A PAINTING BY GIOVANNI BELLINI, IN THE NATIONAL GALLERY
`Credo in Dominum’ were the words this monk wrote in the dust of the high-road, as he lay a-dying there of Cavina’s dagger; and they, according to the Dominican record, were presently washed away by his own blood–`rapida profusio sui sanguinis delevit professionem suoe fidei.’ Yet they had not been written in vain. On Cavina himself their impression was less delible, for did he not submit himself to the Church, and was he not, after absolution, received into that monastery which his own victim had founded? Here, before this picture by Bellini, one looks instinctively for the three words in the dust. They are not yet written there; for scarcely, indeed, has the dagger been planted in the Saint’s breast. But here, to the right, on this little scroll of parchment that hangs from a fence of osiers, there are some words written, and one stoops to decipher them… JOANNES BELLINUS FECIT.
Now, had the Saint and his brother Dominican not been waylaid on their journey, they would have passed by this very fence, and would have stooped, as we do, to decipher the scroll, and would have very much wondered who was Bellinus, and what it was that he had done. The woodmen and the shepherd in the olive-grove by the roadside, the cowherds by the well, yonder–they have seen the scroll, I dare say, but they are not scholars enough to have read its letters. Cavina and his comrade in arms, lying in wait here, probably did not observe it, so intent were they for that pious and terrible Inquisitor who was to pass by. How their hearts must have leapt when they saw him, at length, with his companion, coming across that little arched bridge from the town–a conspicuous, unmistakable figure, clad in the pied frock of his brotherhood and wearing the familiar halo above his closely-shorn pate.
Cavina stands now over the fallen Saint, planting the short dagger in his heart. The other Dominican is being chased by Cavina’s comrade, his face wreathed in a bland smile, his hands stretched childishly before him. Evidently he is quite unconscious how grave his situation is. He seems to think that this pursuit is merely a game, and that if he touch the wood of the olive-trees first, he will have won, and that then it will be his turn to run after this man in the helmet. Or does he know perhaps that this is but a painting, and that his pursuer will never be able to strike him, though the chase be kept up for many centuries? In any case, his smile is not at all seemly or dramatic. And even more extraordinary is the behaviour of the woodmen and the shepherd and the cowherds. Murder is being done within a yard or two of them, and they pay absolutely no attention. How Tacitus would have delighted in this example of the `inertia rusticorum’! It is a great mistake to imagine that dwellers in quiet districts are more easily excited by any event than are dwellers in packed cities. On the contrary, the very absence of `sensations’ produces an atrophy of the senses. It is the constant supply of `sensations’ which creates a real demand for them in cities. Suppose that in our day some specially unpopular clergyman were martyred `at the corner of Fenchurch Street,’ how the `same old crush’ would be intensified! But here, in this quiet glade ‘twixt Milan and Como, on this quiet, sun-steeped afternoon in early Spring, with a horrible outrage being committed under their very eyes, these callous clowns pursue their absurd avocations, without so much as resting for one moment to see what is going on.
Cavina plants the dagger methodically, and the Inquisitor himself is evidently filled with that intense self-consciousness which sustains all martyrs in their supreme hour and makes them, it may be, insensible to actual pain. One feels that this martyr will write his motto in the dust with a firm hand. His whole comportment is quite exemplary. What irony that he should be unobserved! Even we, posterity, think far less of St. Peter than of Bellini when we see this picture; St. Peter is no more to us than the blue harmony of those little hills beyond, or than that little sparrow perched on a twig in the foreground. After all, there have been so many martyrs– and so many martyrs named Peter–but so few great painters. The little screed on the fence is no mere vain anachronism. It is a sly, rather malicious symbol. PERIIT PETRUS: BILLINUS FECIT, as who should say.