(b. 1431, Isolate di Cartura, d. 1506, Mantova)

Introduction of the Cult of Cybele to Rome

Tempera on canvas, 73 x 268 cm
National Gallery, London

From 1490 onwards, Mantegna produced a series of illusionistic works representing sculptural reliefs in marble or bronze. These are in grisaille, light and dark tones of a single colour creating figures that stand against a background simulating boldly patterned marble. In Italy, pictures like this, which appear to be carved in stone, were first seen in the bases of Giotto's frescoes in the Arena Chapel in Padua, where he illustrated the seven Virtues and seven Vices. At the end of the 15th century, grisaille work was in great demand, and Mantegna painted a number of pictures in this technique.

The present painting was one of a series of four long, narrow paintings ordered from Mantegna by Francesco Cornaro at the beginning of 1505. Mantegna was able to complete only this painting before his death. However, sketches for the others still exist and the rest of the series was completed on this basis, in Venice; among these is the Continence of Scipio by Giovanni Bellini.

At the end of the second Punic War, a Sybilline oracle predicted that a Roman victory would be hastened if they brought the foreign goddess Cybele to Rome. So in 204 BC, the Roman Senate decided that as the most distinguished of all the Romans, the still youthful patrician Publius Cornelius Scipio (235-183 BC) should receive the goddess and give her shelter in his house until a temple had been built.

From the left of the painting the priests in their flowing robes are approaching with a bust of Cybele. A young follower falls on his knees in reverence, his position in the centre of the picture emphasizing the unusually wide format of this work. Scipio leads out the group of Romans who have been awaiting the arrival of this image of the goddess, which has been brought fromAsia Minor.