Giovanni Bellini painted this small panel in Venice early in his career, around 1460. The panel was probably—not certainly—designed for the door of a tabernacle: a small cupboard in which the elements of the Mass, once consecrated, could be stored on or near an altar. The four empty areas around Jesus’s lower legs were once the heads—in reds, blues, and gold—of cherubs among clouds. At some time and for some reason, both unknown, these were scraped off.
Even without the angels, the scene is strange enough.
The painting’s motifs were familiar in the fifteenth century when stylized images of the Passion and its instruments (the crown of thorns, nails, lance, etc.) were used to prompt sorrow, pity, remorse, and a deepening dedication to Christ and to a new life. The wounds of Christ were a special focus of devotion, and in particular the spear-wound in his side, from which sprang blood and water (John 19:35). This was the wound to Christ’s heart from which flowed his cleansing blood, the mother’s milk of our new birth, the fountain of life, and (in the wine-and-water of the Eucharist) the drink of immortality.
That spring of Christ’s blood, perhaps almost repellent to us now, was topical then. It raised an acute question. The blood of Jesus shed at his Passion had thereby been detached from his body before the event of his resurrection. Was such blood divine (and so a fitting focus for worship) or merely human (and so only for a lesser veneration)? This affected the devotional status of blood-relics. The Dominicans answered, divine; the Franciscans disagreed. Bellini’s painting is surely based on the Dominicans’ view.
There is no hiatus between the blood flowing from Christ’s side into the angel’s chalice and the blood offered at the Eucharist. ‘This is my blood’, said Jesus over the wine at the Last Supper (Matthew 26:28). It is as though he says it again in Bellini’s painting—directly to us.