Here’s an interesting match. The detail on the left frame is from Andrea Mantegna’s painting Parnassus, dated 1497, although it could be later. The section on the right is part of the San Barnaba Altarpiece painted by Sandro Botticelli c1488.
The Parnassus was commissioned by Isabella d’Este. It was Mantegna’s first painting for the Marchioness of Mantua’s studiola. He produced another a few years later in 1502, Triumph of the Virtues. Isabella was into mythology themes with an allegorical bent, yet I doubt if she really understood or knew what Mantegna had surreptitiously embedded in the Parnassus painting; and probably neither did her court poet Paride da Ceresara who is said to have suggested the theme. Supposedly also an alchemist and astrologer, Paride may have made some sense of the mythological aspect, but Mantegna made sure he added his own narrative to the painting which seemingly has escaped the notice of art historians along the way.
Mantegna was in his mid-sixties and probably considered by some as past his prime. Isabella, some forty years younger, was keen to exhibit the work of a new generation of famous artists in her studiola. But initially she had to make do with Mantegna who had been employed as the Mantua court artist since 1460. Mantegna put forward the name of Sandro Botticelli as available for commissions but Isabella rejected the idea as the Florentine artist was no longer seen as the ascending star he once was, though he was still in his mid-forties. Isabella’s sights were set on brighter stars, Leonardo da Vinci in particular, but she was never able to commit the polymath to produce any paintings for her, other than to sketch her portrait when he visited the Mantua court on his way from Milan to Venice.
Mantegna was not a man who easily let go of a grievance he may have held for any slight against him. Like Botticelli, he had reached a high plateau of fame, and though Isabella may have viewed him as “old school” he was still more than capable of producing a master stroke, or two.
Apart from any mythological wellspring used to inspire the composition, Mantegna sourced work from two other artists, principally the “out of fashion” Botticelli, but also some pieces by Leonardo. Choosing “Botticelli” can be viewed as a retort to Isabella’s dismissive response of the “little barrel”, and while all her pleading and persuasive charms used to entice Leonardo to produce a painting for her studiola came to nothing, it was Mantegna who came up trumps. He created not only a permanent place for the polymath in the studiola, but also incorporated a painted portrait of the sketch Leonardo had made of Isabella when he visited Mantua.
The composition of the Parnassus painting is based on Botticelli’s Saint Barnabas Altarpiece which was commissioned by the Florentine Guild of Doctors and Apothecaries and installed in the Church of San Barnaba around 1488. The right half of the main section shown above depicts John the Baptist, St Ignatius of Antioch and the archangel Michael. Two other angels are placed behind the three standing figures.
Andrea has taken these figures and other elements and transformed them into a new creation for the Parnassus painting.
St Michael is stripped of his armour to become the half-naked figure in the red-winged hat; St Ignatius is transformed into the bearded horse, his wings and jewelled necklace replacing the winged shape and precious stones of the bishop’s mitre; and the Baptist and the angel immediaely above him become the two figures at the end of the line of Muses.
The two Muses represent a Chimera, a mythological hybrid creature usually depicted as a lion with the head of a goat protruding from its back. The Chimera’s tail is sometimes shown as a snake. So the inclusion of the Chimera in the Parnassus can be understood as being inspired by the portrayal of the two back-to-back angels above the trio of saints. Mantegna formed the head of a young goat within the windswept dress shown on the back of the Muse in white. The snake is represented by the ribbon held by the dancers, while in the altarpiece it can be interpreted as the right arm of the angel drawing back the ermine tailed curtain.
The two golden-haired Muses at the front of the line depict Isabella d’Este and her sister Beatrice with their heads turned admiring the statuesque figure representing multiple identities from Greek mythology, Hermes and Bellerophon, alongside the winged horse Pegasus. The figure with its flowing gold and shell-shaped drape is also a pointer to Botticelli’s famous painting, The Birth of Venus, but in this instance Mantegna is revealing one of its hidden gems, that the west wind figure of Zephyrus actually represents Leonardo da Vinci in flight. As to the maiden clinging to his body, well that’s another story. A similar motif appears in another famous Botticelli painting, Primavera, where Leonardo is depicted as the wind from the East, an ill wind. It is in this painting that we see where Mantegna has borrowed another pairing, the figure of Flora and the woman gripped by Eurus, the East wind, matched with the two Muses next to Pegasus. As for connecting the faces of the two other Muses to the St Barnabas painting, these are adapted from the golden frieze of cherubs representing Botticelli and his brothers.
Other connections between the St Barnabas section and the Parnassus panel are the three nails held by one of the angels. This motif is matched to the grouping of three feet by three different Muses. The tower of caves with their dome-shaped entrances, along with the descending stream of water, is matched to some of the architectural features in Botticelli’s painting: the rondo and door features in the dome, the water feature with the fluted column. The angel’s head covered by a wing and the red drape can be compared to the red winged hat of Hermes, “the messenger of the gods”, whose caduceus can be likened to the staff of the prophet John the Baptist. (Hermes also represents Leonardo’s assistant Salai, while Leonardo is portrayed in the guise of Pegasus). The red jewel seen on the bishop’s episcopal glove is replicated between the eyes of Pegasus, suggesting St Ignatius’s focus is on the jewel. However, the heart in his hand represents his own which was removed to serve as a relic after his martyrdom. When the heart itself was opened it was claimed the name of Jesus Christ was written in gold letters inside.
Another version of the legend is that the heart was cut into several pieces for distribution as relics and that each piece had the name of Jesus inscribed in gold. The latter version relates to the group of rocks in the foreground of the Parnassus painting. The Acts of the Apostles records that Antioch was where the disciples of Jesus were first called Christians. This connects to the passage from Luke (19:34-39) when Jesus, seen as the Messiah, was greeted by the crowd with shouts of acclamation praising God. The Pharisees in the crowd said to Jesus, “Master, check your disciples” but he answered, “I tell you, if these keep silence the stones will cry out.”
The pile of rocks represent the Christians at Antioch proclaiming Jesus from the heart. The shape of the heart of Ignatius appears on the uppermost rock. It is also incorporated as part of a paw print which points to the manner of his martyrdom when the Roman emperor Trajan sent him to face two lions in the Colloseum.
The lion’s paw-print is another reference to Leonardo da Vinci and his thumb print recently discovered on one of his drawings illustrating the internal parts of a female body. Leonardo was known for dissecting cadavers for scientific research. Botticelli was aware of this and in the predella attached to the St Barnabas Altarpiece is a panel depicting two men removing the heart of St Ignatius. The younger man on the left is Leonardo da Vinci.
The left half of both paintings can be matched in a similar way I’ve explained for the right halves. But there are other references in the Parnassus painting that connect with two other Botticelli paintings and also to other works associated with Leonardo. I hope to explain these in a future post.
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