, with its unique use of light and composition, focused attention on the figure of Christ and, as suggested by an interpretation of a Dominican text, made reference to the crowning of thorns. Graziani's altar was also subtly related to the high altar, possibly intended to house an image of the crowning of thorns above the projected new site for the relic below.