AUTHOR: Lorenzo Lotto
CENTURY: 16th century
TECHNIQUE: Oil on canvas
LOCATION: Altar of Saint Lucy, also known as Saint Nicholas (second left altar); on map number 11
The painting is dominated by the cloud on which the three saints are positioned. Saint Nicholas, dressed in precious episcopal vestments, is depicted in a devotional attitude, with a gaze that seems almost astonished as he looks upwards. He has a thick beard, and a halo surrounds his head, emitting a radiant light. The angels around him carry his attributes: the three golden balls with which the saint saved three young people from prostitution, the miter, and the liturgical umbrella. The patrons, the guardian Giovanni Battista Donati and his assistant Giorgio de’ Mundis (as indicated by the inscription on the altar), chose Nicholas as the patron saint of the Merchant Guild to which they belonged. At the feet of the saint, there are Saint John the Baptist, partially covered by his hermit’s cloak, and Saint Lucy, richly dressed, with her face in profile and in a strong foreshortening. The lower register of the painting is occupied by a coastal landscape, characterized by hills and flat areas and emphasized by tall leafy trees. Only one tree appears with dry branches (the sacred dry tree associated with Diana, which Saint Nicholas had ordered to be cut down and destroyed), symbolically standing against the sky covered with dark and stormy clouds. In the center, in the distance, a small town with a harbor can be seen. Along the foreground roads, merchants transport their goods on pack animals. In the lower right corner, the episode of Saint George slaying the dragon and saving the princess unfolds.
The originality of the work lies in its composition and, above all, in its chromatic quality. Fresh and bright colors dominate, which in some areas become cool and sharp, almost acidic, very different from the warm colors of Titian, who was prominent in the contemporary art scene. For this reason, Lotto’s altarpiece was received with coldness and indifference, although it contained remarkable innovative elements, such as the nighttime landscape seen from above. Lotto painted this canvas when he returned to Venice after years of absence, spent in Treviso, Recanati, Rome, and Bergamo, places where he came into contact with different painting cultures than the Venetian one. It was precisely the formal elements derived from external influences that made his work particularly original, but they were not appreciated in the lagoon city, where a more traditional type of painting was preferred.