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Crucifixion (Andrea Mantegna, ca. 1460, tempera on panel)

Crucifixion (Andrea Mantegna, ca. 1460, tempera on panel)

Here is Andrea Mantegna’s exquisite tempera masterpiece showing the crucifixion of Jesus.  I am going to present it without much comment except to note that it is a high-resolution file so you can (and should!) click on it to see a larger version. By doing so you will be sucked into the disturbing, beautiful 15th century world of Mantegna where everything and everyone seems to be carved of some aristocratic stone (quarried perhaps from the Golgotha they stand upon). Tempera paint gives an artist the ability to paint with disquieting hyper-realism, but it takes away some of the velvety shadows and lifelike glow which have made oil paint the preferred medium for western art for six centuries.  In the hands of an all-time master like Mantegna tempera’s strengths and limitations creates an unearthly effect fully appropriate for the death of the savior.


(Simone Martini, c. 1324, tempera on panel)

Born in Siena, Simone Martini was a painter whose masterful technique, elegance, and narrative themes greatly influenced the development of the International Gothic painting style. Completed sometime around 1324, this is one of his masterpieces, a three panel altarpiece (with two additional tiny tondo portraits of holy elders of the church)  which illustrates the saintliness of Agostino Novello, a thirteenth century Sicilian nobleman and scholar who renounced earthly life after being left for dead on a battlefield. In an attempt to avoid public life, Agostino joined the Order of Saint Augustine–but a former schoolmate from the University of Bologna recognized him and informed influential bishops of Agostino’s learning. Agostino was dragged into the scholarly life of the church where he rose to become Pope Nicholas IV’s confessor and Grand Penitentiary.

Detail of altarpiece

By the time of this painting, some of the real details of Agostino’s life were being supplanted by miraculous stories, here arrayed in four small story panels around the central portrait of the holy man.

Detail of altarpiece

The stories are painted with delightful detail and elegance.  The narrative flow of each tale is immediately obvious. In the top left corner Agostino appears like spiderman, hanging upside down from a wall to revive a child who has been mauled by a creature which seems to be a cross between a Labrador retriever and a dragon.  The bottom left panel finds the renowned scholar swooping out of heaven to catch a falling child.  Continuing to the bottom right corner, Saint Agostino pops through a hole in existence to heal/resurrect a baby which has fallen from a badly constructed hanging crib (child safety seems to have been a major problem in Medieval Italy).  The top right story-picture shows Agostino aiding a praying knight whose comrade is trapped beneath a fallen steed.

Detail of altarpiece

The center panel shows the Saint standing serenely in a grove of stately trees which are filled with singing birds. He holds a book as an angel whispers divine truth in his ear—a lovely metaphor for scholarship.

Detail of fallen knight

I am uncertain as to whether I should include demons and fallen angels in my “Deities of the Underworld” topic category.  They certainly seem to be immortal chthonic gods (or at least demigods) who are based in a land of torment and perdition beneath the ground, but, ever since the revelation at Sinai, monotheists get very touchy when one starts bandying about the G-word.  Irrespective, I think I will brave the scorn of the Abrahamic peoples and include this post in that thread.

Such a question is relevant because today, tomorrow, and Friday, I will feature three masterpieces of Gothic painting which portray demons!  Get out your asbestos gloves and put aside your squeamishness concerning scales, claws, talons, and horns because the great gothic painters lived in the medieval world where demons were taken very seriously

Bottom panel in an altarpiece, Polyptych with Coronation of the Virgin & Saints (Cenni di Francesco di Ser Cenni, ca. 1390, tempera on panel)

This first work is by Florentine artist Cenni di Francesco di Ser Cenni (1369 – 1415). Almost nothing is known of Cenni di Francesco di Ser Cenni, but it is believed he was originally a manuscript illuminator who made the jump to panel painter.  Whatever his background was, he has certainly given us a vivid demon painting. This is the bottom panel in an altarpiece, Polyptych with Coronation of the Virgin & Saints painted around 1390.  It depicts the temptation of Saint Anthony and what a temptation!  A bevy of rainbow colored demons, each wielding a unique implement of torture, torment the prostrate saint in order to convince him to renounce his faith.  Not for Cenni di Francesco the nubile lovelies who characteristically tempt the ascetic Anthony—this Saint is tempted by putting an end his pain!  On a deeper level the fiends may represent the privations and hardships of Anthony’s anchoretic life in Egypt’s eastern desert. These animal hybrid demons have particularly animated features and distinct personalities.  I wonder if Maurice Sendak happened across this image because his wild things bear a passing resemblance to Anthony’s tormentors.

Polyptych with Coronation of the Virgin & Saints (Cenni di Francesco di Ser Cenni, ca. 1390, Tempera on panel)

This is a tiny portion of a magnificent edifice of individual paintings. Cenni di Francesco’s works all come together in a towering gothic structure dedicated to the glory of the saints and their faith. The work is so large and all-encompassing that the torments of a few demons seem almost like a minor matter–which is perhaps part of the artwork’s meaning.  The entire alterpiece is today located at the Getty Museum, so if you are around Los Angeles, you can drop in and look at the actual artwork.

Tomorrow…fallen angels….

Writing about a close-up of a fly’s foot has led me to thinking about the infinitesimal details in tempera paintings by Carlo Crivelli–particularly since my favorite Crivelli painting prominently includes a fly.

Madonna and Child by Carlo Crivelli (circa 1480)

The enigmatic religious artist Carlo Crivelli painted this Madonna and Child some time around 1480.  The painting is a masterpiece of gothic style: a bejeweled Mary with Byzantine eyes holds baby Jesus on a cracked parapet.  Jesus grasps a struggling sparrow but his mood is somber.  Both figures are contemplating a fat black fly which has landed near Christ’s embroidered pillow.   Christ actually looks like a healthy baby (he frequently looks nothing like a real child in art) and Mary looks like a beautiful, wealthy noblewoman but the painting is still sad and intense. The fly seems to indicate that death and misery will soon mar whatever is most perfect and flawless.  The great oversize pickle and peaches dangling by the Virgin’s face also hint at something earthy and corrupted about existence.  In the background tiny figure hatch schemes and chase each other through the fulsome forests and orchards of Le Marche.  After looking closely at this painting, it will come as no surprise that Crivelli also painted extremely visceral scenes of the torture of Christ and the suffering of his followers.

We know very little about Carlo Crivelli (c. 1435 – c. 1495).  The artists’ biographer, Vasari–with his Florence-centric worldview–elected not to not to write about him at all.  Even the dates of Crivelli’s birth and death are unclear.  Although he signed his works Carlo Crivelli “Veneti” (“of Venice”) he spent most of his life working in Le Marche where lovely sinister cliffs drop precipitously into the Adriatic. He is said to have studied under Jacobello del Fiore–or was it with Vivarini, or maybe Francesco Squarcione in Padua?  At any rate, he was apparently a master of his own shop by 1457, when he was imprisoned for six months for an adulterous affair with Tarsia Cortese, the wife of a sailor.  Additionally he was a vegetarian.  Crivelli scorned oil painting, which was sweeping into fashion throughout the Renaissance art community to concentrate wholly on egg tempera, which suited his exacting, microscopic detail.  He modeled raised objects in gesso on his panels so his paintings venture slightly into the third dimension. Usually it is the gemstones and the tears which pop out from the panel.  Although he had many commissions from the conservative religious community, his work fell steeply from fashion after his death.  For a brief time in the nineteenth century pre-Raphaelite painters embraced his paintings for their sumptuous allegorical detail and their vivid, strange emotions, however Crivelli has once more fallen into near obscurity.

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June 2023