Progression of Art
San Zeno Altarpiece
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.
Tempera on panel - Basilica di San Zeno, Verona, Italy
Di sotto in su
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.
Fresco painting on panel - Palazzo Ducale, Mantua, Italy
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.
Tempera on canvas - Musée du Louvre, Paris
The Triumphs of Caesar frescoes
This series of nine frescoes depicts the march of Caesar back to Rome after a military victory, a segmented, panoramic representation of the procession with Caesar's chariot depicted at the rear. The sequence is full of unabashed, almost amoral images of Roman triumph: victorious soldiers, plundered riches, burnished armor, elephants and standards, set against a backdrop of sacked cities. However, the fresco seems to offer a synthetic portrayal of Roman conquest in general rather than representing a particular war or campaign. It begins with The Picture Bearers, followed by The Standard Bearers and Siege, the Bearers of Trophies and Bullion, The Vase Bearers, The Elephants, The Corselet Bearers, The Captives, The Musicians, and finally Caesar on his Chariot. While presenting a cohesive whole, each of the frescoes is thematically autonomous within the lens of victory.
Once again, this seminal work of Mantegna's offers an audacious combination of classical and Renaissance Christian themes and motifs. And again, Mantegna's self-compelled interest in classical subject-matter also seems to stand for a broader cultural climate, in this case the fascination in late fifteenth-century Mantua and Renaissance Italy more generally with the Roman military triumph. Francesco II Gonzaga was a successful soldier, who also made money from leasing out the services of mercenary armies. Mantua was also the birthplace of Virgil, the first-century BC poet who wrote the famed propagandic epic about the birth of Rome, the Aeneid. It is perhaps unsurprising then, that the Gonzaga family - the rulers of Mantegna's Mantua - felt a certain affinity for the military autocrats of the early Roman imperium. Through the lens of Mantegna's historical imagination, Francesco II's military victories could be compared to Roman imperial conquests, and Francesco, therefore, to Caesar. At the same time, certain aspects of the work do not faithfully mirror qualities associated with the Roman military. In the later Italian Renaissance, this piece was extremely influential for its representation of ancient Rome, hailed by Giorgio Vasari as Mantegna's best work. Artists such as Andrea Aspertini and Hans Holbein the Younger made prints of the piece, and Peter Paul Rubens referenced it in his Roman Triumph (1630).
From a modern perspective, this work is interesting for the ambivalent qualities associated with the aftermath of victory. Part of the procession appears to be made up of civilians, while the soldiers themselves are not presented in coordinated uniform, and the units appear somewhat disheveled and disorganized, perhaps flushed with victory and alcohol. The stacked armor in The Bearers of Trophies and Bullion seems precarious, as if it were about to spill over, while the uniforms do not appear to match each other, or the armor worn by the soldiers. It is as if foreign victory were masking internal disorder and incoherence. The rear end of the fresco, meanwhile, unfolds a marked emotional shift. Caesar's head is slightly downturned, while the surrounding figures appear almost lethargic, as if weighed down with bloodshed. Mantegna thus offers a more double-edged image of military conquest and imperial ambition - both in the classical and Renaissance periods - than the official function of this work might suggest.
Tempera on canvas - Hampton Court Palace, London
Madonna of Victory
This altarpiece portrays a man reputed to be Francesco II Gonzaga in adoration of the Madonna and Child. Opposite Francesco is Saint John the Baptist, who holds a cross and a cartouche with a Latin inscription. His mother, Saint Elizabeth, the protector of Francesco II's wife Isabella d'Este, is also present, wearing a yellow turban. Saint Michael, Saint Longinus, Saint Andrew and Saint George are lined up to the sides of the Madonna and infant Jesus. The Virgin sits on a throne inscribed with the phrase REGINA/CELI LET ALLELVIA, meaning "Queen of Heaven, rejoice, Hallelujah." The baby Jesus holds red flowers, while circling around and behind them is an arch strewn with leaves and fruits, with a shell and red coral centerpiece.
This lush work presents Madonna as both the queen of fertility and an icon of purity, offering a typical synthesis of classical pagan and Renaissance Christian ideals. The fruit, coral, and abundance of greenery around the arch stand for life, nature, and fecundity. Fruit had also connoted the cycle of the seasons since ancient times, both for obvious reasons and because of its connection to the myth of Persephone and the pomegranate. (Hades had tricked Persephone into eating pomegranate seeds while she was his captive in the underworld, binding her to remain below the earth for part of the year, thus creating the winter months during her absences.) At the same time, fruit has traditionally refered to purity, in particular melons, an image strongly related to the rituals of cleansing in Christian ceremony. The presence of the apples nuances the work's thematic scope further, representing not only fertility but also temptation and the fall, through its connection to the story of Adam and Eve. This may subtly position Madonna and child as Adam and Eve, a theory reinforced by the presentation of Saint Elizabeth as a patron Jewess with a yellow turban.
This work was commissioned to mark a recent victory over the French, but it also more subtly conveys the Mantuan attitude towards the Jewish religion during the fifteenth century. A Jewish doctor named Daniele da Norsa, a subject of the Gonzagas, had recently removed the obligatory icon of the Madonna from his home and replaced it with another, less Marian image. This was widely regarded as blasphemy, and as punishment Da Norsa was forced to pay 110 ducats towards the commission for Mantegna's Madonna of Victory. This subtext of the work is hinted at by the unusual presentation of Saint Elizabeth, but is complicated by the presence of Francesco II Gonzaga himself as the faithful supplicant. By positioning Francesco in a painting in which a qualified Jewish presence is allowed alongside the Christian, Mantegna - at his ruler's behest, perhaps - suggests both the Gonzagas' tolerance of, but also ultimate dominion over, the Mantuan Jews. It may also position Judaism as an internal threat to Mantuan stability similar to the external threat presented by the French. This topical subtext is typical of the way in which art, even 'great' art, can become entangled in the politics and propaganda of its era.
Tempera on canvas - Louvre Museum, Paris
Adoration of the Magi
This image has a relatively simple composition as compared to many of Mantegna's works, setting the busts of five figures around the baby Jesus, set against a completely dark background. To the left, Mary holds up the newborn Christ, a subject of adoration for the "magi" or wise men to the right. The magi hold gifts of incense and gold for the infant as they kneel before him. The painting offers a more intimate, close-up representation of its subject-matter than others by Mantegna, and an unusually vibrant color palette.
The story of the birth of Jesus, representing both the origins of Christianity and a more general theme of salvation, was a very potent one in Renaissance culture and art, and there were numerous representations of this scene which predate Mantegna's. However, Mantegna's is unusual in its allusions to alien and exotic cultures, references which were significant in Mantua at the turn of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries given the presence in the city-state of a Jewish population that was often scapegoated and ostracized. The three wise men - who in the original story have travelled from 'the East' - have darker skin tones than the pale and rosy-cheeked infant and virgin. The color variation in the clothing of the magi adds to their exotic characterization, with Mary and Jesus offset by paler dress.
These images of racial variation - like the age differences between the magi - may suggest the unifying quality of salvation. The baby Jesus thus acts as a sort of priest to the visiting sages, raising his hand as if sanctifying each with his blessings. Through such details, we may feel from a contemporary perspective that Mantegna is suggesting both the personal and the universal nature of spiritual redemption. The close-up perspective of the work enhances the impression of a series of individual experiences bound by the overall quality of salvation, as do the differently oriented body positions of the Magi. The unusual perspective also seems to place us in the company of the group, as if we do, can partake in the scene of devotion.
Distemper on linen - Getty Museum, Los Angeles