Trained in the humanist university town of Padua, Andrea Mantegna developed a lifelong passion for antiquity that profoundly informed his work as an artist. His incisive drawing, brilliant coloring, and novel spatial effects soon established him as one of the major artists of his day and led to his appointment as court painter to the Gonzaga family in the duchy of Mantua. His famous, frescoed “Camera Picta” in the Ducal Palace was described by a contemporary as “the most beautiful room in the world.”
In the Kimbell’s Madonna and Child with Saints, the figures press forward in the shallow space, a series of diagonals guiding the worshiper’s eye to dwell on the mystery of the Incarnation: the Word made flesh. The triumphant contrapposto pose and figural canon of the Christ Child, which recurs in other works by Mantegna, derives from antique Roman sculpture, which was then being ardently collected.
In this and other devotional paintings Mantegna experimented with distemper, a glue tempera, painted on a fine linen canvas. This delicate technique facilitated the great precision in handling for which the artist was renowned. Mantegna’s thin and exquisitely rendered surfaces are very fragile, and some abrasion has occurred to this work in areas such as the Virgin’s coral-colored robe, which was once embellished with a gold pattern. In some of the best-preserved areas of the painting, such as the head of the young Baptist, the wonder of Mantegna’s extraordinary technique can still be appreciated.