BELLINI, Giovanni
(b. ca. 1426, Venezia, d. 1516, Venezia)

Presentation at the Temple

Tempera on wood, 80 x 105 cm
Fondazione Querini Stampalia, Venice

A direct comparison between two artists is made startlingly clear by the two Presentations at the Temple, executed by Giovanni Bellini and by Andrea Mantegna. The two paintings, now housed respectively at the Galleria Querini Stampalia in Venice and the Staatliche Museen in Berlin, have an identical structure and the same characters: in the foreground, leaning against a marble ledge, the Virgin is holding the swaddled Child while the old priest stretches out to take it. At sides and in the centre are several characters identified as Jacopo Bellini (the old man in the middle) and as Nicolosia and Andrea Mantegna, possibly recently married (the young couple standing at the sides facing left). In the painting by Bellini there are two more figures, identified by critics as the mother Anna and Giovanni himself. The invention was probably Mantegna's, as can be assumed from the inflexibly austere framing of the scene, the Child of Donatellian inspiration which placed on the ledge becomes a unit of measure for the scene's spatial depth, and even the physical features of the priest, resembling Squarcione's prototypes which had been familiar to Mantegna.

Mantegna's Presentation is enclosed ineluctably within a square frame, a screen separating the group from the spectator; the figures are absorbed in an incisiveness that renders them detached and eternal in an absolute vision. In contrast with its architectural solidity and marmoreal rigour, Bellini's scene has a quite different rhythm, with modifications that are apparently insignificant but in reality substantial: the addition of two characters gives the group more life, splits it up and reassembles it into a small human crowd. The elimination of the frame, or rather its reduction to a pale, marbled shelf, somewhat akin to a church altar-top, suddenly removes every barrier and draws one toward the scene with a sense of intimacy. To the solid as rock colours of Mantegna, who blends flesh-tones, stones and drapery, he responds with a pure and orchestrated play of whites and reds in clear alternation.

The views of critics about when the two works were painted do not concur, but it seems impossible to imagine that a long period of time separated their respective execution, as had been initially suggested, also by virtue of the diverse opinions regarding the precedence of the conception. It would be illuminating perhaps to discover the reasons that led to their execution, which do not appear to be a matter of chance, but almost certainly linked to family events, which with this important family portrait were solemnized.