dead christ by andrea mantegna
The Lamentation of Christ (also known as the Lamentation over the Dead Christ, or the Dead Christ and other variants) is a painting of about 1480 by the Italian Renaissance artist Andrea Mantegna. While the dating of the piece is debated, it was completed between 1475 and 1501, probably in the early 1480s.  It portrays the body of Christ supine on a marble slab. He is watched over by the Virgin Mary and Saint John and St. Mary Magdalene weeping for his death.
The theme of the Lamentation of Christ is common in medieval and Renaissance art, although this treatment, dating back to a subject known as the Anointing of Christ, is unusual for the period. Most Lamentations show much more contact between the mourners and the body. Rich contrasts of light and shadow abound, infused by a profound sense of pathos. The realism and tragedy of the scene are enhanced by the violent perspective, which foreshortens and dramatizes the recumbent figure, stressing the anatomical details: in particular, Christ’s thorax. The holes in Christ’s hands and feet, as well as the faces of the two mourners, are portrayed without any concession to idealism or rhetoric. The sharply drawn drapery which covers the corpse contributes to the dramatic effect. The composition places the central focus of the image on Christ’s genitals – an emphasis often found in figures of Jesus, especially as an infant, in this period, which has been related to a theological emphasis on the Humanity of Jesus by Leo Steinberg and others.
Mantegna’s realism prevails over any esthetic indulgence that might result from an over-refined lingering over the material aspects of his subject. His realism is in turn dominated by an exalted poetic feeling for suffering and Christian resignation. Mantegna’s creative power lies in his own interpretation of the “historic,” his feeling for spectacle on a small as well as a large scale. Beyond his apparent coldness and studied detachment, Mantegna’s feelings are those of a historian, and like all great historians he is full of humanity. He has a tragic sense of the history and destiny of man, and of the problems of good and evil, life and death.
The theme of the Lamentation is common in medieval and Renaissance art, although this treatment, dating back to a subject known as the Anointing of Christ is unusual for the period. Most Lamentations show much more contact between the mourners and the body. Rich contrasts of light and shadow abound, infused by a profound sense of pathos. The realism and tragedy of the scene are enhanced by the violent perspective, which foreshortens and dramatizes the recumbent figure, stressing the anatomical details: in particular, Christ’s thorax. The holes in Christ’s hands and feet, as well as the faces of the two mourners, are portrayed without any concession to idealism or rhetoric. The sharply drawn drapery which covers the corpse contributes to the dramatic effect. Unique to this painting is a design that places the central focus of the image on Christ’s genitals – an artistic choice that is open to a multitude of interpretations. Mantegna managed instead to paint a very specific representation of physical and emotional trauma.
The most convincing hypothesis, despite the uncertainties stemming from the existence of several variants of the same subject, identifies the painting in Brera with the “foreshortened Christ” found in Mantegna’s studio at the time of his death, sold by his son Ludovico to Cardinal Sigismondo Gonzaga and inventoried among the property of the lords of Mantua in 1627.
The subsequent fate of the painting is still a matter of debate among scholars, faced with a complicated series of changes of ownership only partially – and confusedly – documented: according to the most recent but not conclusive theory, the painting was sold in 1628 to Charles I of England along with the most valuable pieces in the Gonzaga collection; it then passed onto the antique market and into the collection of Cardinal Mazarin; on the latter’s dispersal it vanished for over a century. No more was heard of it until the beginning of the 19th century: in 1806, in fact, the secretary of the Accademia di Brera Giuseppe Bossi asked the sculptor Antonio Canova to act as a go-between in the purchase of his “sought-after Mantegna,” which finally made its way into the Pinacoteca in 1824.
The iconography of the work, probably intended for the artist’s private devotion, refers to the compositional scheme of the Lamentation over the Dead Christ, in which mourners are gathered around the body prepared for burial, laid out on the stone of unction and already anointed with perfumes.
The composition produces a great emotional impact, accentuated by the extreme foreshortening: Christ’s body is very close to the viewpoint of the observer who, looking at it, is drawn into the center of the drama; moreover, every detail is enhanced by the incisiveness of the lines, which compels the gaze to linger over the most terrible details, over the members stiffened in rigor mortis as well as the wounds, ostentatiously presented in the foreground as called for by the tradition of this type of image.
It is an absolute peak in Mantegna’s production, a work whose expressive force, severe composure and masterly handling of the illusion of perspective have made it one of the best-known symbols of the Italian Renaissance.
Mantegna’s principal contribution to Early Renaissance painting was his mastery of trompe l’oeil spatial illusionism, exemplified by his foreshortening technique both in this painting and in his fresco painting on the ceiling of the Camera degli Sposi (room of the bride and groom) in the Ducal Palace, Mantua (1471-74). Foreshortening, namely the application of linear perspective to a single object or figure in order to simulate projection or depth (thus creating the illusion of three-dimensionality), helps to render the appearance of objects as we perceive them. Thus Mantegna’s Christ is shown greatly truncated, even though the artist had to deliberately reduce the size of the feet so as not to obscure our view of the body. If a photograph had been taken from the same viewpoint, the feet would have blocked our view of the torso.
His picture is defined from the outset by its window-like frame. This emphasizes the confined space of the scene and makes it appear even more like the cold slab of a morgue. It also gives the viewer, positioned at Christ’s feet, a dramatic close-up of Christ’s dead body: the physicality and naturalism are extraordinary – it looks completely lifeless.
By comparison, this daringly experimental view by Mantegna takes us aback. It seems to incline towards ugliness or, at the very least, a cool impartiality that almost borders upon irreverence. Its presence here feels so sudden, so jarring, so quickly upon us when we catch sight of it. It looks like a corpse on a mortuary trolley that has been slammed into our knees, a partially exposed corpse, feet-first. Except that this is a marble slab on which the body lies.
The ribcage, faintly marked with almost decorative lacerations, looks oddly swelled as if pumped until it is on the brink of manly posturing. The wounds on hands and feet are curious too, open and dry. The flesh looks cracked and dusty. We are not accustomed to having the soles of Christ’s feet thrust out towards us in this way – as if feet were more important in the emotional scale of things than the face or the hands. The body is that of a relatively heavy man of some musculature. That is unusual too. Representations of Christ most often swing between the handsomely homoerotically able-bodied and the ascetic. Much more unusual would be the plump Saviour. Or is this dramatic use of foreshortening playing tricks with us?