At the moment (Summer 2019) there is an incredible exhibition at the Academia Carrara, Bergamo, and it is all about this picture. I wish I were an Art Historian, so that I could tell you all about what makes Mantegna’s work special. You can see for yourself, that he mastered body modelling and proportion, perspective, foreshortening, not to mention vibrant use of colour: or can you? Because the fact is, that for more than a hundred years, this wasn’t a Mantegna at all.
The Art world is a puzzling place. If you find a Renaissance masterpiece in your attic, there are several possibilities. Perhaps it is an original by a named artist, or a work from his studio, where assistants did lots of the boring bits, or a work by his disciple, or a copy from his period, or a recent copy, or just a poster someone bought and framed. Most of us can probably tell a cheap poster from an oil painting, but only an expert can tell the difference between the hand of the Master and a very good painting in his style – yet the difference may be worth millions. And the experts are not always right.
This painting was originally considered a Mantegna – Count Guglielmo Lochis bought it as a Mantegna in Milan in 1846. On his death, he bequeathed it to the Academia Carrara, with other works from his great collection. That is cutting a long story short, because he originally intended the City of Bergamo to take over his whole collection and a brand new Museum he had built for it, but the generous gift was just too expensive for the city to accept. Some lawyers later, there was a compromise, and the art expert Giovanni Morelli picked out about half the collection (240 pictures) to be re-homed in the Academia Carrara, a gallery which already existed in the city, the generous legacy of Count Giacomo Carrara in 1796.
Giovanni Morelli clearly thought this was a fine painting. But he did not think it was by Mantegna. His opinion carried a lot of weight because he was a pioneer of the use of scientific method in the identification of artworks. Before this period, identification was a bit hit and miss, and salesmen had a lot of motivation to be optimistic about the origin of their wares. If you know anything about pictures at all, clearly you can tell whether a picture looks like the work of an individual artist; perhaps you have a charming tradition that a work was by such and such an artist, or a letter to that effect signed by someone important and so on. For Morelli, this was not enough. He had trained as a doctor, and realised that objective analytical tests could be applied to painting. He looked beyond broad resemblances to tiny details – how did the artist paint the folds of an ear or the fingers of a hand in a background character? These techniques were the ‘tells’, the unique fingerprint of the artist. And according to Morelli, this painting, though fine, was not by Mantegna himself. This did not prevent it being a copy, or a work from his school, but it was NOT a Mantegna.
And so it remained until last year, 2018. Morelli’s method has survived him, but we now have the advantage of many objective scientific tests unknown to him: X rays; ultra-violet light; advanced chemical analysis. This painting has become the first painting of wood to be studied by tomography: imaged cross-section by cross-section. We also have techniques of digital analysis and comparison which enable us to place side by side works which are located in different continents. This is what happened here. In 2018, it was discovered that this work was not only a Mantegna, but the top section of a larger work – the bottom section is in the Barbara Piasecka Johnson Collection in Princeton USA. Yes – somebody at some point decided to double his stock of Mantegnas by sawing a big one up. This is not that unusual.
Together, the two paintings make up a single story – and there would have been more on each side. The red circle shows the location of a tiny cross that matches the sections together. The colours in the photos I have uploaded are not very good – but you get the idea from my photo at the start. So at the top, Christ rises from the tomb, to the astonishment of the Roman soldiers guarding it. If you are English, no, he is not carrying the St George flag – the little white and red pennant is a symbol of the Resurrection. Although Renaissance artists aimed at naturalism in representing objects, including the human body, the composition of religious pictures was still based around ancient symbolic elements. Mantegna did not think Christ actually stepped out of the tomb carrying an aerial with the St George flag: the flag is one of the signs that the picture tells the story of the Resurrection.
If you think that stepping out of the tomb in flowing white garments is enough to tell us that we are in the story of the Resurrection, look below. Christ still has the little flag, in a much more mysterious picture, but the fact that we know that the flag means the Resurrection helps us decode it. Christ resurrected (with the little flag) is visting a cave: not a Biblical story. In fact he is helping an old man climb out of it, while other figures, male and female, who appear to have ascended already, stand by in reverent attitudes. All these figures wear nothing except scraps of drapery – their grave clothes. This scene, the Descent into Limbo, also called the Harrowing of Hell, represents the rescue from death of those chosen by God in the Old Testament – Adam and Eve, the Patriarchs – who lived justly but could not be fully redeemed until the coming of Christ. According to the tradition, this act of salvation took place between the Crucifixion and the Resurrection.
Although this story is not strictly Biblical, it was taught as early as the 2nd Century AD. Theologically, it is a way of solving the problem of how Adan and Eve, Noah and Abraham and all the Old Testament righteous could be saved if salvation is through Christ alone. The many Christians, including Roman Catholic and Orthodox, who accept this tradition believe it is confirmed by a number of Biblical texts, especially 1 Peter 3: 19-20. The Athanasian Creed and the Apostle’s Creed both contain the words ‘he descended into Hell’: here the word ‘Hell’ really means ‘Hades’, the realm of the dead, as the damned are not rescued. Modern Christians may understand these words differently; for Mantegna and his world, they referred to the Harrowing of Hell. The painting is split permanently, but together the two parts illustrate the connection between the Resurrection of Christ and the Redemption of Mankind, which has begun even before Christ leaves the tomb.