Christ’s disciple Judas – visible just beyond the river, leading a group of soldiers to Christ – has betrayed him. Aware of his imminent arrest and death, Christ prays; a cherub appears and presents him with a chalice. The chalice refers to the words of his prayer: ‘My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as thou wilt’ (Matthew 26: 39).
Here Bellini experiments with the style of his brother-in-law, Andrea Mantegna: the rock forms in the foreground on the left have straight edges and look, like Mantegna’s, as though they have been carved with a chisel. The draperies, too, resemble Mantegna’s in their crisp sharp folds.
Christ’s pink tunic blends with the peach light of the dawn sky, which highlights the undersides of the plump clouds. Bellini would continue to develop his extraordinary sensitivity for the changing effects of light on landscapes throughout his career.
Christ has retreated to the Garden of Gethsemane to pray. He is in agony – he knows that one of his disciples, Judas, has betrayed him and that as a result he will be arrested, tortured and killed. Judas is visible just beyond the river, leading a group of soldiers to Christ. Three other disciples have come to keep watch but have fallen asleep.
As he prays, Christ looks towards a cherub who presents him with a chalice, reflecting how Christ talks about his future suffering in his prayer: ‘My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as thou wilt’ (Matthew 26: 39). The spiked fence post in the foreground – placed directly beneath the chalice – hints at the means of this suffering, bringing to mind the crown of thorns Christ was forced to wear at the Crucifixion. This reference to Christ’s torture links the chalice to the cup which bore the Eucharistic wine – shared by all at Mass and believed to transform into Christ’s blood. The association with contemporary Christian ritual is emphasised by the fact that the improbable rock formation which Christ kneels upon resembles a church altar, where the Mass would be received.
Giovanni Bellini painted this scene shortly after his brother-in-law, Andrea Mantegna, completed his version, as well as a depiction of the scene for the predella of the altarpiece for the church of San Zeno, Verona. Mantegna was based in Padua, near Venice, and it’s likely that Bellini was also working there for a short time in the 1450s. Both artists used a drawing of a similar scene by Bellini’s father, Jacopo, as the inspiration for the altar-like outcrop. As here, Jacopo’s drawing shows Christ facing away from the viewer and towards a distant hillside; Giovanni crowned the hill with an imposing fortress (intended to represent the city of Jerusalem). Giovanni’s version is closer to the drawn scene – both have gently rounded forms and sinuous lines, also found in the large expanses of sandy earth, the swirling dirt tracks and the cliff faces which look as though they have been eroded by desert winds. This bleak, almost lunar, landscape is perhaps intended reflect Christ’s psychological torment.
The scene shows Bellini experimenting with elements of Mantegna’s style. For example, some of the rock forms in the foreground have straight edges and look, like Mantegna’s, as though they have been carved with a chisel. The draperies, too, resemble Mantegna’s in their crisp sharp folds. Infrared reflectography shows that these two areas were drawn particularly carefully; the draperies are almost certainly based upon very detailed studies. Bellini was clearly taking very great care to emulate his brother-in-law’s style. The use of gold paint, called ’shell gold', painted in fine strokes as highlights on clothing is also drawn from Mantegna. Bellini used it here with great precision to show Christ bathed in the early morning light, but perhaps also to express his divinity. The clearest sign of Bellini’s debt to Mantegna is in his attempt to copy one of the sleeping disciples from his version. His foreshortening is not quite as effective as Mantegna’s.
Christ’s pink tunic blends with the peach light of the dawn sky, which highlights the undersides of the plump clouds. This soft, warm light gilds the entire scene. Bellini would continue to develop his extraordinary sensitivity for the changing effects of light on landscapes throughout his career.
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