During the Renaissance a new notion of the individual was created. This identity was formed through knowledge based on the relationship of the individual to the world in which they lived. At the time, new forms of knowledge were being pursued and old ones were being questioned or repositioned. The debate over the relationship of past and present knowledge of the divine or ‘ideal’ to science and nature changed the way that people viewed themselves. Andrea Mantegna was aware of the new consciousness about the individual. By the time he was thirty years old he was the most celebrated painter in Northern Italy . The evidence that exists in Mantegna’s paintings has lead many art historians to conclude that he was one of the leading historical thinkers of his time. This battle of “old knowledge” with the “new knowledge” obtained through the study of nature contributed to a changing understanding of science and religion. …
But the basic interpretation of art must be subjective, and the mock-heroic structure of a painting such as “Parnassus”( below ) is denied by the picture’s total effect of celebration rather than of levity. The love of Venus and Mars can also be interpreted sympathetically. For the Romans, and hence for Renaissance humanists , mars was not only the god of war but the symbol of all that was brave, invincible and glorious, while Venus was the goddess of spiritual as well as sensuous love, the symbol of the beauty of the arts as well as the allure of the flesh. Under these identifications, Vulcan, who never manages to come out well, could symbolize the insensitive objector to an ideal union, and the cupid could be silencing his complaints.
For the observer aware of both possibilities, “Parnassus” slides maddeningly back and forth between them, never quite reaching fulfillment in either direction and seeming to shift to the contradictory attitude just as it is about to confirm one or the other. We are left with the conclusion, which can be reached only by assumption, that what the patron Isabella wanted and what Andrea Mantegna (1431-1506) would have chosen to do independently, accounts for an ambiguous statement by an artist elsewhere remarkable for his certainty and clarity.
But if Mantegna’s heart was not given over to the subject matter of Isabella’s paintings, he gave her full value in their execution. Both “Minerva Expelling the Vices from the Garden of Virtue” and “Parnassus” are rich visual experiences. Filled with glowing crags, shimmering fabrics, glittering jewels and metals, dense clusters of foloage studded with fruits, they are summaries of Mantegna’s decorative vocabulary.
For Mantegna is, by the very least judgement, an unexcelled master of pure ornament, of art as pure delectation. But his genius was that he transformed a merely decorative vocabulary into an expressive one. The majority of his decorative elements are shared with other northern Italian painters, and he must have learned them, essentially from a style book, as an apprentice in Squarcione’s workshop. Other apprentices emerged from the same shop with a style based on meaningless complications of drapery; on many repetitiously patterned swags and garlands of foliage ribbons, and fruit; on tinny figures posed in attitudes of affected passion or nicety. But Mantegna took this improbable material, this set of mannered tricks and transmuted it into a vocabulary of expressive power.
In great art there is always a residual inexplicable quality that accounts for greatness after all explanations are made. How to explain why Mantegna is not a monotonous painter? He should be. His decorative vocabulary is not large, and he only varies it from picture to picture. There is not much difference in texture between the striated boulders that jut from Mantegna’s landscapes and the corded bodies of his martyred saints. A fluttering ribbon or a crumpled banner blowing from a bronze staff borne by a triumphant warrior may be as ri
as the staff itself.
The stems of Mantegna’s plants and the trunks of his trees rise from the rocky ground and spray outward in patterns electric with force, but they are immobile and their clusters of leaves and fruit are attached to them like enameled metal. No breeze can stir them in a world where even objects designated as being in motion are held quite still within the general enchantment.
It is this quality of enchantment that transforms what might just as well have been, but inexplicably is not, a mere studied desiccation. And it is this enchantment, this creation of an unreal world in which each detail is defined and incorporated into an indissoluble whole, that makes Mantegna a great religious painter and even a mystical one, although no accounts of him give us any reason to believe that in his day-to-day life he was anything but a practical, hard-working man.
Mantegna tells of the Crucifixion, or of the agony in the garden, or of any other episode in the Christian story, without comment and without personal interpretation. As a narrator he simply presents the story as everybody already knows it, and displays the participants with exceptional reserve. But this emotional understatement intensifies the power of the total picture; the emotion of the protagonists infuses every object within the painted scheme. No single element, not the smallest pebble, seems auxiliary; nothing is accidental, nothing can be thought of as temporary or reducible. Every object is charged with the full intensity of the total scene, and all is transfixed forever within the miracle.
No artist presents more baffingly than Mantegna the puzzle of the creative process. Among all artists he is one of the last to whom the word “inspired” could ever be applied, yet of all artists he is one of the least mundane. But if he gives no answer to the puzzle, he at least makes the question irrelevant by his intensity and his completeness. Beyond a certain point great art is probably best accepted, like miracles: without explanation.
In the Renaissance, science, art and religion were not in opposition as they are portrayed in the twentieth century. These endeavors were integrated in order to come up with an understanding of the physical world. It was the advances in thinking around these areas that refashioned old ideas about the ‘self’. Mantegna’s Lamentation over the Dead Christ captures the process of individual exploration and the pursuit of knowledge. Through the investigation of mathematical perspective and the inner biology of the body, science made people more self-aware. Along with a better personal understanding the individual there was also a more personal view of the divine. It is the push and pull of these forms of knowledge that was the basis for the new way of thinking about the individual during the Renaissance. ( Dan Starling )
In The Sexuality of Christ in Renaissance Art and in Modern Oblivion, the art historian Leo Steinberg rallies impressive evidence in support of the claim that paintings emphasizing the genitals of Jesus, especially as a child, were surprisingly common in late medieval and early modern art. Behind this iconography, according to Steinberg, lies a particular theological intent: to assert the humanity of Christ in a cultural context where the doctrine of Christ’s divinity had come to the forefront of pictorial imagery. Against the distant echoes of Docetism and Monophysitism in late medieval art’s insistence on the divinity and transcendence of Jesus, we have here something like a pictorial equivalent of Hebrews 4 or Cur Deus Homo, an insistence on the Chalcedonian Christology that defines the Messiah as fully God and fully Man, two natures in one person. ( David Byron ) …
…How then does the title illuminate this postmodern, secular analog to those old-masterful antecedents? Just as the union of God and humankind in Christ was the theological challenge underlying representations of Jesus in the Renaissance, so the union of public and private, staged and spontaneous, virtual and actual in the experience of any given human is the anthropological challenge in figural art today. Just as the character wants privacy even while the actor wants publicity, so the photographed body in this photo is both a fictional subject and an actual model, the former seemingly in stasis but the latter seemingly in the studio.