Andrea Mantegna, San Zeno Altarpiece

Andrea Mantegna, San Zeno Altarpiece, 1456-59, oil on panel, 212 x 460 cm / 83 x 180″, commissioned by the Benedictine Abbot, Gregorio Correr (Basilica of San Zeno, Verona)

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[0:00] [music]

Dr. Beth Harris: [0:05] We’re in the Basilica of San Zeno in the town of Verona in northern Italy, looking at an altarpiece in situ by the great Renaissance artist Andrea Mantegna.

Dr. Steven Zucker: [0:16] This is an altarpiece that has one foot in the older traditions of the trecento, and one foot that’s beginning to move into a much more sophisticated understanding of pictorial space.

[0:26] On the one hand, you have this frame, which we think may be original to Mantegna himself, which divides the main scene into three sections with these four Corinthian columns recalling the classical past.

Dr. Harris: [0:41] You might think about that older trecento—1300s—tradition of an altarpiece with an image of Mary and Christ in the center with separate panels within a larger frame.

Dr. Zucker: [0:52] Mantegna’s image behind the columns is insistently continuous.

Dr. Harris: [0:58] Instead of very separate panels with figures with a gold background, Mantegna has unified that space behind the frame so that the figures seem to occupy a very real space created with the illusion of linear perspective.

Dr. Zucker: [1:13] That’s not completely unheard of before Mantegna. He’s also pairing the actual physical wooden carved frame columns with more classicizing columns in the pictorial space immediately behind them.

Dr. Harris: [1:26] Those columns in the front that are real, are coming into our space. They’re real columns. The garland that unite them seem to be on that edge of our space and the pictorial space.

[1:39] Then we move back where we see Mary holding the Christ Child on her lap, angels around her singing and playing music, and, on either side, four saints in this space showing us the Court of Heaven. It’s a Christian heaven in an insistently classical, antique, pagan space.

[1:58] This is a kind of painting called a “sacra conversazione,” a sacred conversation or holy community.

Dr. Zucker: [2:05] You have to gather in one pictorial space figures that come from different historical periods. If we start all the way on the left, you see a figure with a red undergarment and a yellow mantle on top. He’s holding keys, so that’s Saint Peter.

Dr. Harris: [2:19] Behind Saint Peter is Saint Paul and, behind him, Saint John.

Dr. Zucker: [2:23] Saint John looks sensitive, as is traditional—almost feminine. Finally, the fourth figure on the left, in the back, is Saint Zeno, the namesake for this church and somebody we think was the person who brought Christianity to the town of Verona.

Dr. Harris: [2:37] And is the patron saint of Verona.

Dr. Zucker: [2:39] On the other side of the Virgin Mary, in the front, there is this extraordinary rendering of St. John the Baptist. Look at the S curve of that body.

[2:49] This is a Christian figure but links Christian tradition back to the classical tradition. That body is a tour de force example of contrapposto.

Dr. Harris: [2:58] That’s right. Mantegna, we know, was devoted to studying ancient Greek and Roman antiquities. It’s so obvious that he’s been looking at classical sculpture with that figure of John the Baptist.

[3:09] It’s not just in the tilt of his hips and that contrapposto on the S curve, it’s also an amazing naturalism of his pose. The way he looks down, reads the book, the way he holds the book, he’s so believable. He’s so close to us. We can imagine him as a real figure about to step out of that painting.

Dr. Zucker: [3:26] That’s the thing that grabs me, the vividness. The use of oil paint, with the linear quality that Mantegna brings to his paintings, with the careful use of light, which by the way, reflects the way the light is actually entering into this church, all of which creates this really intense illusionism.

Dr. Harris: [3:43] These are real figures that we can engage with. These are figures that we can pray to who will intercede on our behalf with Christ. We also know at the same time, given all of that accessibility, that we’re looking at an image of the Court of Heaven. That one day, perhaps through our own prayers, through our own good works, we could hope to join the blessed in heaven.

[4:04] Like in, for example, Mantegna’s “Saint Sebastian,” we have a contrast between the classical path, which is represented by those sculptures in grisaille that we see in the stone carving, in the frieze, and in the roundels. Then we have the Christian present in this painting, full color in the figures in the Court of Heaven.

[4:25] The altarpiece in this gilt frame is within the apse of this church, decorated with fresco from a century or two earlier.

Dr. Zucker: [4:35] That’s true fresco, paint applied directly on wet plaster. It’s lost the vividness of its color because it mixes with the white of the plaster. It makes the oil painting of Mantegna all the more brilliant, all the more saturated.

Dr. Harris: [4:48] We can see how oil paint could create a realism in texture and form that was impossible with the earlier medium of fresco or even tempera.

Dr. Zucker: [4:58] It must have felt like an early technicolor.

Dr. Harris: [5:00] For the people of Verona in the 1460s.

Dr. Zucker: [5:04] This painting has had an interesting history. We’re not the only people who admired it. Napoleon admired it and, in fact, brought it back to Paris. It was returned after Napoleon lost power but not entirely.

[5:16] If you look down at the predella, you can see that there are additional scenes. Those have not been returned. They’re in Tours and they’re in Paris.

[5:23] [music]

Cite this page as: Dr. Steven Zucker and Dr. Beth Harris, "Andrea Mantegna, San Zeno Altarpiece," in Smarthistory, December 11, 2015, accessed July 19, 2024,