Olivia Ward-Jackson reviews the National Gallery’s exhibition showcasing the works of Italian Renaissance artists Mantegna and Bellini.
The exquisite exhibition at the National Gallery traces the artistic interactions between two titans of Renaissance art – Andrea Mantegna (1431-1506) and Giovanni Bellini (1435-1516).
In 1453, an artistic union was formed when Mantegna, an aspirational carpenter’s son from Padua, married into that revered family of Venetian artists – the Bellinis. Henceforth, Mantegna and his brother-in-law, Giovanni Bellini, were bound together in art as well as through blood. From his advantageous marriage, Mantegna gained access to the Bellini family drawing book, and, in turn, Giovanni Bellini was offered Mantegna’s work as inspiration – work he began to imitate and invigorate with his own distinct style of painting.
Bellini’s early St. Jerome in the Wilderness has strong echoes of Mantegna’s painting of the same title, with which Mantegna had kicked off his career at the age of seventeen. Yet, we can see differences in style already appearing. In Mantegna’s work, his use of perspective gives a sense of the depth of St. Jerome’s cave, creating a theatrical stage for his meditative figures, whilst his technical use of light and shadow accentuates the sharp crevices in the rock. He includes symbolic details such as the owl – for superstition – or the hammers, representing the Crucifixion. Meanwhile, Bellini’s work is flooded with natural light. It is smoother, more fluid, and excels in atmosphere and movement – unlike Mantegna’s lion who is lying next to the contemplative St Jerome, in Bellini’s painting, St. Jerome is actively engaging with his furry protégé.
Throughout his career, Bellini continued to take inspiration from Mantegna’s highly innovative works, and transform them into pieces of such light, colour and beauty as to change the course of Italian painting, inspiring the next generation of artists, including Giorgione and Titian.
Mantegna’s The Agony in the Garden is another piece that was revised by Bellini, and the two versions hang side-by-side at the National Gallery to expose Bellini’s blatant imitation of Mantegna’s work, but also to emphasis the vast differences between the two counterparts.
Mantegna’s foreboding scene is one of solemn grandeur – grave angels appear holding a crucifix, the dead tree and vulture could indicate Christ’s coming death whilst the rabbits can be interpreted as a sign of his future rebirth. The jagged scenery is strewn with light in such a way that it echoes the cave of St Jerome in his earlier work. What is exceptional is Mantegna’s attempt to imagine and reconstruct a scene as it might have happened in reality. Jerusalem is presented as a rose-tinted, walled city in true Roman style, with a colosseum and even an equestrian statue inspired by Mantegna’s study of surviving ancient monuments in Rome.
Whilst Mantegna’s version of The Agony in the Garden emphasises the dramatic nature of the biblical scene, premeditating Christ’s death following the betrayal of Judas, Bellini stresses the serenity of the moment, where Christ comes to accept his sacrifice to mankind. A cloud-like putto appears bearing a cup and paten, symbolising the sacrifice to come, but less aggressively than Mantegna’s crucifix held up by a fleet of fleshy angels. Christ’s disciples are more delicate, their resting postures mimicking the curve of the landscape behind them, which is softer and rounder than that in Mantegna’s painting. A gentle light illuminates Christ as the sun sets, leaving its traces in an orangey-pink sky, and offering a contrast to Mantegna’s even distribution of light.
Indeed, many of the characteristic traits of the two artists, which we can recognise in their differing versions of The Agony in the Garden, are apparent in their masterpieces throughout the exhibition.
Mantegna’s passion for antiquity shines through in St. Sebastian, which oozes Roman majesty, the Christian martyr resembling a classical statue against a backdrop of carefully studied antique ruins. Mantegna’s reverence for the classics culminates in Minerva expelling the Vices from the Garden of Virtue, in which we are bombarded by classical putti, satyrs and centaurs, who are being driven out the garden of virtue by the majestic Roman goddess of wisdom.
Equally, Bellini’s mastery of light and shadow is made apparent in The Lamentation over the Dead Christ, a spectacular monochrome work, as well as in The Feast of the Gods, a lavish work of colour, brightness and vitality. Bellini also deploys his talents to huge effect in The Virgin and Child with St. Catherine and Mary Magdalene, in which he manages to soften and humanise divine figures whilst still maintaining their sanctitude. The Virgin, whilst sustaining her divine aura, is also depicted as a paragon of humanity – she is a compassionate mother shrouded in holy light and clothed in a gown of deep blue, a sacred colour reserved for the Virgin Mary during the Renaissance.
It is easy to think of the Renaissance as an artistic whirlwind, as an unstoppable force that engulfed all in its wake. Yet, what the Mantegna and Bellini exhibition should remind us of is the incremental changes that made up the Renaissance movement – the relationships and rivalries that spurred artists on to greater heights, the ground-breaking developments in perspective, light, colour, and the depiction of human form that broke down artistic conventions, as well as the processes of teaching and learning that allowed for both extraordinary change and distinct continuities throughout the period.