Minerva Expelling the Vices from the Garden of Virtue by Andrea Mantegna

Minerva Expelling the Vices from the Garden of Virtue by Andrea Mantegna (1502)

Nowadays,  whenever we switch on the television, we are bombarded by property shows and house renovations programmes, all wanting to know what our ideal house would be and suggesting how we should utilise the interior space of our dream home.  Questions are posed such as, should we have a gymnasium or a pool room or an office?  In 15th century Italy, the wealthy had similar things to ponder over and one of the popular ideas in those days was to incorporate a room in your residence, which would act as a private study or a meeting place for your intellectual friends.  However having the space for such a room was only one part of the dilemma.  The house owner then had to furnish it in such a way so as to impress their guests.  Sounds familiar?

In the 15th century Italy the fashionable thing to do was to have a studiolo, which was a type of private study, which would be set aside for intellectual activities.  Isabella d’Este, the Marchesa of Mantua, one of the leading women of the Italian Renaissance was a major cultural figure of that time and a patron of the arts.  In 1490, she decided to create a studiolo in a tower of the Castello di San Giorgio and she commissioned Andrea Mantagna to paint two canvases to hang in the room entitled Parnassus and Minerva which she would have positioned opposite each other in the study.  Her biographer wrote:

“…It was Isabella’s dream to make this Studiolo a place of retreat from the world, where she could enjoy the pleasures of solitude or the company of a few chosen friends, surrounded by beautiful paintings and exquisite works of art….. In this sanctuary from which the cares and the noise of the outer world were banished, it was Isabella’s dream that the walls should be adorned with paintings giving expression to her ideals of culture and disposing the mind to pure and noble thoughts…”

My Daily Art Display today is the second of these works of art by Andrea Mantegna entitled Minerva Expelling the Vices from the Garden of Virtue which he completed in 1502.  The artist was in his seventies at this time and would live just another four years after he completed the works of art. 

Clouds with faces

The painting is full of anecdotal detail and the story is not so much historical but allegorical.  On the left of the picture we have the Greek goddess of wisdom, Pallas Athena, (who was known to the Romans as Minerva), spear in hand, as she rushes towards and drives away the various malformed monstrous Vices in order to re-establish the reign and rule of Virtue, who we see imprisoned in the olive tree on the far left.  

The three Vices, Avarice, Ingratitude and Ignorance

If you look at the far right of the painting you can see the Vices, Avarice and Ingratitude carrying off to the swamp-like pool the fat, stupid Ignorance, who is wearing a crown.  The painting is full of bizarre and weird entities.  Clouds with faces, talking trees and anthropomorphic monkeys are just some of the creepy items on display in this painting.  In the sky on the right hand side we have the three theological virtues, Faith, Hope and Charity.  They had been driven out previously by the depravities which had been occupying garden and now return.  The fourth Virtue, Prudence, is walled up inside the stone structure on the far right of the painting and only a white fluttering banner reflects her cry of help.

It is not the sort of painting I would like hung in my study.  I think I would prefer a beautiful landscape but again this painting would be sure to fuel the conversation of one’s guests as they study the multi-faceted composition.

Lamentation of the Dead Christ by Andrea Mantegna

Lamentation of the Dead Christ by Andrea Mantegna (c.1490)

My Daily Art Display today focuses on a painting, the subject of which has many similarities to the Hans Holbein painting The Body of the Dead Christ in the Tomb by Hans Holbein, which was My Daily Art Display of the day on February 20th.  Today’s painting is entitled Lamentation of the Dead Christ and was painted by Andrea Mantegna around 1490.

Andrea Mantegna was born in Isola di Carturo a small village close to Padua which was then within the Republic of Venice.  His father, Biagio, was a carpenter.  When he was eleven years of age he started an apprenticeship with Francesco Squarcione, an Italian painter from Padua.   His school was very popular at the time and over a hundred painters passed through the school.  Padua at the time was looked upon as a great place to be if you were and aspiring artist and the likes of Uccello, Lippi and Donatello spent time in the city.  Mantegna stayed with his tutor for six years.

Mantegna’s first work of art was an altarpiece for the church of Santa Sofia in 1448.  Although he gained a great reputation as an artist and was admired by many, he left Padua and spent most of his life in Verona, Mantua and Rome where he carried on with his paintings.  In 1460 he entered the service of Ludovico Il Gonzaga the Marquis of Mantua as his court artist.  This engagement earned Mantegna a great deal of money which was a sign of the high regard in which his work was held.  Whilst employed by Gonzaga he completed many fresco paintings of the Gonzaga family.

Today’s painting of the Lamentation of the Dead Christ was completed around 1490.  It is one of very few oil on canvas paintings of the period.  It is an almost monochromatic vision of Christ.  The painting has a limited amount of tonal colouring, mainly pink, grey and golden-brown.   The setting of the painting seems to be a morgue-like and claustrophobic space with its cold dark walls.  This poorly lit space intensifies the paleness of the body. 

Feet of Chirst

The forceful image is of the body of Christ laid out on a stark and granulated marble slab.  Mantegna has toyed with the rules of perspective making the head large, whereas if the rules of perspective had been adhered to then the head would be much smaller than the feet.  There is an intense foreshortening of the body which makes it appear heavy and enlarged.   

Christ’s suffering, before death, is plain to see.  Mantegna has given us an unusual vantage point.   It places the observer at the feet of the subject and by doing so, adds to one’s sense of empathy. It could almost be described as a gruesome sight.  The face of Christ is lined.  His head of wavy hair rests upon a pink satin pillow.  The wounds seen on the back of his hands are like torn paper, as is the horizontal cut in his side made by the spear. It is almost blasphemous, as here Christ has not risen from the dead and he is like us mortals.  In the foreground are the feet of Christ each with dried puncture marks made by the crucifixion nails.  Look at the skill in which Mantegna has painted the folds of the shroud.

The Mourners


At the left we have three mourners, Mary, Saint John and perhaps slightly hidden by the other two mourners, Mary Magdalene.  Their tear-stained faces are distorted in grief.  These contorted facial features derive from the masks of classical tragedy.  One cannot help but be moved by their expressions.

Compare this painting with Holbein’s The Body of the Dead Christ in the Tomb and see which you think is the most moving.