An anomaly both then and now, Andrea Mantegna’s Lamentation over the Dead Christ, c. 1480, has often been called a tour-de-force of perspective. This small tempera painting was found by Mantegna’s son in the artist’s personal collection at his death. The Early Renaissance masterpiece likely disturbed its viewers with its strangeness—the composition, the point of view, and the insistent description are unnerving. Jesus had never been seen quite like this. Christ, having been removed from the cross has been placed upon a marble slab. Rather than the typical embrace of His Mother, we see Mary at the side, age-appropriate and weeping. The other figures are likely St. John, with his mouth agape, and Mary Magdalene, given her relationship with the anointing of Jesus and the presence of an alabaster jar at the rear of the slab. Christ, lightly covered by a damp cloth, rests His head upon a pillow. We see His wounds. His hands are pulled up in near-gesture. A barely discernable halo flickers around his head. The Lamentation is sometimes paired with Mantegna’s drawing in the British Museum titled Man Laying on a Stone Slab. The drawing depicts a man in a reclining pose, eyes closed, yet lifting himself—like a sleepwalker about to rise. My mind forms a question: did this drawing spark Mantegna’s imagination to conceive an image of Christ which helps us to anticipate the Resurrection?
Almost all commentaries on this work, after touching briefly on the perspectival ideation, will turn their attention to the literal scene of grief—the sorrow and the pity evidenced by the realist treatment of the characters present at and on the slab. While Mantegna’s drawing skill is powerful and the scene is certainly full of grief, many other images of the Lamentation contain both skill and a literal sense of tragedy. This one is different. Many viewers find Mantegna’s vision somewhat off-putting. The Art Renewal Center, the classicist/traditionalist art organization, describes The Lamentation in this way: “With all its exceptional merit, this is an eminently ugly picture.”
Andrea Mantegna (1431-1506) had made a vocation out of exploring interesting, even peculiar, points of view. For him it seems that placing the viewer in a dynamic position of observation catapults the imagination. In The Lamentation, where did Mantegna want us to be catapulted? Does he simply want us to appreciate the power of perspective at work? Not at all; the effect being manipulated by Mantegna is far from simple because he has carefully selected from the systematic parts of perspective to give foreshortening a particular dominance, while at the same time disregarding the diminution that would be expected in a natural experience. The “rules” of perspective indicate that distant background objects should appear to diminish in size relative to objects of equal size that are closer to the foreground. Mantegna has excluded the natural way in which forms in the distance appear smaller than equally sized objects in the foreground. If we were truly at the foot of that slab, Christ’s feet should overwhelm the foreground and His head should be diminished. This apparent discontinuity gives the image its distinctive look, but is it true? Yes, but it depends on where you stand, or rather where Mantegna has actually placed us, the viewers; he puts our place of observation at about 25 yards away from Jesus. Our distant viewing point creates this scene, as though we are viewing through a telescope. From that distant point, foreshortening dominates and diminution is negligible. But we still ask: why apply this approach to Christ in death?
Art history has sometimes credited Mantegna with trying to show off his skill at this new bag of tricks called perspective, as though blowing the viewer’s mind was his ideation. Since this particular painting remained in his hands until his death and was sold to pay his debts, one might consider it as a private painting meant to be a practice example to remind Mantegna of how to construct such a space. But I think not. I would consider this a visual experience that provided a visual expression of, and an opportunity to meditate on, the impossible yet true Being named Jesus the Christ.
If a viewer starts with the hypostatic union of God and man, one finds a paradox of identity. The view of Christ presented by Mantegna is likewise a puzzling, apparent contradiction. We are close to Christ, yet we are far away. We appear to be at His very feet, yet we see Him from a distance. This union of disparate viewpoints is not something we normally experience in our everyday look at the world, and generates an energy not normally found elsewhere in art history. The still life paintings of William Bailey come very close to this union, in which a tabletop pageant of everyday ceramic ware joins with the suggestion of a distant cityscape to create a complex and mysterious narrative experience.
Stepping into the hypostatic puzzle, we may also contemplate Christ’s being at this moment in history. What is the nature of His body after His death? Was His body just lifeless flesh? In the Third Part of the Summa, Thomas Aquinas teaches that the Godhead persisted in both Christ’s body and his separated soul, yet in a single hypostasis. Accordingly, Mantegna indicates a sacred identity for the temporarily soulless body by incorporating a faint remnant halo still glowing above the head of Jesus. The non-canonical Gospel of Nicodemus, which found its way into the Speculum Historale of Vincent of Beauvais and the Golden Legend of Jacobus de Voragine, created for us a poetical description of the non-corporeal work of Christ while His body rested in death. Conformed to our belief as stated in the Creed, “He descended into Hell,” the apocryphal text describes his arrival in Limbo to rescue the just souls imprisoned there:
Then the King of Glory, in His majesty treading Death under foot, and laying hold on Satan, deprived Hell of its power, and led Adam to the light of the sun. And the Lord said, “Come to me, all my saints, who have borne my image and likeness.”
This imaginative description of the rescue of Adam and the just souls of the Old Testament was taken up by the artists of the thirteenth century and beyond. Blessed Fra Angelico gave it life in a fresco in San Marco in Florence, where we see Christ trampling down the door of Hell, and Adam, with a multitude behind him, extending his hands in joy. While this glorious moment was taking place, Christ’s body may have lain as we see in Mantegna’s image. The extraordinary visual design that animates The Lamentation reminds us of this exciting narrative, an invisible rescue mission taking place.
Mantegna wants to visually contemplate the impossibility of knowing both the fullness of this Person and the fullness of this moment. The Jesus he shows us is unbound by the visual principles of simple human nature and its perspectival rules. In the Life of Moses, the Cappadocian Father, Gregory of Nyssa describes Moses’ yearning to fully experience God:
For leaving behind everything that is observed, not only what sense comprehends but also what the intelligence thinks it sees, it keeps on penetrating deeper until by the intelligence’s yearning for understanding it gains access to the invisible and the incomprehensible, and there it sees God. This is the true knowledge of what is sought; this is the seeing that consists in not seeing. (Part 163)
Moses wants to see God. He thinks an eyeball full of God will satisfy him. However, what God delivers, as one must come to expect, is something more.
It is not in the nature of what is unenclosed to be grasped. But every desire for the Good which is attracted to that ascent constantly expands as one progresses in pressing on to the Good…. He learns from what was said that the Divine is by nature infinite, enclosed by no boundary. (Parts 236, 239)
Mantegna is keen on getting us into a position where the supernatural reality of Christ can show itself—a position from which we see that our humanly natural perspective system is insufficient for understanding the unbound nature of Jesus.
In Christ’s death, Mantegna proposes an enduring mystery to contemplate. Mantegna gives us this image of the body of Jesus as a reminder—He is mortified in suspense, but not in permanence. While we wait for Him to gather up his flesh again, we know His inanimate flesh contains a mystery: death, yet not defeat—a powerful paradox. Mantegna shapes this into the image.
As we pray this Lenten season, let us contemplate as Mantegna’s image urges us. This visual paradox and the mystery of our human mortality are puzzles solved by the Life, Death and Resurrection of Christ, both risen body and eternal soul. The promise of Life, the conquest of Death, and the joy of Resurrection are all for us to be tasted. Let us fast and pray, let us follow Christ into Jerusalem, let us find our cross and walk with Him, die to ourselves and wait in hope for Easter morning and the return of the King.