(b. 1431, Isola di Carturo, d. 1506, Mantova)

San Zeno Polyptych

Tempera on panel, 480 x 450 cm
San Zeno, Verona

For the main altar of the Veronese church of San Zeno, Mantegna produced one of the finest and most influential altarpieces of the period. The altarpiece occupies a privileged position in the church, because the main altar area is raised above the level of the nave, and a special window was opened to increase the amount of light on the picture. The design of the elaborate gilt wood frame is probably based upon Donatello's high altar for the Paduan church dedicated to Saint Anthony, which, however, included bronze statues and reliefs rather than paintings. At the base are three large, nearly square predella scenes. These panels are copies, the originals were taken by Napoleon and are now in French museums.

The painting is an early masterpiece of the young Mantegna. Although the basic format of the painting is essentially that of the late Gothic polyptychs it nevertheless breaks new grounds in the way this traditional scheme is handled. The stage upon which the holy gathering takes place is set against an "open air" background. The garlands suspended from the proscenium which appear to thread between the simulated columns of the painting and the actual wooden ones of the frame, dissolve the idea of the fourth wall of the traditional perspective box. The spacial games of this painting have come a long way from Brunelleschi's method of projecting the painted image onto an ideal plane. Perspective has now become a sophisticated means of achieving concrete reality.