The Centerpiece of San Zeno Altarpiece

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The Centerpiece of San Zeno Altarpiece

Andrea Mantegna  >  San Zeno Altarpiece

The centerpiece of the San Zeno polyptych depicts the Madonna with Child Enthroned. The scene is adorned by nine angels, represented by classic cupid features that gather around the throne in dynamic poses, singing and playing lutes. Behind the throne, a hedge of roses can be seen, which reminds of a “hortus conclusus” (enclosed garden) and recaptures the typically gothic subject of the Virgin in the Garden, alluding to the sacred place dedicated to the Madonna.
The colours have bright and vibrant tones; the decorative richness and the profusion of gold, also seen in the frame, allude to the “victory” subject, together with the multicoloured festoon and the wheel of fortune that stands above the throne.
But above all, it is the Madonna with Child in the “nikopoia” (bringer of victory) typology that underlines the meaning of victory, something already proposed by Donatello in his Altar of the Basilica of Saint Anthony in Padua.
The iconography of the Madonna nikopoia (Victorious Madonna) has taken shape following the Council of Ephesus where the dogma of Mary as Mother of God and the incarnation of Christ became consecrated.
According to this image, the victorious Madonna sits on the throne and shows her son, offered for the salvation of men.
In Mantegna’s paint, the Madonna has an engrossed expression and as if resigned, she shows the Child with a firm hold and a gesture that indicates the offer of the Son of God. The Child, standing, latches on to the neck of the mother and places his little hand on hers while turning his gaze on the opposite direction, with a melancholic expression, similar to the angels’.
The wheel above the throne is directly linked to the rose window of the Church of Saint Zeno, with twelve spokes, symbol both of the cosmos and of the eye of God. It carries the meaning of the source of light and eternal life, but it also refers to the cyclicity of existence and nature through the seasons and the subject of fortune.
Under the oriental rug, at the foot of the throne, something like a sarcophagus can be seen. It is decorated in classic manner, with two clypeus-bearing cupids. Also this is a symbolic detail, indicating the connection between altar and sepulchre, alluding to the subject of the sacrifice of Christ. The throne above the altar-sepulchre indicates the victory over death, represented by the resurrection. These meanings are also confirmed by placing the Crucifixion in the lower predella (1), right in axis with the altar’s Madonna and between the Agony in the Garden (on the left) and the Resurrection (on the right).
From the top of the centerpiece, an egg-shaped light and two festoons hang down, with plenty of fruit and flowers that pour from two red cornucopias, a classic symbol of fortune and abundance.
These elements re-connect to the triumphalist and apotropaic subject represented in the classic ornaments of the friezes and pillars.

A. Cocchi

Trad.: A. Sturmer





1) Altar step


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Tags:Alessandra Cocchi, A. Sturmer, altarpiece, St. Zeno, renaissance, painting, Madonna, .


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