This almost perfectly preserved painting by Andrea Mantegna, showing the dialogue between a crowned woman and a bearded, turbaned man, has defied attempts to uncover either its subject or its meaning. Research suggests the woman represents either a queen (perhaps Esther from the Old Testament) or a sibyl. The man may be either a prophet, a philosopher, the biblical Mordecai, or Tarquin. They speak together in front of a decorated pilaster reminiscent of ancient architecture but also current in the Renaissance. The artist rendered the figures and background are rendered in a delicate monochrome technique and highlighted them with actual gold to imitate the effect of a gilded bronze relief sculpture.

Some scholars have suggested that the painting was made for the famous studiolo, or private study, of Isabella d’Este at the Palazzo Ducale in Mantua. The painting's dimensions are exactly equal to half of the known measurements of the space over the studiolo door, and indeed the right-hand side of the painting has been cut. Others, however, have pointed out that the monochrome coloring technique would have been all but invisible above a door. In any case, the paintings that decorated the studiolo were still in place in 1603, when the Art Museum’s painting was first documented. At that date it figured, along with the ""Adoration of the Shepherds"" (Metropolitan Museum of Art) and the ""Prayer in the Olive Garden"" (National Gallery, London), as part of the Roman collection of Pietro Aldobrandini. Still other specialists have proposed that the foreshortening used in the depiction of the figures and accessories is evidence that the painting was meant to be viewed from below. In this way, it would likely have figured as part of the decorative scheme of a chapel. Absent any conclusive evidence, the reasons for the painting's creation and the exact context of its viewing remain speculative.


  • Title: A Sibyl and a Prophet
  • Creator: Andrea Mantegna (Italian, b.Circa 1431, d.1506)
  • Date: Circa 1495
  • Date Created: ca. 1495
  • Location: Italy, Europe
  • Physical Dimensions: 22 1/2 x 19 1/8 in. (56.2 x 48.6 cm)
  • Credit Line: Bequest of Mary M. Emery
  • Accession Number: 1927.406
  • Type: Painting
  • Medium: Distemper and gold on canvas

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