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Andrea Mantegna, Saint Luke Polyptych
Andrea Mantegna, Saint Luke Polyptych, 1453-1455, Distemper on panel, 230 x 177 cm, Milan, Pinacoteca di Brera

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Andrea Mantegna | The San Luca Altarpiece (San Luca Polyptych)


The San Luca Altarpiece, also known as the San Luca Polyptych, is a polyptych panel painting by Northern Italian Renaissance painter Andrea Mantegna. The altarpiece is a polyptych panel painting featuring 12 figures each in his or her own arch. The seven figures in the top row flank the central figure of Jesus Christ. The five beneath flank Saint Luke.

The work (12 panels) was commissioned in 1453, [1] when the artist was twenty-two years old, for the chapel of S. Luca in the church of S. Giustina, Padua. The figures represented, reading from upper left, are: St Daniel of Padua, St Jerome, the Virgin, Christ, St John, St Augustine, St Sebastian, St Scolastica, St Prosdocimus, St Benedict and St Justina.

The original wooden frame in which Mantegna's signature had been incised was destroyed by lightning in the seventeenth century. Its loss radically alters the composition, as can be seen by the considerable difference in scale between the two registers. It is thus worth attempting a reconstruction, in order to grasp the meaning of the whole work.

Probably commissioned by the donors to execute a Gothic-type altarpiece, Mantegna must have succeeded in altering the scheme substantially by inserting a thick molding between the two orders. This division set the two ranges much farther apart than they are today. Another device used by the artist to avoid the effect of caged images is the perspective in the centre of the composition whereby the upper panels were made smaller to suggest distance while the lower panels were made larger to imply that they are closer to the spectator. But the most sensational means is the stepped pavement, which must have been the ground plane of the suggested architectural construction. The whole must have made a sort of two-storied loggia, housing figures engaged in a Sacra Conversazione.

Even without its original framework, the separate figures remain highly impressive. A lyric quality, unequalled in Mantegna's other work, is generated by the illusionistic effect of the figures, achieved by means of their "wet drapery," which Mantegna must have rediscovered by studying classic Roman sculpture.


Andrea Mantegna, Saint Luke Polyptych, Milan, Pinacoteca di Brera. The picture shows a detail of the central (140 x 67 cm) the panel representing St Luke

Saint Justina (Santa Giustina) is a Christian saint who was said to have been martyred in 304 AD. Justina was said to have been a young woman who took private vows of chastity and was killed during the persecutions of Diocletian. Medieval legends described her as a disciple of Saint Peter the Apostle. Thus, Saint Prosdocimus, the first bishop of Padua, is said to have been Justina's spiritual father. His legend states that he was sent from Antioch by Peter.

The Saint Justina of Italian medieval art is a merger of two virgin martyrs. The first of them, St. Justina of Damascus, was the object of the attentions of the magician Cyprian, who sent a devil to fetch her but converted to Christianity when the devil finally confessed his inability to prevail against someone protected by Christ. This Justina was martyred on the same day as Cyprian, September 26, 304. Her body was said to have been taken to Rome and then to Piacenza. The other was Saint Justina of Padua, converted to Christianity in the first century by St. Prosdocimus, first bishop of Padua. She is a patron saint of Padua and Venice.

The merged iconography involves the palm of martyrdom, a knife in the breast or neck (although the Golden Legend says she was beheaded), and a unicorn symbolizing virginity.

In 1453, Mantegna married Nicolosia, Giovanni Bellini’s sister, thus forming close links with the most important painting workshop in Venice, run by his father-in-law Jacopo Bellini. The intense exchanges of ideas between the two brothers-in-law and the resulting influences were to have fundamental repercussions on the destinies of painting in Northern Italy.
Of the different figures making up the Saint Luke altarpiece, the Saint Justina shows best Giovanni Bellini’s tender vein, as does the Virgin and Child with two saints whose style places it in the same period.

Andrea Mantegna, St Justina, 1453-1455,  Pinacoteca di Brera, Milan
Andrea Mantegna, St Justina, 1453-1455,
Pinacoteca di Brera, Milan

Andrea Mantegna, Saint Luke Polyptych (detail, Saint Sabastian), Milan, Pinacoteca di Brera

[1] On August 10, 1453, Mantegna signed a contract to paint the work for the monastery of Santa Giustina in Padua. In return for 50 ducats, Mantegna agreed to complete the work, providing paints with which to depict the figures and the azzurro Todesco (a blue pigment derived from copper) with which to inlay them. The work was completed within that or the following year. The polyptych is located in Pinacoteca di Brera, Milan.
The Pinacoteca di Brera ("Brera Art Gallery") is an art collection in Milan. It contains one of the foremost collections of Italian paintings, an outgrowth of the cultural program of the Accademia di Belle Arti ("Academy of Fine Arts" or Accademia di Brera), which shares the site in the Palazzo Brera.

Giorgio Vasari | Lives of the Most Eminent Painters Sculptors and Architects

Art in Tuscany | Art in Tuscany | Giorgio Vasari | Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects

Volume III | Filarete And Simone To Mantegna

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Giorgio Vasari | Lives of the Most Eminent Painters Sculptors and Architects | Andrea Mantegna

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