(b. 1431, Isola di Carturo, d. 1506, Mantova)
Holy Family with the Infant St John the Baptist1495-1500
Oil on canvas, 75 x 62 cm
Between 1490 and 1506, the year he died, Mantegna painted several devotional paintings in which the main figures are represented as reliefs standing out against a mostly dark background. Inspired by reliefs on classical tombs, these figures are shown partially hidden behind stone balustrades or a frame.
The composition of the painting is clearly reminiscent of Antique reliefs, which use the same strict arrangement of figures in a row, with the heads all on the same level. The body of the Infant Christ standing on the lap of the Mother of God stands out with great plasticity from the dark background. The stern faces on the edge of the picture, Joseph to the left and Elizabeth to the right, resemble realistic Roman character busts, while Mary and the child show in their gracefulness a kinship to the Florentine reliefs of the early Renaissance, such as those by Luca delta Robbia. The young John the Baptist in the lower right corner is shown with his mouth open, as if in speech, and pointing up at Jesus. His gaze directed at the viewer, his gesture, and the banderole with the legend 'Ecce Agnus Dei' (Behold the Lamb of God) all point to his role as the forerunner of Jesus. The twig in the form of the cross can be seen as a symbol of Christ's later crucifixion, by which he takes away the sins of the world, according to the next lines of the Agnus Dei.
The reminiscences of Antiquity in this painting show Mantegna's importance for the development of the art of the High Renaissance. The majority of commentators regard this as a late work and date it to the end of the fifteenth century.