Christ prays before a group of cherubs who hold up the instruments of his torture and death. His disciple Judas, who has betrayed him, leads a large band of soldiers down from Jerusalem to arrest him. Meanwhile his other disciples sleep.
This painting reflects many of the artistic issues that would preoccupy Mantegna throughout his career. He was fascinated by the art of classical antiquity: the disciples here look like statues of Roman emperors in togas. One lies with his legs facing straight out at the viewer, a difficult pose to paint; Mantegna enjoyed experimenting with it for its ability to draw us into the picture.
He skilfully uses the landscape setting to tell the story in a single image, the march of the soldiers from the city gates creating drama and suggesting the passage of time. He uses his favoured fast-drying egg tempera paint (pigments bound with egg) to describe minute details like the individual bricks of the city walls.
We see Christ in prayer. Aware that his disciple Judas had betrayed him, he left Jerusalem and took refuge in Gethsemane, just outside the city, to pray. Christ’s prayer displays his humanity: ‘My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me' (Matthew 26: 39). Ultimately, however, he faces the instruments of his torture and death, presented to him by the cherubs assembled on a cloud. The rocks Christ kneels before look like an altar within a church, complete with Cross.
Three other disciples – Peter, James and John – were meant to be keeping watch but have fallen asleep. In the meantime Christ’s fate literally marches on: a long band of soldiers, led by Judas, emerges from the city gates to arrest him. Mantegna uses the landscape setting to capture the momentum and tension of the event. As the tiny, sketchy figures of the soldiers progress down the curving slopes of the hillside their menacing presence comes into focus and we see their armour and faces clearly.
In the meantime, two rabbits confront each other just beneath the cherubs’ cloud; others play-fight near the stream. Two egrets stand in the stream, symbolic of the purification of baptism, the beginning of the Christian life. Plants and grasses sprout from the rich brown soil, showing Mantegna’s close observation of nature. A determined sapling fig has burst through the rock above the disciples, and tiny parallel strokes of white paint represent its smooth, dense bark. Its prominence here may represent Judas’s betrayal: when Judas heard of Jesus’s fate, he hanged himself; early legends told that he chose the fig tree as his gallows.
Mantegna indulges his interest in the sculpture and architecture of antiquity as well as his love of painting stone and rock forms. He contrasts the warm, red, gently eroded rocks in the foreground with the improbably conical, craggy mountains in the distance. He painted figures like statues: Christ’s ringlets look like finely chiselled stone. The cherubs’ leg muscles are defined in such detail that they seem too weighty to be carried by a cloud; rather than angelic apparitions they reflect the work of Mantegna’s contemporary, the Florentine sculptor Donatello. The statue of a knight upon a horse covered in gold leaf atop a high column in the city recalls Roman equestrian statues but also Renaissance revivals of the form, such as Donatello’s notable bronze in Padua of a general known as Gattamelata, which Mantegna must have known. The sleeping disciples look like toppled marble statues of Roman emperors, the folds of their robes unnaturally pristine and crisp, and folded over their shoulders like togas.
This painting dates from early in Mantegna’s career when he was still in Padua, near Venice, where he trained. The image might be based upon a drawing by his father-in-law, Jacopo Bellini, now in the British Museum. Mantegna also used the image as the basis for a predella panel made at around the same time as this picture for an altarpiece for the church of San Zeno, Verona. The image unites the family: Jacopo’s son, Giovanni Bellini, made a painting of The Agony in the Garden (also in the National Gallery’s collection), based upon Mantegna’s image.
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