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Current time:0:00Total duration:4:42

Video transcript

(piano playing) Steven: We're in the Brera in Milan and we're looking at one of Andrea Mantegna's most extraordinary and most famous paintings. This is The Dead Christ. Beth: Mantegna's son called it The Foreshortened Christ and this way of representing Christ so foreshortened is really unusual in art history. Steven: Well certainly I've never seen anything like this. Now Mantegna was fascinated throughout much of his career with extreme perspectives. You might think about St. James being led to his execution where you have a view upward. Beth: Foreshortening is often used by Renaissance artists to create an illusion of space, an illusion of depth. But here Mantegna is using it to draw us in, to make us feel as though we're at Christ's side at this moment after he's been taking down off the cross. He's been placed on this stone, his body is ready to be anointed and shrouded and placed in the tomb. Steven: One of the comments that people often make when they look at this and they think about that kind of very careful perspectival structures that are being developed in the 15th century, is that this is in fact distorted. That is, the feet are much too small and in fact there is kind of an odd distortion as you move up the body where the body seems to grow in size. But what's fascinating is when you stand in front of the painting, at least for me, the feet are seen almost through our peripheral vision and our eyes are drawn right up to the face. Beth: No question, we're drawn to that look of suffering. We don't have an image of Christ that transcends human suffering. There's real pain etched on his forehead, the way that his eyebrows have been pressed together. There's a sense of his humanity here. Steven: There is this incredible sense of physicality we are so far away from the medieval conception of the dead Christ, that is transcendent and completely divorced from any kind of pain. Here, just look at the wounds in the hand or in the feet, there's almost clinical accuracy. Look at the way in which the skin has dried and it feels like it might even be sharp. Beth: Look at how Mantegna's lifted up the hands as though he wants to show us Christ's wounds. The hands are propped up in the same way the head is propped up by the pillow. Steven: Well those are almost the only verticals. Now we've been focusing on Christ and the body of Christ for good reason but Christ is not the only figure here. We seem to be in the tomb itself, it's dark, but we can make out that there are three other figures closest to us. We can just barely make out the profile of St. John the Evangelist. Next to him is an unusual rendering of the Virgin Mary, who's quite old here and clearly suffering, seeing her son die. But just beyond Mary you can just make out Mary Magdalene and the reason that we know it's her is because on the stone you can see a jar of the ointment that Mary Magdalene used to anoint Christ's feet. Beth: We often see that jar as an attribute of Mary Magdalene. So we know that this painting still belonged to Mantegna at the time of his death. In other words, it was never delivered to a patron. And so this has led art historians to speculate that perhaps it was rejected by the patron because of its extreme focus on the dead body of Christ in this literal way and its intense foreshortening. It's also possible that Mantegna painted this for his personal use. We're just not sure. Steven: We're also not sure if perhaps the intended patron, if there was one, was somebody who was focusing on the wounds of Christ. Beth: Right, someone whose devotional practice was focused on the wounds of Christ, someone who perhaps especially venerated what's known as the Stone of Unction, the stone that his body was laid on for anointing. Steven: So these are all questions. What we do know is that this is a painting that in so many ways exemplifies the changes that are taking place in Italian art in the 15th century where you have this increasing focus on the physicality of Christ. Beth: We begin to see in the later part of the 1400's images of Christ, of the saints, depicted very close to us. It's likely that this is related to ideas of the image as a kind of prompt, to mediate on Christ's suffering. To imagine what it was like to be at the crucifixion, to put ourselves there at the tomb at this moment. (piano playing)