Andrea Mantegna, Agony in the Garden c1460
London, National Gallery
The drama occurs within sight of the walls of a most extraordinary city — Jerusalem has been transformed into a pink fairytale confection but, being Mantegna, it is a confection with a very hard edge. The architecture of the city is a composite of Roman and Renaissance styles featuring a structure which is similar to the Colosseum in Rome and another which bears a strong likeness to the campanile of S. Marco in Venice. Some of the towers look decidedly Tuscan. The walls have obviously been subject to attack for patches of different coloured stone betray the rebuilt stretches.
Linearity is central to Mantegna’s style and here, heavily striated rock forms the stage upon which the inexorable events of the night before Christ’s crucifixion take place. It is difficult to understand how the three apostles sprawled in the foreground could possibly fall asleep on such terrain. But they will soon be awakened from their fitful slumbers for Judas is fast approaching from the direction of Jerusalem accompanied by the troops who will very shortly take Jesus away. Christ is still engaged in prayer, kneeling at a rough outcrop which doubles as a makeshift altar, asking to be spared from his fate. But his prayers have been answered by the appearance of five implacable cherubs (standing on a cloud of such solidity that only Mantegna could have been its author) who present him with the gruesome instruments of his imminent torture and death — the column used to secure Jesus during the Flagellation, the cross upon which he will be crucified, the sponge which was dipped in vinegar and offered to him and the lance which was used to pierce his side. To ram the message home, a vulture waits expectantly, perched on the dead branch of a tree which itself looks as though it might soon share the fate of the Saviour.
At the margins, Mantegna has introduced two charming vignettes — egrets are standing in the (rather two-dimensional) shallow stream and rabbits are frolicking nearby. Of course, this being the fifteenth century, these representations of wildlife are there for a symbolic purpose — the rabbits, exposed on the arid path leading to Jesus may represent those future followers of Christ who will put their faith in his message; the white egrets in the water are a reference to the purification which follows baptism. But they also provide a welcome instance of softness within the harsh landscape of Mantegna’s unforgiving rocks.
Mantegna’s characteristic style was highly influential. And this painting exhibits all of the skills for which he earned so much respect from his contemporaries — a confident use of perspective, a style renowned for its clarity and a firm grasp of composition.
1457 Piero della Francesca: The Flagellation, Urbino, Galleria Nazionale delle Marche
c1460 Dieric Bouts: Mater Dolorosa, Chicago, Art Institute
1461 Benozzo Gozzoli: Journey of the Magi, Florence, Galleria degli Uffizi