Knowledge and Identitiy: Andrea Mantegna's Lamentation over the Dead Christ

By Dan Starling


During the Renaissance a new notion of the individual was created. This identity was formed through knowledge based on the relationship of the individual to the world in which they lived. At the time, new forms of knowledge were being pursued and old ones were being questioned or repositioned. The debate over the relationship of past and present knowledge of the divine or ‘ideal’ to science and nature changed the way that people viewed themselves. Individual identity is constructed in Andrea Mantegna’s Lamentation over the Dead Christ through the confrontation of different forms of knowledge. The body of Christ is the place where knowledge is deposited and discussed. At one time this figure is a depiction of God and the ideal body while at the same time it shows the mortality of the human being. The drastic foreshortened viewpoint heightens the individual’s connection with the image. This image uses the juxtaposition of subjective versus objective knowledge to allow the viewer a better understanding of themselves and their relationship to the divine.

Andrea Mantegna was aware of the new consciousness about the individual. By the time he was thirty years old he was the most celebrated painter in Northern Italy . The evidence that exists in Mantegna’s paintings has lead many art historians to conclude that he was one of the leading historical thinkers of his time . Mantegna’s childhood was spent in Padua and early in his career he became an apprentice to Francesco Squarcione, an artist . In 1460, Mantegna moved to Mantua to work as the court painter of Lodovico Gonzaga . Mantegna’s thinking was influenced by the humanist tutors who were employed by the court . Humanists were interested in the revival of ancient texts to their ‘pure’ form . Mantegna knew of Leon Battista Alberti’s writing, especially his seminal work On Painting that described painting as a synthesis of form and content . Many of the depictions of narrative scenes in Mantegna’s work are a result of composition and figuration formulated through writers like Alberti. Alberti describes how God created nature for man . The relationship of man and nature was beginning to be articulated in new ways through the arts . A new interest in the anatomy of the human body sparked a debate about the relationship between the body and soul that also called into question the role of man in the natural world . At this time the notion of the ‘ideal’ body was strongly held by those artists who depicted the human figure . These notions also changed the relationship of artists to the divine in their depictions. God was seen as being more personal to each individual. It is against this backdrop that around 1480 Mantegna painted the Lamentation over the Dead Christ (fig. 1). At first glance the Dead Christ or Cristo in scurto (the foreshortened Christ), as the picture was know, is a devotional image: the culmination of Christ’s suffering . The foreshortened dead body of Christ on a marble slab fills the image; Christ’s feet with their wounds project out into the space of the viewer. The history of the image is somewhat unknown and it has been speculated that it was a personal devotional image for Mantegna . The very nature of the painting centres on the individual.

The information that the Dead Christ relates is a result of its use of perspectival depiction. The dramatic foreshortening in Mantegna’s image has intrigued many critics and has been analyzed for is pictorial devices. Robert Smith has demonstrated through photographs that the figure of Christ corresponds to the proportions of a figure seen at a distance of 25 metres . The slab on which the figure is lying contradicts this calculation because it has the perspective scheme of a distance of approximately 2 metres. When a real figure is viewed at a distance of 2 metres the body’s proportion appears distorted; the size of the feet become very large when compared with the size of the head . One interpretation of this contradiction is that Mantegna did not apply the perspective distortion to the figure because it does not have the same linear qualities of the slab . As well, it has been shown that the picture can be viewed as a natural scene for a single viewer standing in the correct position . This is supported by the debate of Mantegna’s contemporaries that there was only one correct point of viewing . Alberti claimed that a painting could never appear truthful without a definite viewing distance . Therefore, the objective view of mathematics would be uncompromised by the artist’s own vision.

This argument is complicated by the fact that the rules of perspective and vision were not clearly understood at this time and Mantegna may have omitted distortion of the figure because he was not comfortable with the laws of mathematical perspective . In this case, the image is infused with the subjective ability of the painter’s hand to render the image. The eye can in fact compensate to a certain degree for the distortion of a foreshortened figure when seen naturally . Leonardo was aware of the changes in scale between objects viewed at a distance, but no evidence has suggested that he used this information when rendering the body in perspective . A device capable of overcoming the deficiencies of the human eye was Alberti’s velo: a screen of perpendicular and parallel lines . Such a device can be seen in Albrect Dürer’s woodcut: Draftsman drawing a Reclining Nude (fig. 2). From this image we can see that if the draftsman were to draw the figure as seen, it would have been described in sharpe foreshortening. The detached, observational view of the draftsman contrasts the gratuitous gaze of the viewer who can see the entire body of the nude female. The presentation of the figure in this way suggests that it was drawn for the viewer and that the draftsman was not actually depicting the nude from his angle . It is doubtful whether such a device as the velo was even used in practice . In contrast, Vasari noted that perspective was a manifestation of the artist’s own vision and was a result of study from life . The scientific formula of perspective is usurped by Mantegna’s personal interpretation.

The combination of art and science in the Dead Christ allows us to think about why Mantegna’s subjective construction of the figure in the face of scientific principles was so important. Evident in Dürer’s woodcut is the disparity between the calculated mathematical viewpoint and idealizing gaze of the viewer . Mantegna may have consciously abandoned the perspectival distortion of the figure due to another reason: its interference with the notion of the ‘ideal’ body. The idea of the ‘ideal’ human body of proportion described by the Roman architect Vitruvius in his Vitruvian man was revived at this time by humanists . As well, the ideal set of proportions, based on the harmonic division of line according to the ratio of the golden section, was searched for in real humans by direct measurement of the body . For artists geometrical order in perspectival space was crucial for the correct portrayal of the human figure . In Mantegna’s image Christ’s body is infused with this order by making no one part of the body larger or more dominant. This natural order was linked with the divine. Leonardo regarded man as a microcosm for the supreme creation of nature . He sought to extract the underlying principles of nature and recreated them in his pictures impersonally . For Dürer, the role of the artist was to act as an informed conduit for God’s depiction of nature . In the same way, Mantegna sought to convey in his body of Christ the ideal scientific human, God’s creation. Because of this, the perspective distortion of Christ’s body is omitted because it interferes with Mantegna’s ability to comprehend the image based on his understanding of nature and the divine. Mantegna is negotiating the challenge that science posed to the divine by calling up the study of the body.

This battle of ‘old knowledge’ with the ‘new knowledge’ obtained through the study of nature contributed to a changing understanding of science and religion. The viewpoint of the dead body of Christ allowed viewers to think about the Lamentation in a new way. The viewpoint calls up a body on display that can be scrutinized and analyzed. At this time a ‘new science’ of human anatomy would challenge the way people related to the world around them . In 1482 the Church sanctioned in medical schools the dissection of the bodies of convicted criminals . Before this time, to deliberately puncture and explore the spaces of the human body would be to disrupt the relationship between the body and mind; the body was only viewed as a carrier for the mind and soul . From the end of the fifteenth century to the mid-seventeenth century the culture of dissection was devoted to the gathering of information and the dissemination of the mystery of the human body . This inquiry helped to promote the construction of individuality and formulate the notion of ‘selfhood’ . The characteristics of the internal body changed the way people saw the meaning of being alive. It was discovered that the interior components of the human body had certain variations that were unique to each person . Ethnographically, this knowledge was used to secure so called ‘scientific’ differences between races and gender. This information was used as evidence to show that women were less intelligent . For example, the size of a woman’s brain is smaller when compared with that of a man. The knowledge was also used by Europeans to claim the ownership of lands in the New World in the explorations of Columbus as well as to claim superiority over conquered peoples . Also, this understanding of the body changed the relationship of the mind and body. The ability of the mind to explore and formulate abstract thoughts was intertwined with the knowledge of physical human body. All of these factors contributed to a new self-knowledge and made society more individualistic.

This information affected artists just as much as it affected society in general. An understanding of the interior of the body was crucial for artists to correctly depict the human form . Alberti suggests that artists should depict the body by starting with the bones, then the tendons and muscles, and finally the flesh and skin . Vasari also stressed the importance of understanding of the internal workings of the body as critical for transfer between surface and depth . In describing the dead Christ in Michelangelo’s pieta Vasari noted:
It would be impossible to find a body showing greater mastery of art and possessing more beautiful members, or a nude with more details in the muscles, veins, and nerves stretched over their framework of bones, or a more deathly corpse .
Michelangelo and Leonardo were able to gain their experience in the hospitals of Florence and in their drawings they emphasize the muscles under the skin of the body .

However, in the fifteenth century an artist’s experience of dissection was limited and it is hard to provide evidence that any artist before Michelangelo or Leonardo had any “hands on” experience . Until this point the painter had to rely on surface inspection of the body and the use of plaster casts . However, it is clear that an interest in the subject of the interior of the human body was present in the fifteenth century. Mantegna may have accumulated his knowledge through his relationship with the Paduan doctor Savonarola and his humanistic studies . In Mantegna’s Dead Christ the skin is pulled taught over the torso exposing the rib cage, the pectoral and abdominal muscles. The paint is exactingly applied and its quality is crisp. The weight of the body is seen in the hang of the shoulders and arms. Each of these devices indicates Mantegna’s interest in the interior of the body and his study of its form.
Through his depiction of the material body Mantegna also captures its state. In On Painting Alberti describes that “in the one who is dead truly there is no member which does not appear deathly; they all hang, the hands, the fingers, the neck, all fall languidly; indeed they all work together in expressing the death of the body” . Symbolically, the spear wound in Christ’s torso echoes the dissection of the body. The surgeon was akin to the artist in that both could go beyond the surface of the body to encounter the core of reality . Mantegna’s Dead Christ calls up the new interest in the scientific exploration of the body. The position of Mantegna’s Christ can be compared to Rembrandt’s Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Joan Deymam (fig. 3) from 1656. Rembrandt was aware of Mantegna’s Dead Christ and may have used the figure as a model for his image . Mantegna’s positioning of the body is suitable for the dissection of a corpse. By using this vocabulary to depict the Dead Christ Mantegna locates the body within contemporary debates. Christ is situated simultaneously in the past historically and the present physically. This gives the viewer a direct and personal relationship to the body before them.

The possession of this new understanding and knowledge of the body was specifically male. Only males were allowed to participate in dissection as well as the study of the nude body . Males were given the special awareness of their internal self. In Mantegna’s Dead Christ this consciousness is located in not only a male body but in the spiritual body Christ. When compared to Botticelli’s Birth of Venus (fig. 4) the female figure of Venus appears to be idealized to the point where she is de-anatomized . One way this worked in the image was to distance the viewer from the object of his gaze and made female nudity acceptable. Similarily, Vasari cited the anatomy of Christ in Michelangelo’s pieta and not the body of the Virgin . The Virgin remains youthful, unaware of the ravages of time and death in her own body. By not giving the female an internal body they were not given the a certain kind of knowledge. Mantegna’s depiction of the Virgin works in a different way. The weeping Virgin is depicted as old and ragged in contrast to the body of Christ. This compels the viewer to enact a parallel relationship with the weeping Virgin because their contemplation over the body is similar. The Virgin has the knowledge of the body because she is akin to the male viewer. As well, this serves to heighten the youthfulness, nakedness and sexuality of the body of Christ.

The semi-nude body of Christ emphasizes God’s humanity. As a result the viewer establishes an individual experience of God. At this time, the acceptance of nakedness in art was easier to achieve in religious settings . Leo Steinberg has explored the tradition of the sexuality of Christ in Renaissance art. He finds that the sexualized depiction of Christ serves to humanize God as a mortal being . The sexual nature of Christ is shown through his nudity and through his covered penis. Christ’s first wound is his circumcision, depicted by Mantegna’s Circumcision, 1488 (fig. 5). This first suffering can be seen as analogous to Christ’s last suffering on the cross . Circumcision is comparable to dissection that was associated with the erotic penetration of the human body . Indeed, Christ’s ‘Passion’ on the cross was a result of the penetration of his body with nails . The accessibility and vulnerability of Christ’s figure was a technique used to get closer to the body physically and spiritually.

At the same time, Christ retains the position of authority over the viewer by the symbol of his phallus. The post mortem revival can be seen as an equation between erection and resurrection and has its roots in pre-Christian antiquity . Direct confrontation with Christ’s penis was too problematic for the viewer to handle. Instead, by the mid-fifteenth century a cleaver way to avoid direct depiction of Christ’s member had been devised in northern art: the enhanced loincloth over Christ’s waist . In Mantegna’s Lamentation over the Dead Christ the loincloth is used to emphasize Christ’s phallus. The cloth is draped over the body in such a way as to show the exact form of the body beneath. Christ’s legs are well defined under the cloth and a clear bulge is created at Christ’s groin. The use of this type of cloth to show the underlying body is in accordance with the notion of the ‘ideal’ body. The insertion of power goes in hand with the personal relationship of the viewer to the figure of Christ. The sexuality of Christ is a statement of God’s humanity . The symbol of God’s humanization through the sexual member of Christ shows a new understanding of people’s relationship to the divine. At once the viewer is closer to Christ but still understands his position of authority.

Through scientific enquiry the body of Christ is more human. However, the subject of Christ’s death calls up the problem of what happens to the body or soul after it is dead. In the depiction of Christ after the crucifixion Mantegna has highlighted a very problematic time in Christianity. In this moment, Christ is in a state of being and non-being, between physicality and spirituality. In effect the greatest fear for the devoted worshiper is not being resurrected and not going to heaven. In the period after Christ’s death scientific inquiry challenged the basis of religious belief. Now that the viewer is personally connected to the image it is important that they are inspired by it as well. Christ encompasses the notion of the perfect human as an inspirational image for his worshippers. The body of Christ, even though dead and having been on the cross, still retains its muscularity and his skin has not deteriorated. The image of the Dead Christ brings the subject of biological death and religious death into close juxtaposition. Christ is not able to overcome the laws of nature that govern the world . If the laws of nature are so powerful that even Christ cannot overcome them, how could a regular person? This feeling is conveyed though the way Christ is represented. In Hans Holbein’s The Body of the Dead Christ in the Tomb (fig. 6) Christ’s body appears savagely beaten and decomposing . Holbein’s Dead Christ, locked in a tomb, does not suggest any hope of salvation through resurrection . In contrast, Mantegna provides only a selective assertion of Christ’s mutilation and death . Inspired by the exploration of the body, the human fear of biological expiry became paramount. Mantegna’s painting is fighting the human fear of biological death with the ability of God to transcend that death. This image gives hope to the viewer in the resurrection of the dead body. The reason for the greater humanization of God and a more personal connection is to overcome this increased fear.

In the Renaissance, science, art and religion were not in opposition as they are portrayed in the twentieth century. These endeavors were integrated in order to come up with an understanding of the physical world. It was the advances in thinking around these areas that refashioned old ideas about the ‘self’. Mantegna’s Lamentation over the Dead Christ captures the process of individual exploration and the pursuit of knowledge. Through the investigation of mathematical perspective and the inner biology of the body, science made people more self-aware. Along with a better personal understanding the individual there was also a more personal view of the divine. It is the push and pull of these forms of knowledge that was the basis for the new way of thinking about the individual during the Renaissance.

Selected Bibliography
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Kemp, Maritn. “The Mean and Measure of all Things.” in 1492 – Age of Exploration
(Washington D.C.: National Gallery Exhibition Catalogue 1992): 95-111.
Kristeva, Julia. “Holbein’s Dead Christ.” in Zone 3 (19 ): 238-269.
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Steinberg, Leo. “The Sexuality of Christ is Renaissance Art and in Modern Oblivion.” October
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