February 1st 2020

“The Presentation of Christ in the Temple”, Andrea Mantegna, c.1454, Gemäldegalerie, Staatliche, Museen su Berlin.  It is accepted that this painting dates from around the time of Mantegna’s marriage to Nicolosia Bellini and before he left Padua.  The two figures, left and right, are thought to be Mantegna and his bride.  It has also been shown that 20 years later, Giovanni Bellini made another version of his in-law’s work, and actually traced the central figures.  Mantegna repeated himself in printmaking, but never in a painting.  By contrast Bellini’s workshop produced copies of, and variations on, his works.  Bellini’s version of the Presentation became a “best seller” and his wokshop produced many versions of this work and the closely related circumcision of Christ.  It would seem that for Mantegna this scene with half-length figures set against a dark background was a one-off. It would also seem that it was a family matter.  But in fact,  with his presentation the young Mantegna broke new ground among artists in the Veneto and elsewhere in Italy.  In Venice and Padua, icons of Our Lady and the child Jesus were used in public churches.  In such images Mary and Jesus were often shown half-length and close up.  But scenes depicting a story from the gospel always showed the figures full length.  Here Mantegna combines the two types of image.  This is a narrative scene,  which captures that moment before Mary hands over the child to Simeon.  And yet, the focus of the painting is on the mother and child. Indeed, in the relief-like quality of this work, Mantegna skilfully creates the illusion that the mother and child have entered into the very room where the painting hangs.  Her right elbow is leaning on the illusionistic frame and the cushion on which the child is stood protrudes over the edge of the same frame.  This fictional frame has been described as both lens and stage. It is as if we are given a window unto the sacred event, whilst the same event breaks into our world, offering meaning and insight into our own lives.  The particular type of rose coloured marble was used commonly by artists to suggest both Temple and Altar, so that the allusion to the Eucharist and Mary’s compliance in Christ’s sacrifice on the cross are powerfully evoked.  It is worth comparing it with Giotto’s Presentation from  the Scovegni Chapel in Padua  and noticing how much detail Mantegna omits so that the viewer is focused on the mother and child.  At the time, a new devotional movement, which became known as Devotio Moderna, had arrived south of the Alps and tracts such as “The Imitation of Christ” by Thomas A Kempis (1418-27) were widely read and they greatly influenced the devout,  whether literate or illiterate.  This movement emphasised a more personal connection with Christ and with his mother.  Readers were urged to imagine the gospel scene and ponder it. The use of images as an aid was encouraged,  but there was also the caution that these were merely aids to devotion and not the real thing.  Again Mantegna’s frame suggests as much.  The child cries out as Christ would on the cross. His swaddling bands suggests the shroud.  Indeed the frame is actually reminiscent of funerary reliefs from antiquity, which were certainly known by Mantegna and his contemporaries.  The only figure in the painting to be shown in full length is Christ, who is held upright by his mother almost in the same way that a priest elevates the host during Mass.  It was common practice for the wealthy to have within their house a private chapel or oratory and you can imagine this painting hanging in such a space, darkened by shutters, so that the figure of Christ in his swaddling bands, Mary’s headdress and Simeon’s fantastic beard, all glow in the half light.  Moreover, whilst the original frame has been lost, analysis of the canvas edges suggests that it may have been painted to create the illusion that the fictive frame on the canvass and the real wooden frame were one continuous frame.  And so,  in the candle lit seclusion of a  domestic oratory or chapel,   this really would seem to be a aperture unto the divine, the invisible made visible.  One contemporary writer said of this picture, “Like a large screen plasma television, Mantegna’s fictive frame succeeds in bringing a distant biblical event into the living room.”   But this painting must have had some direct link to the lives of Mantegna and his wife.  Perhaps it was connected to the birth of his first born son, after which his mother would have been taken to Church and “purified” as was Mary in accordance with Jewish Law.  The couple look to the left, but with unfocused gazes, which  suggests  that they too are mediating on the sacred event.  In this way, the viewer can situate herself within the frame and the narrative.  Infant mortality rates were high and childbearing was a risky business. It would not be unusual, to say the least,  for an expectant mother to seek the intercession and protection of the Virgin mother, in those perilous months leading to a birth, or afterwards, to give thanks for a healthy child.  In my mind, there is a link to what I see happening in the lives of parents as they present their child for baptism, keenly aware that now the child is dependent on them, but that with baptism a new path opens up before the child, and that one day, he or she will make his or her own way in the world, leaving both mother and father behind. 


Edinburgh Catholic Chaplaincy

The Catholic Chaplaincy serves the students and staff of the University of Edinburgh, Edinburgh Napier University and Queen Margaret University.

The Catholic Chaplaincy is also a parish of the Archdiocese of St Andrews and Edinburgh (the Parish of St Albert the Great) and all Catholic students and staff are automatically members of this parish.

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