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Andrea Mantegna, The Lamentation over the Dead Christ, Pinacoteca di Brera, Milan

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Andrea Mantegna, The Lamentation over the Dead Christ

The Lamentation over the Dead Christ is a c. 1480 painting by the Italian Renaissance artist Andrea Mantegna.[1] While the dating of the piece is debated, is generally believed to have been completed between 1457 and 1501.[2] It portrays the body Christ supine on a marble slab. He is watched over by the Virgin Mary and St. John, who are weeping for his death.

The theme of the Lamentation is common in medieval and Renaissance art, although this treatment, dating back to a subject known as the Anointing of Christ is unusual for the period. Most Lamentations show much more contact between the mourners and the body. Rich contrasts of light and shadow abound, infused by a profound sense of pathos. The realism and tragedy of the scene are enhanced by the violent perspective, which foreshortens and dramatizes the recumbent figure, stressing the anatomical details: in particular, Christ's thorax. The holes in Christ's hands and feet, as well as the faces of the two mourners, are portrayed without any concession to idealism or rhetoric. The sharply drawn drapery which covers the corpse contributes to the dramatic effect. Unique to this painting is a design that places the central focus of the image on Christ's genitals - an artistic choice that is open to a multitude of interpretations. Mantegna managed instead to paint a very specific representation of physical and emotional trauma.

Mantegna presented both a harrowing study of a strongly foreshortened cadaver and an intensely poignant depiction of a biblical tragedy. This painting is one of many examples of the artist's mastery of perspective. At first glance, the painting seems to be a strikingly realistic study in foreshortening . However, careful scrutiny reveals that Mantegna reduced the size of the figure's feet, which, as he must have known, would cover much of the body if properly represented.[2]

Mantegna probably made this painting for his personal funerary chapel. It was found by his sons in his studio after his death and sold off to pay debts. The painting is in the Pinacoteca di Brera of Milan, Italy.

It is typical of Mantegna's art that the simple window-like framing of the confined space in this painting architecturally defines it as the cold and dismal cell of a morgue. Looking in we see an almost monstrous spectacle: a heavy corpse, seemingly swollen by the exaggerated foreshortening. At the front are two enormous feet with holes in them; on the left, some tear-stained, staring masks. But another look dissipates the initial shock, and a rational system can be discerned under the subdued light. The face of Christ, like the other faces, is seamed by wrinkles, which harmonize with the watery satin of the pinkish pillow, the pale granulations of the marble slab and the veined onyx of the ointment jar. The damp folds of the shroud emphasize the folds in the tight skin, which is like torn parchment around the dry wounds. All these lines are echoed in the wild waves of the hair.

Mantegna's realism prevails over any esthetic indulgence that might result from an over-refined lingering over the material aspects of his subject. His realism is in turn dominated by an exalted poetic feeling for suffering and Christian resignation. Mantegna's creative power lies in his own interpretation of the "historic," his feeling for spectacle on a small as well as a large scale. Beyond his apparent coldness and studied detachment, Mantegna's feelings are those of a historian, and like all great historians he is full of humanity. He has a tragic sense of the history and destiny of man, and of the problems of good and evil, life and death.



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Andrea Mantegna (1431-1506) was one of the foremost north Italian painters of the 15th century. A master of perspective and foreshortening, he made important contributions to the compositional techniques of Renaissance painting.
Born (probably at Isola di Carturo, between Vicenza and Padua) in 1431, Mantegna became the apprentice and adopted son of the painter Francesco Squarcione of Padua. He developed a passionate interest in classical antiquity. The influence of both ancient Roman sculpture and the contemporary sculptor Donatello are clearly evident in Mantegna's rendering of the human figure. His human forms were distinguished for their solidity, expressiveness, and anatomical correctness.
Mantegna's principal works in Padua were religious. His first great success was a series of frescoes on the lives of St. James and St. Christopher in the Ovetari Chapel of the Church of the Eremitani (1456; badly damaged in World War II). In 1459 Mantegna went to Mantua to become court painter to the ruling Gonzaga family and accordingly turned from religious to secular and allegorical subjects. His masterpiece was a series of frescoes (1465-74) for the Camera degli Sposi (“bridal chamber”) of the Palazzo Ducale. In these works, he carried the art of illusionistic perspective to new limits. His figures depicting the court were not simply applied to the wall like flat portraits but appeared to be taking part in realistic scenes, as if the walls had disappeared. The illusion is carried over onto the ceiling, which appears to be open to the sky, with servants, a peacock, and cherubs leaning over a railing. This was the prototype of illusionistic ceiling painting and was to become an important element of baroque and rococo art.
Mantegna's later works varied in quality. His largest undertaking, a fresco series on the Triumphs of Caesar (1489, Hampton Court Palace, England), displays a rather dry classicism, but Parnassus (1497, Louvre, Paris), an allegorical painting commissioned by Isabelle d'Este, is his freshest, most animated work. His work never ceased to be innovative. In Madonna of Victory (1495, Louvre), he introduced a new compositional arrangement, based on diagonals, which was later to be exploited by Correggio, while his Dead Christ (Pinacoteca di Brera, Milan) was a tour de force of foreshortening that pointed ahead to the style of 16th-century Mannerism.

One of the key artistic figures of the second half of the 15th century, Mantegna was the dominant influence on north Italian painting for 50 years. It was also through him that German artists, notably Albrecht Dürer, were made aware of the artistic discoveries of the Italian Renaissance. He died in Mantua on September 13, 1506.

[2] The dating of the painting is debated, there are several assumptions ranging from the end of the Paduan period of the artist (c. 1457) to 1501. The most remarkable aspect of the painting is the perspective construction whereby the image of the Redeemer appears to "follow" the spectator around the room through the use of an illusionistic technique.
In a letter written on October 2, 1506 to the Duke of Mantua, Ludovico Mantegna mentioned a "Christ in foreshortening" among the works left by his father. It probably dates to the 1470s. In that case it must have remained in Mantegna's studio for a long time, and may have been intended for his funeral. In fact it was shown at the head of his catafalque when he died. Subsequently it was acquired by Cardinal Sigismondo Gonzaga, and it entered the Brera in 1824.

Art in Tuscany | Giorgio Vasari's Lives of the Artists | Andrea Mantegna

Giorgio Vasari | Le vite de' più eccellenti architetti, pittori, et scultori italiani, da Cimabue insino a' tempi nostri | Andrea Mantegna