Polyptich of St. Luke.The Mantegna's Painting

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Polyptich of St. Luke.The Mantegna's Painting

Andrea Mantegna  >  Polyptych of San Luca

The San Luca Polyptych is the first important work of Andrea Mantegna's younger years and it represents a fascinating summary of medieval tradition, renaissance vision and original personal interpretation, posing as a real "monument" for our eyes, full of really interesting cultural references. Besides inserting itself in the expressive renaissance research, this painting offers several ideas that emphasize the broad and refined culture of Mantegna, which is not only about his knowledge of the ancients.

In the same year the Nicolosia, daughter of artist Jacopo Bellini, got married, Andrea Mantegna received the request for the Polyptych of San Luca. The commission is documented as the 10th August 1453, coming from Mauro Folperti, prior of the Monastery of Santa Giustina in Padua, to be put in the Chapel of San Luca, inside the Church of Santa Giustina. It is written in this document that Mantegna would have paid himself for the colour figures and inserted the "german blue" (azzurrite) on the background of the frame for the total amount of 50 Venetian ducats.

The precise request of a polyptych made by prior Folperti indicates that the work would have been put on the altar and that the he wanted to link it to a particular typology of  painting, elaborated in the byzantine times. The typology of the Antependium, Reredos and Altar piece was developed in the Late Middle Ages, until it reached the great dimensions and architectural shapes of the polyptychs of the 1300s. Therefore, the choice of the polyptych, besides having a liturgical and devotional function, represents also a connection with a very consolidated religious and figurative tradition, going back to Christianity icons of the first centuries.

The polyptych is made of ten panels symmetrically disposed; the central panel, the iggest, is dedicated to St. Luke the Evangelist (San Luca). Above it is the moulding, represented with the Pietà. The other eight panels are distributed on two registers and are dedicated to saints particularly adored by the Paduan church. The relics of St. Luke are actually housed in Santa Giustina, as well as those of Saint Prosdocimus, Saint Julian, Saint Felicita and Saint Justine. 

Mantegna seems to have wanted to respect the intention of continuity of tradition, seen in the composition of the whole, in the use of the symbolic golden background and in the cuspidate shapes of the tables, emphasized by their archaism of Tietze-Conrad. According to Cipriani, a scholar dedicated to the painting, the continuity of tradition was probably expressed by the friar.

Another significant particularity is noticed in the feet of St. Luke, staggered on two different steps, to the detriment of the accurate anatomy and of the prospective construction typically from the renaissance. They remind the pose of similar old gothic Madonnas, almost wanting to underline the devotion character of the painting.

On the other hand, for all the other aspects, the work is clearly from the renaissance years and contains already some expressive solutions that would be developed fully in the famous San Zeno Altar Piece.
The energetic colours, cleverly modulated by suggestive lights and shadows and developed in a harmonious and rich range show traces of the studies conducted beside Bellini.

The details of St. Luke, like the still life under the desk on which he writes, the bishops cope or the drapery of the figures, are rendered with extremely fine passages of shades and mix with a warm light full of reflexes and subdued shadows. All these are elements that pass the sensation of a perfect atmosphere to whom look at it, a very suggestive atmosphere, full of energy and warmth where the characters seem to live.

In total agreement with the chromatic composition, the prospective is stable and full of strength. Observing the lines of the background walls and the flooring of the individual panels, it can be noticed that the prospective follows a unitary planning for the whole polyptych, with the prospective rays of all panels converging to the central vanishing point that corresponds to St. Luke. The powerful rendering of the space, characteristic of Mantegna's personal style, is due to the rigorous prospective construction, to the colour and light effect and to the dynamism of the characters. The saints of the polyptych seem the masters of their space and Mantegna gave them the attitudes and gestures at the same time solemn and natural, which communicate an intense interior vitality, as if their behaviour were governed by  their spiritual energy.

The low point of view is a way that Mantegna often uses and it provides the heroic, monumental effect of the characters, making them examples of a "superior" mankind.

The psychological aspect and the expression of the characters deserve great attention, as the saint's expressions change from suffering to absorbed, from focused to distracted. The scale difference also follows a prospective principle: the closer character is surely St. Luke, while the others move backwards gradually, built on several layers of depth. Then the four saints of the upper register follow, viewed from above, on a second level of depth. Further backwards we can find the four saints of the side panels. The moulding, on the top, is made of three small panels, one with the Dead Christ, one with the Madonna, and another with St. John, and that is the deepest layer of the whole of the prospective.
But the overall spatiality with which Andrea organised the different panels comes from this time in Ferrara in 1449, whose rich cultural scene gave him the opportunity to absorb important information that influenced the development of his style. A similar effect of separating the layers of depth with regard to the dimensional scale is actually found in the Grifoni Polyptych, made between 1458 and 1473 by Francesco del Cossa from Ferrara, for the San Petronio Basilica in Bologna. Other traces of his experience in Ferrara is the style of St. Luke's throne with the typical arm rests shaped as dolphins.

A. Cocchi

Trad. A. Sturmer



Lionello Puppi Cianfrusaglie reperti e un talent scout in: Il Romanzo della pittura. Masaccio e Piero. Supplemento al n° 29 de "la Repubblica" del 2.11.1988
Claudia Cleri Via Mantegna. Art eDossier n.55. Giunti, Firenze. 1991
M. Bellonci, N. Garavaglia L'opera completa di Mantegna. Classici dell'arte Rizzoli, Milano 1966
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Tags:A. Sturmer, Alessandra Cocchi, Mantegna, St. Luke, poliptych, painting, , Renaissance, .


Per saperne di più sulla città di: Milano, Brera


Per informazioni su questi dipinti clicca qui.


Andrea Mantegna. San Luca Polyptych. 1453-55. Tempera on wood. Milan, Brera.

Andrea Mantegna. San Luca Polyptych. Central Panel with St. Luke.1453-55. Tempera on wood. Milan, Brera.

Andrea Mantegna. San Luca Polyptych. St.Scholastica. 1453-55. Tempera on wood. Milan, Brera.

Andrea Mantegna. San Luca Polyptych.  St. John. Detail. 1453-55. Tempera on wood. Milan, Brera.

Andrea Mantegna. San Luca Polyptych. St. Sebastian. Detail. 1453-55. Tempera on wood. Milan, Brera.


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