Tuesday 25 April 2017

What Lies Beneath: The Dead Christ by Andrea Mantegna Tempera

The Dead Christ by Andrea Mantegna, Tempera on canvas, Pinacoteca di Brera, Milan

The Dead Christ by Andrea Mantegna
The Dead Christ by Andrea Mantegna

Niall MacMonagle

Islam is now growing faster than the world's population, and research predicts that by 2070 Muslims will outnumber Christians. But for now Christianity, at 31pc, is the world's largest religion, and this weekend the death of Christ will be recalled by Christians everywhere.

When Andrea Mantegna painted The Dead Christ (also known as The Lamentation) circa 1480, Christianity was in a different place. People inherited beliefs which their contained lives did not challenge.

The Enlightenment and its scientific, political developments came later. Papal life was more colourful then.

During Mantegna's lifetime Pope Paul II wore rouge, commissioned a diamond-studded papal tiara; Innocent VIII had two illegitimate children; Pius III, a Borgia, had four by several mistresses and Julius II, too, was both Pope and dad. And no one was watching any of it trending on their iPhones.

In this image, painted when Mantegna was in his 50s, Christ's body is on a marble slab, the stone of unction. Following the deposition, the body was placed there to be prepared for the tomb. Its spatial illusion, the foreshortened figure, the brutal suffering of the God who became man are unforgettable.

Though tempera technically means "pigments dispersed in an emulsion miscible with water, typically egg yolk or egg white", the effect is stunning: the viewer pities the anguished face, those open wounds on hands, and feet Closest to us, on the left, St John the Evangelist, then a very old, distraught Virgin Mary, behind her, Mary Magdalene. (It was said that she anointed the body and it was she who first saw the risen Christ.)

Born near Vincenza in 1431, apprenticed aged 11 in Padua, Andrea Mantegna, married aged 22 and spent most of his life in Mantua.

He knew grief - he buried a son and wife. At his own funeral, in 1506, this painting was displayed.

We've all seen loved ones in their coffins. Have they gone to heaven? No one has the monopoly on that question. Neither Pope nor priest. Who can say?

The recent census tells us that Ireland has fewer Christians and 468,400 people ticked the 'None' box. But Heavens above. Our Lord ascended, Our Lady was assumed. Will we make it? It's just fantastic to think about it.

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