- Great Masters in Painting and SculptureEdited by G. C. Williamson
- Andrea MantegnaBy Maud Cruttwell
- Andrea Mantegna: Making Art HistoryOur PickBy Stephen J. Campbell
- The Genius of Andrea Mantegna (Metropolitan Museum of Art)Our PickBy Keith Christiansen
Important Art by Andrea Mantegna
This altarpiece depicts six separate scenes, central amongst them the sacra conversazione, in which saints surround the Madonna and Child. The bottom three panels present, from left to right, the agony in the garden, the crucifixion, and the resurrection. The frame of the altarpiece mimics the facade of an ancient Greek temple, painted gold, with the illustrations framed by Corinthian-style pillars. The scene is thus positioned, as it were, within the space of the temple, with the illusion of the pillars receding behind the frame. The backgrounds of the panels are also decorated to suggest the interior of the temple. The dominant colors used are red and gold, with hints of green, forming a tonally harmonious scene orientated around the central figures of holy mother and child, who meet the viewer's gaze as the peripheral figures stare in various opposing directions.
The work offers a kind of stylistic synthesis typical of Mantegna's approach, utilizing a classical style of portraiture to portray Christian themes and characters, who carry themselves in the manner of Greco-Roman icons. This is clearest in the case of Saint John the Baptist (top right) who stands in a classical contrapposto pose like Polykleitos's Doryphoros, the spear-bearer. Mantegna repurposes these and other classical formal elements to give Christian narrative a new life and vigor, as in the three lower scenes, which present in linear order the events of the death and resurrection of Christ. A sense of narrative continuity is generated, for example, by the awakening in the bottom-right panel of the sleeping figures from the 'agony' scene. Such thematic motifs allowed (potentially illiterate viewers) to connect emotionally to the events of Christ's life via engagement with the altarpiece.
The spatial organization of the piece is also metaphorically significant, with events in the mortal world positioned below the palace of the deities in the top three panels. This technique is also common in classical art, with deities often placed above human actors in frescoes to signify the distinction between the mortal and immortal worlds. A similar formal approach - using panel divisions to separate out different orders of existence - had also become widespread during the fourteenth century, with Madonna and child often featured in the central panel and saints radiating outwards. Mantegna modernizes this technique, however, by unifying the imaginative space depicted across rows of panels, once again demonstrating his capacity to renew time-honored formal techniques and thematic motifs. He also contrasts Pagan antiquity with the Christian present by offsetting the vibrant colors of the Christian outfits against the muted colors of the temple behind. This contrast serves to acknowledge the influence of the classical framework on Renaissance culture and art while suggesting their repurposing for modern times.
One of Mantegna's most famous works, the ceiling panel of the Camera degli Sposi, or "bridal chamber" in the Palazzo Ducale in Mantua was commissioned by Ludovico III Gonzaga, who employed Mantegna for a number of years. The work creates the illusion of a circular window opening onto the sky above. The bridal chamber below is decorated to suggest a ceremonial pavilion, the walls painted with elaborate architectonic decorations. The oculus is painted to look like marble, and is surrounded by a garland. The illustrations give the impression from below of figures gazing down into the oculus, while winged cherubs gather in and around it, the two halves of the opening demarcated by a peacock and potted plant. The figures seem to be conversing with each other while looking down from the cloud-flecked sky. The type of optical illusion utilized in the ceiling panel is called di sotto in su, meaning "foreshortening", in this case generating the impression of bodies and forms glimpsed from directly below. The illusion of three-dimensional space is complemented by the hyper-realistic style of the decorations around the oculus, which suggest an internal architectural space different to the actual architectural space of the chamber.
Like Mantegna's earlier altarpiece, the work infuses elements of classical style with Renaissance Christian themes. The imaginary pavilion is decorated in high Greco-Roman style, with classical portraits on the ceiling, while the use of architectonic wall-decoration in and of itself harks back to the decoration of tombs during the classical era as 'rooms for the dead'. The inclusion of the cherub, meanwhile, pays homage to the Eros of the classical pantheon while also being an example of the putti (naked cherubs or children) common in Renaissance religious art (as was the peacock).
In spite of these grand allusions, the piece has a feel of playful lightheartedness, as the figures stare down into the oculus - as if breaking the fourth wall of the performance space - or interact with one another in curiosity. Looking closely, we can see that the potted plant is supported by a pole crossing the oculus, and the woman on the top left has her hand on the pole as if she is about to play a prank by dropping the plant into the courtyard below. Cherubs are also known for their playfulness and trickery, and the presence of so many gathered around probably means that some sort of antics are afoot.
In practical terms, the ceiling oculus of the Palazzo Ducale was probably intended to exalt the Gonzaga family by suggesting that their lives were of interest to the heavenly throng gathered above. In retrospect, it has turned out to be one of Mantegna's most enduringly influential works. The first noted example of the use of di sotto in su perspective painting, it marks a significant leap forward in the evolution of spatial illusionism. The technique was reiterated in numerous Baroque and Renaissance structures, and became a defining characteristic of the fresco art of Antonio da Correggio, Giovanni Battista Gaulli, Andrea Pozzo, and others.
This is one of three famous representations of the martyrdom of Saint Sebastian created by Mantegna. Sebastian is tied to the ruins of a Corinthian column, pierced with numerous arrows. Behind him are a profusion of Roman ruins, while to the bottom right two grim assassins stand with a quiver of arrows (interestingly, the man holding the arrows is rumored to represent Mantegna himself, a curious sort of self-homage). The color scheme of the painting primarily consists of light browns and skin tones, with a light blue background.
Iconographic images and worship of the martyr Saint Sebastian - reputedly killed during the anti-Christian purges of the Roman emperor Diocletian but brought back to life by Saint Irene - were common during the fifteenth century. However, Mantegna diverged from traditional representations of the saint through numerous references to antique landscapes and architecture (again, an ironic homage given the identity of Sebastian's killers). He further references the ancient heritage of Renaissance painting and sculpture with his use of the classical contrapposto pose, and idealized musculature and physique, to represent Saint Sebastian's body, alike that of Greek statuary. The scene of a saint pierced with arrows also became a metaphor for the Black Death during the medieval era, for which reason Saint Sebastian became a patron saint of plague victims. The image of a ravaged body resonated with the Italian citizens of the fourteenth century, when the Black Death peaked in Europe, and Saint Sebastian remained an icon for centuries to come.
From a modern perspective, what is perhaps most notable about Mantegna's representation of Saint Sebastian is its erotic quality. He portrays him in minimal clothing, with a sharply articulated physique. The penetration of his skin with arrows also has clear sexual overtones, while his facial expression seems to occupy the cusp of pain and pleasure, adumbrating Sebastian's later identification as both a gay icon and a figure of masochism. Many of the numerous modern interpretations of his death have been highly sexualized, such as Derek Jarman's in Sebastiane, a pioneering film in the representation of male homosexuality. Mantegna's portrayal stands subtly in the background of this tradition.