Presentazione al Tempio (c.1454)

Mantegna, Andrea (c.1431-1506)

Presentazione al Tempio (Presentation in the Temple)
Tempera on wood, 77.1 x 94.4 cm

The Presentation of Christ in the Temple is narrated in the Gospel of Saint Luke (2:21–39). Soon after his birth, Jesus was brought to the Temple in Jerusalem by his parents, Mary and Joseph. The reason for this journey is not entirely clear, except that it was a Jewish ritual: were they accomplishing the circumcision of the Child, his consecration to the Lord (as first-born male), or the ritual purification of his mother after giving birth? In any case, says Saint Luke, Joseph and Mary brought with them a pair of turtle doves (or two young pigeons) for sacrifice. In the temple, a wise elder named Simeon takes the Child in his arms, recognising him as the Messiah, while Anna, an old prophetess, proclaims the miracle.

Andrea Mantegna‘s interpretation in the Gemäldegalerie makes a decisive departure from all previous examples, including one model painted by Giotto in the Scrovegni Chapel in Mantegna‘s own town, Padua. Mantegna includes neither temple, altar nor doves; there is no place for anecdote. The figures are not seen standing, as any painter was bound to do in representing a religious scene: Mantegna “cuts” his figures, half-length, to show as close as possible what is happening – to the extent that beholders might feel that the painted protagonists are encroaching on the real world. This is especially true of the most important figure, Jesus Christ, standing up on a cushion placed on the lower edge of the marble window framing the scene. The Virgin has placed her elbow on the frame, a sign in the direction of the onlooker as well as a point of support. Mary does not want to release her child, held firm in both hands, while Simeon seems to seize him from her grasp. Mantegna‘s baby Jesus cries out as he will on the Cross, his tight swaddling clothes prefigure his shroud, and the marble parapet on which he stands announces his tomb. Behind these players in the drama, three secondary figures appear: Joseph in the middle, seen frontally, a woman at the far left, and a man at the far right, both without haloes. The woman is too young to be Anna, described by Saint Luke as being 84, and she is not looking at what is going on. As for the man, he has a surprisingly absent stare.

Mantegna‘s Presentation of Christ in the Temple has often been compared to the one of the key works of Florentine art, Donatello‘s Pazzi Madonna, a work also belonging to the Staatliche Museen zu Berlin. This marble relief represents one of the first appearances in Renaissance art of a frame in fictive perspective that serves to mediate the image, while the tender, sad manner in which the Virgin places her forehead on that of her son seems to anticipate the attitude depicted by Mantegna. Since the Pazzi Madonna was created in about 1420 for a Florentine patron, it is very likely that it could have served as a direct model for Mantegna – but Donatello was incessantly productive, and the painter could have seen a similar work created by the sculptor during his Paduan sojourn. The X-radiograph of the Berlin painting shows that Mantegna reduced the distance between the Virgin and Child, in order to pit himself a little closer against Donatello‘s invention. Donatello had established a clear distinction between scenes with half-length figures, representing iconic and meditative subjects such as the Virgin and Child or the Man of Sorrows, and narrative scenes, which show figures in full-length poses. In his Presentation of Christ in the Temple, Mantegna combines these two typologies: he thus draws us closer, in an unprecedented way, to the holy figures and to the sacred narrative.

Another Presentation of Christ in the Temple is housed in the Fondazione Querini Stampalia in Venice; painted on panel, it bears the name of Mantegna inscribed on its back and has suffered a great deal, some areas of pigment being irreversibly lost, showing only the preparatory stage. The condition of the painting has not made the task of attribution any easier, even if Mantegna‘s authorship
has long been dismissed. The best-preserved parts nonetheless reveal exceptional pictorial virtuosity, which directly recalls works painted by Giovanni Bellini in the mid-1470s, while Mantegna‘s canvas is close to his work from the mid-1450s. New research has cast light on a remarkable feature: Bellini‘s version is actually traced from that of Mantegna. A number of years after the creation of Mantegna‘s Presentation, Giovanni Bellini felt the need to mechanically reproduce his brother-in-law’s work, while being unable to stop himself from changing its content in singular ways: expressions have become less violent, colours are more tonal and shadows more subtle, while the marble framing has disappeared, yielding to a simple parapet. And the lateral figures have increased from two to four.

Since the early 19th century, the figure on the right in the Berlin Presentation has been identified as a self-portrait of Mantegna; and it is true that it resembles the head painted in grisaille above the frescoes in the Ovetari Chapel in Padua, unanimously agreed to be the painter’s likeness of himself. For reasons of symmetry, the female figure on the left of the Berlin picture was identified as Nicolosia Bellini, Giovanni‘s sister and Mantegna‘s wife. Since their marriage was celebrated in 1453, the work could date from that year, or even from 1454, as the subject could allude to the birth of a first child.

As for the portraits in Bellini‘s painting, scholars have lost themselves in conjecture: if the figure on the right, gazing at us, were indeed the artist, how can we explain the fact that his features are so different from those we know of him? How can the identity of the other three figures be understood, given the highly problematic question of Giovanni’s birth – indeed given his likely illegitimacy? In our current state of knowledge, it makes sense to remain very prudent – perhaps those mysteries are essential to feel the aura of both pictures. (Gemäldegalerie)

Mantegna‘s self-portrait?

Mantegna‘s wife, Nicolosia Bellini?


Bellini, Giovanni (c.1430-1516)
Presentazione di Gesù al Tempio
Fondazione Querini StampaliaVenezia



The Presentation painted by Bellini (left) and by Mantegna (right)

Nicolosia painted by her brother (left) and by her husband (right).

Andrea Mantegna painted by Giovanni (left) and by himself (right).

See also:

Bellini, Jacopo (c.1400-c.1470) | Bellini, Nicolosia | Jerusalem (Israel)

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