If you're seeing this message, it means we're having trouble loading external resources on our website.

If you're behind a web filter, please make sure that the domains *.kastatic.org and *.kasandbox.org are unblocked.

Main content

Andrea Mantegna, San Zeno Altarpiece

Andrea Mantegna, San Zeno Altarpiece, 1456-59, oil on panel, 212 x 460 cm / 83 x 180 inches, comissioned by the Benedictine Abbot, Gregorio Correr (Basilica of San Zeno, Verona). Created by Beth Harris and Steven Zucker.

Want to join the conversation?

Video transcript

(music) ("In The Sky With Diamonds" by Scalding Lucy) Beth: We're in the Basilica of San Zeno in the town of Verona in northern Italy looking at an altarpiece in situ by the great Renaissance artist, Andrea Mantegna. Steven: This is an altarpiece that has one foot in the older traditions of the Trecento and one foot that's beginning to move into a much more sophisticated understanding of pictorial space. So on the one hand, you have this frame which we think may be original to Mantegna himself which divides the main scene into three sections with these four Corinthian columns we're calling the Classical paths. Beth: So you might think about that older Trecento 1300s tradition of an altarpiece with and an image of Mary and Christ in the center with separate panels within a larger frame. Steven: But Mantegna's image behind the columns is a insistently continuous. Beth: Instead of very separate panels with figures with a gold background, Mantegna's unified that space behind the frame so that the figures really seem to occupy a very real space created with the illusion of linear perspective. Steven: That's not completely unheard of before Mantegna, but he's also pairing the actual physical wooden carved frame columns with more classicizing columns in the pictorial space immediately behind them. Beth: So those columns in the front that are real, are coming into our space, right? They're real columns. And the garland that unites them seem to be on that edge of our space and the pictorial space. And then we move back where we see Mary holding the Christ child on her lap, angels around her singing and playing music. On either side, four saints in this space showing us the court of heaven, but it's a christian heaven in an insistently classical, antique, pegan space. This is a kind of painting called a "sacra conversazione", a sacred conversation or holy community. Steven: You have to gather in one pictorial space figures that come from different historical periods. If we start all the way on the left, you see a figure with a red undergarment and a yellow mantle on top. He's holding keys so that's Saint Peter. Beth: Behind Saint Peter is Saint Paul, behind him, Saint John. Steven: Saint John looks sensitive as is traditional, almost feminine. Finally, the fourth figure on the left in the back, is Saint Zeno, the namesake for this church and somebody we think was the person who brought christianity to the town of Verona. Beth: And is the patron saint of Verona. Steven: On the other side of the Virgin Mary, in the front, there is this extraordinary rendering of Saint John the Baptist. Look at the S-curve of that body. This is a christian figure, but links christian tradition back to the classical tradition. That body is just a tour de force example of contrapposto. Beth: That's right. Mantegna we know was devoted to studying ancient Greek and Roman antiquities and it's so obvious that he's been looking at classical sculpture with that figure of John the Baptist. And it's not just in the tilt of his hips and that contrapposto in the S-curve, it's also just an amazing naturalism of his pose, the way he looks down, reads the book, that he holds the book. He's so believable and he's so close to us we can imagine him as a real figure about to step out of that painting. Steven: That's the thing that grabs me, the vividness, the use of oil paint with a kind of linear quality that Mantegna brings to his paintings with a careful use of light which, by the way, reflects the way the light is actually entering into this church, all of which creates this really intense illusionism. Beth: These are real figures that we can engage with. These are figures that we can pray to who will intercede on our behalf with Christ. But we also know at the same time, given all of that accessibility, that we're looking at an image of the court of heaven and that one day perhaps through our own prayers, through our own good works, we could hope to join the blessed in heaven. So like in, for example, Mantegna's Saint Sebastian, we have a contrast between the classical path which is represented by those sculptures in [Grazei] that we see and there's some carving in the [freeze] and in the [roundels]. Then we have the christian present in this painting, full color in the figures in the court of heaven. The altarpiece in this guild frame is within the apse of this church, decorated with fresco from a century or two earlier. Steven: Because that's true fresco paint applied directly on wet plaster, it's lost a vividness of its color because it mixes with the white of the plaster. It makes the oil painting of Mantegna all the more brilliant, all the more saturated. Beth: We can see how oil paint could create a realism in texture and form that was really impossible with the earlier medium of fresco or even tempera. Steven: It must have felt like a kind of early technicolor. Beth: For the people of Verona in the 1460s. Steven: This painting has had an interesting history. We're not the only people who admired it. Napoleon admired it and in fact, brought it back to Paris. It was returned after Napoleon lost power, but not entirely. If you look down at the predella, you can see that there are additional scenes and those have not been returned. The are en tour and they're in Paris. (music) ("In The Sky With Diamonds" by Scalding Lucy)