Mantegna's Use of Perspective in Italy


Mantegna's Use of Perspective in Italy

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Andrea Mantegna,  The Dead Christ, c1490-1501, 
tempera on canvas 20"x31" 
Pinacoteca di Brera, Milan, Italy
Italian Renaissance

Form,  From the left hand side of the image are the two profile views of Mary and St. John who lean over the body of Jesus who is rendered in an idealized and muscular fashion 

The shroud which partially covers the lower part of the body accentuates the form of the anatomy beneath the drapery.

The most striking aspect of this image is the fact that the portrayal of Christ from a radical point of view.  This view is called foreshortening which you have already encountered in Giotto's Lamentation.   According to the Brittanica, foreshortening is a, 

method of rendering a specific object or figure in a picture in depth. The artist records, in varying degrees, the distortion that is seen by the eye when an object or figure is viewed at a distance or at an unusual angle.

In a photograph of a recumbent figure, for instance, those parts of it, such as the feet, that are nearest the lens will seem unnaturally large, those at a distance, such as the head, unnaturally small. The artist may either record this effect exactly, producing a startling illusion of reality that seems to violate the picture plane (surface of the picture), or modify it, slightly reducing the relative size of the nearer part of the object, so as to make a less aggressive assault on the viewer's eye and to relate the foreshortened object more harmoniously to the rest of the picture. Insofar as foreshortening is basically concerned with the persuasive projection of a form in an illusionistic way, it is a type of perspective, but the term foreshortening is almost invariably used in relation to a single object, or part of an object, rather than to a scene or group of objects.

Iconography:  The muscular and idealized quality of the figure probably relates back to the new humanistic and neoplatonic concepts now being used by the REnaissance artists.  Here Mantegna is getting you to identify with the more human qualities of the earthly or corporal body of Christ. 

In fact, the draper reveals how fully human he is.  To paraphrase the ideas from The Sexuality of Christ in Renaissance Art and in Modern Oblivion, by Leo Steinberg, images of Jesus which accentuate how earthly nature, notice how the genitals are somewhat highlighted by the drapery, are an attempt to show the dual nature of Jesus.  Jesus was both of the flesh and spirit and the depiction of his ability to function fully as a carnal being is an attempt to demonstrate that Jesus made a choice to follow a more fully Platonic or ideal path.

Even though the figure is foreshortened, there is a bit of a problem in how the foreshortening is portrayed.  If you compare the foreshortening in Mantegna's work to the drawing below, you may notice that the feet are a bit too small in Mantegna's work and this appears to be done on purpose.    Why do you think this is so?  What purpose do you think it might serve? 

According to this site (I'm not sure how accurate it is but it sure is a great idea),

The body of Christ is partially covered by the shroud, it lays on a reddish stone with light white veins. (the anointing rock). . .

Although this rock is never mentioned in the gospels, it appears in  Costantinopolis as a passion relic in about 1170. The description which coincides with the painting of Mantegna was transmitted in reports made by pilgrims.  It was believed it came from Ephesus (Mary of Magdala took it there from Jerusalem) and the white veins were produced by the tears of Our Lady weeping next to the body of her dead son.

The boldness of the view makes the scene more dramatic; the vision from the top to the bottom and from the depth gives prominence to the nail open wounds which are no longer bleeding. The flesh beneath the torn skin is depicted by the precision of an anatomist.  On the left there are some characters: Mary is weeping, John is praying and Mary of Magdala perhaps is sorrowful. On the right there is a small flask of ointment and an opening towards a dark room: both signs of the imminent burial.

Mantegna, Camera Picta (Camera degli Sposi) Ducal Palace, Mantua, Italy. 1474

"Arrival of Cardinal Francesco Gonzaga," fresco 
by Andrea Mantegna, completed 1474

Stokstad gives a very good description and discussion of the form, iconography and context surrounding this room.  So I won't attempt to repeat those ideas here.  This section will consist of a guided viewing of some of the more important or interesting details surrounding this room.

Robert Hughes comments,

Taking classical sculpture as his model, Mantegna populated the new world of the Renaissance 

Andrea Mantegna has never been easy to approach, alive or dead. A The "rock-born giant," as Bernard Berenson called him, with his dedication to archaeology and his obsession with empirical vision, was one of the quintessential artists of the early Italian Renaissance. He was innovative, flinty and tough-minded, without an iota of sentiment. 

This son of a Paduan carpenter, who rose to become the cynosure of every humanist eye in northern Italy, once sent a gang of thugs to bash up a printer who fell foul of him, and then had the poor man denounced for sodomy--a crime that, in 15th century Venice, carried the death penalty. Mantegna could also be sardonic and disrespectful to tardy patrons, up to and including the Pope himself. When Innocent VIII hired him to decorate the chapel of the Villa Belvedere in the Vatican, he was puzzled to see, tacked onto allegorical roundels of the Seven Virtues, an eighth that held the sketched-in figure of an old woman. What did she signify? asked the Pontiff. "Ingratitude," snapped Mantegna, who had not yet been paid. 

You must go to his work; most of it cannot come to you--not the murals and not many of the paintings either, most of which are now considered too frail to travel. Neither the St. Luke Altarpiece nor The Lamentation over the Dead Christ, that unsurpassably bitter and poignant image of the corpse on the stone slab, can leave the Brera in Milan, and the Louvre will never lend the Madonna della Vittoria to another museum. 

A Genius Obsessed by Stone. by Robert Hughes. Time, 2/24/92, Vol. 139 Issue 8, p70, 2p, 3c HTML Full Text

According to the Brittanica,
Perhaps of even greater significance were his achievements in the field of fresco painting. Mantegna's invention of total spatial illusionism by the manipulation of perspective and foreshortening began a tradition of ceiling decoration that was followed for three centuries. Mantegna's portraits of the Gonzaga family in their palace at Mantua (1474) glorified living subjects by conferring upon them the over life-size stature, sculptural volume, and studied gravity of movement and gesture normally reserved for saints and heroes of myth and history.
This image really does demonstrate many of the concepts from the above passages.  Mantegna is showing off for us all of his "special effects." 
We see his use of atmospheric and linear perspectives in the background as well as a bit of humanistic perspective in the gestures.  His foreshortening of the horse and dogs' bodies is almost "show offy."

The landscape behind the figures is almost an attempt to show off the perspective of the land holding Gonzaga family, but, the landscape he portrays is actually a mountainous and craggy invented landscape.  The landscape around Padua was flat and fairly featureless.

The putti (cherubs) surrounding the main doorway elevating the familial inscription, are references to the classical past and could almost be a reference to their lineage in much the same way was accomplished in the portrait of Augustus.  In fact the Roman tradition of verism is clearly expressed throughout the room and the architectural details refer back to the ornamentation on the ara pacis. 



The images and medallions on the ceiling are also probably designed with a similar intention to the portrait of Augustus.  Here is a kind of made up reference to the ancestors of the Gonzaga family, which, they would have us believe, can be traced all the way back to the Roman Republican period.  Again the Roman tradition of verism is clearly expressed throughout the room and the architectural details refer back to the ornamentation on the ara pacis, to support these ideas.

This image is located above the mantel of the fireplace far enough above eye level that the viewer must look up at it.  From this point of view one can almost look up the tunics of the men who stand above you.  Mantegna has also used a consistent use of chiaroscuro across the picture plane to unify it and make it believable.

In this portrait image (see Stokstad for details) Mantegna shows both his strengths and weaknesses with the human form.  In some ways he gets an excellent likeness of each of the characters and their gestures and the foreshortening of the human form is well executed.  Nevertheless, there are some areas where he has some awkward patches.  The troll like child (click to enlarge) to the right of Barbara von Hohenzollern is one.  At times the anatomy of the figures seems a bit stiff.

According to the Brittanica, 
sotto in su (Italian: "from below to above"), in drawing and painting, extreme foreshortening of figures painted on a ceiling or other high surface so as to give the illusion that the figures are suspended in air above the viewer. It is an approach that was especially favored by Baroque and Rococo painters, particularly in Italy, in the 17th and 18th centuries.

The peacock is probably a classical reference to Juno or Minerva, the putti are similar again to those found on the base of the image of Augustus.  The image of the African is probably a reference to the sophisticated international qualities of the family or perhaps even an attempt to make the image a bit exotic.

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Robert Campin (the Master of Flemalle) Merode Altarpiece c. 1425


Robert Campin (the Master of Flemalle) Merode Altarpiece c. 1425


Form:  This image shares much in common with the Arnolfini portrait.  The first thing one is struck with when looking at this painting is how "real" it looks.  This too was probably painted first in tempera paint and then glazed in successive layers with oil paint.

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According to the Brittanica,

Oil paints are made by mixing dry pigment powder with refined linseed oil to a paste, which is then milled in order to disperse the pigment particles throughout the oil vehicle. According to the 1st-century Roman scholar Pliny the Elder, whose writings the Flemish painters Hubert and Jan van Eyck are thought to have studied, the Romans used oil colours for shield painting. The earliest use of oil as a fine-art medium is generally attributed to 15th-century European painters, such as Giovanni Bellini and the van Eycks, who glazed oil colour over a glue-tempera underpainting. It is also thought probable, however, that medieval manuscript illuminators had been using oil glazes in order to achieve greater depth of colour and more subtle tonal transitions than their tempera medium allowed.

 "Oil."   Britannica 2001 Standard Edition CD-ROM.   Copyright © 1994-2001 Inc.   November 19, 2002. 

Part of the images reality is also based on the fact that the image appears to have some sort of depth, however, if one was to really diagram the image and trace all the orthagonals in the image you will discover that rather than having a single vanishing point or horizon line, this image has a zone where the lines kind of converge.  Campin chooses to do away with the perspective system but I'm not sure if it's on purpose or because he hasn't chosen to master it and Stokstad avoids the issue by saying that Campin is perpetuating the international Gothic style. 
Iconography: This painting is overtly a  genre scene.  The idea behind making this scene look like a scene from everyday life is meant to make the viewer identify with the message of the image.  If a person who sees this image identifies with Mary and sees that Mary lives in a home similar to their own they may feel like it is possible to be like her.  Therefore, all the objects and trappings of the home could also have similar meanings and therefore, "God is in the details" in another way as well.  For this reason, the iconography is important and often has a dual or submerged meaning sometimes referred to as submerged symbolism.

If this image looks familiar to you it's probably because it is very similar in for to some earlier paintings of Annunciations we have looked at.

The Merode Altarpiece was created by Robert Campin, a Flemish artist (previously known as "the Master of Flemale"). The picture is a triptych, composed in three hinged panels (the outer wings can be closed over the middle panel, and probably has another painting on the closed wings). A particularly northern aspect of this painting are the many details, which are rich with symbolic meaning. The central panel focuses on Mary, who is absorbed in her reading. The angel Gabriel comes to her, announcing that she will be the mother of the Christ child. Symbols of her purity include the vase of white lillies, the open biblical text, (Mencher's note: the open biblical text is probably a book or hours like the Limbourg brothers)  and the white linen. Close inspection also reveals an image of Christ on the Cross, floating from the direction of the circular windows, and the extinguished candle probably also relates to his death. The tilted perspective of the room allows all of the contents to be seen more easily than if he had used linear perspective (which has, by now, spread to the north, but not always used). Note also the gothic details evident in the architecture. To the left, a couple kneels at Mary's doorway to witness the scene (these are the donors who paid for the painting), and the right panel reveals Joseph working in his workshop. He is building mouse-traps, which is symbolic of Jesus' "trapping" of evil.
The iconography of flowers plays particularly strong into this image because in the left hand panel we have an image of who is most likely the patrons of the image who are kneeling just outside of the door.  This patron could be in the guise of a Saint, perhaps Peter, because of the key, or John the Evangelist.  The flowers he is almost kneeling on are violets.  Violets, although royal in color, grow close to the earth and are often walked on.  In this way, these flowers represent Mary, who is both royal an humble.  The rose bush behind them also may represent Mary because images, such as the rose windows of Gothic cathedrals, represent Mary and her passion.

Context: You've probably noticed that the caption above gives two names: Robert Campin and the Master of Flemalle.  This is because there originally was a series of paintings attributed on the basis of style to a single painter but historians didn't know his name but they knew he was from Flemalle.  Later on researchers discovered,

Documents show that Campin was established as a master painter in Tournai in 1406. Two pupils are mentioned as entering his studio in 1427--Rogelet de la Pasture (generally identified with the great Rogier van der Weyden) and Jacques Daret. The only documented work by Jacques Daret, an altarpiece executed for the Abbey of St. Vaast near Arras, shows close stylistic analogies with works by Rogier van der Weyden on one hand and works earlier in style by the Master of Flรฉmalle on the other. Both seem to proceed from common models, for they obviously are not copies of one another. As the Tournai records give the name of Campin as master of both Daret and Rogier, it has been generally assumed that the Master of Flรฉmalle may be reasonably identified with Campin. Some scholars, however, have stylistically considered the works ascribed to the Master of Flรฉmalle as early works by Rogier himself.

"Campin, Robert."   Britannica 2001 Standard Edition CD-ROM.   Copyright © 1994-2001 Inc.   November 19, 2002.

And so the debate goes on.

Context and Iconography: Art historians have often described this image as one that is full of "submerged symbolism."  This means that the symbolism of the image is not exactly clear and many historians invent complex theories in which to interpret the introuction of such elements as mouse traps.  One historian has proposed that the mouse traps represent that Jesus is the rat catcher of heaven.

Some of the debate about the iconography of this image stems form the development of new subject matter in art because of the rise of a new class of people.  The new merchant classes were now beginning to commission artists to paint their portraits.  In the process of including every day people in these images an element called genre began to show up in art.  Genre in French means a kind, but art historians have assigned a different meaning to the word.  A genre element is one in which an everyday person or objects appear in the painting.  Unfortunately for art historians, the introduction of genre elements  introduces some confusion into the interpretation of some of these images.  In general though, the introduction of genre is symbolic of the rising of a new class of people who are patrons of the arts in Europe.

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