Despite the Renaissance interest in secular themes of classical inspiration, images of saints and scenes from the life of Christ continued to dominate Venetian painting, as they had for centuries. Venetian artists approached these traditional subjects in novel ways. Most devotional pictures of saints had previously been vertical in format to focus the viewer's attention on the holy figures that largely filled the frame. Bellini adopted instead a horizontal format, as in his Virgin with the Blessing Child, permitting a panoramic view of the landscape behind the Madonna and Child. Bellini, whose artistic career had begun in the 1460s, was the point of departure for the younger generation of Venetian artists. The high demand for his altarpieces and small half-length Madonnas required him to maintain a large workshop of assistants, which Giorgio Vasari described in his Lives of the Artists (1568) as the training ground for Giorgione, Sebastiano del Piombo, and Titian.
Bellini's followers continued his innovations and introduced their own. The keen interest in nature seen in his works is carried further in Giorgione's Adoration of the Shepherds. By placing the figures to one side, Giorgione made room for an unprecedented, expansive view of nature, whose beauty and serenity harmonize with the emotional tenor of the figures surrounding the infant Christ. Titian also experimented with asymmetrical compositions, lending them a new dynamism, as in his Virgin and Child with Saints Catherine and Dominic. Unlike Bellini's hieratic, blessing child, Titian's holy infant twists away from his mother to gaze at Catherine, while Dominic and the unidentified donor of the painting ardently press forward in their spiritual longing for nearness to Christ. Such pictures of saints from different eras (Catherine was martyred in the fourth century and Dominic died in 1221) joined in contemplation of the Virgin and Child are known as sacre conversazioni (holy conversations) and had long been a staple of Italian painting. In Venice, Titian's reinterpretation of the theme, with figures in fervent poses interacting with one another, was entirely new.