The Predella of San Zeno Altarpiece

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The Predella of San Zeno Altarpiece

Andrea Mantegna  >  San Zeno Altarpiece

The predella (1) of the San Zeno Altarpiece is composed of three panels telling the Passion of Christ, today divided and kept in the Museum of Fine Arts in Tours and in the Louvre. In this part of the Polyptych Andrea Mantegna’s style reveals his most dramatic level, through the tension that seems to radiate from the figures and from the nature. The characters are built with solid bodies and with compact consistency, animated by a particular energy. The landscape, with rocks ploughed by erosion, is made even more rugged by a hard and fine drawing that describes analytically each detail and do not spare even the clouds that cross the sky in an intense contrast of blue and white. The expressiveness of Mantegna’s sure and implacable line don’t omit anything, dwelling on each pebble, each crack, each streak of a leaf; and on his characters, the hair, the wrinkles, the veins, the creased drapery, so to render effectively the pain and the drama of the fate of Christ.
Consistent with the superior panels, the compartments of the predella are organized according to a unique perspective setting, that unite the single elements through the central perspective, with its vanishing point placed in the centre of the Crucifixion.

Agony in the Garden

Set in a landscape of hills and rocks, the left panel portrays the scene of the Agony in the Garden. It is kept in the Museum of Fine Arts in Tours. The composition, in diagonal, leads the spectator eye towards the bottom right angle, where the sleeping apostles are, in the foreground, and with Christ knelling in prayer.
The contrast of colours is very efficient, in the dark green of the hill against the light of the sky, where the shapes of the trees stand out.


The central panel of the predella is the Crucifixion, today kept in the Louvre. It is the most intense and dramatic scene of the whole Polyptych and admired at all times. It was the subject of studies and copies by many artists up to the modern age. One of the most famous copies is the one by Degas.

On a “X” shape composition, vertical lines of the three crosses develop, pushing to the top limit of the panel, fine and opposing the broad empty sky space. On the bottom of the painting, the rocks and the bystanders communicate the emotional contrast between the idea of confusion, the voice and the crowd of characters and the solitude and the silence of the pain and the death of the three crucified figures.

On the left are Maria, San Giovanni and the disciples of Jesus, who cry his death. On the right the Pharisee and the roman soldiers gamble Jesus clothes on a dice game.

The scene is placed on a desert landscape with scaly rocks that that rise from an arid ground, covered by cracks.

On analysing the work, the scholars noticed several stylistic cues and quotations. For example, the fiery horse between the two crosses on the right seems to refer to the model that sculptor Baroncelli had presented in 1443 for his Monument to Niccolò III in Ferrara.

The characters facing each other in the centre, according to Casemasca, seem instead to come from a thorough knowledge of Nordic painting.


The right panel of the predella, dedicated to the Resurrection, is kept in the Museum of Tours.

According to Tietze-Conrad, it is a panel where the intervention of Mantegna is minor and the painting was mainly done by helpers. Mantegna touch seems to appear only in the central image of the resurrected Christ. Even the perspective of the scene doesn’t show the usual strictness of Mantegna: the vanishing lines of the sarcophagus do not correspond to the ones of the ground.

Scholars have highlighted also some reference with works from Andrea del Castagno and from Piero della Francesca.

A. Cocchi

Trad.: A. Sturmer



1)   Base of an altarpiece, altar step.



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Tags:Alessandra Cocchi, A. Sturmer, altarpiece, St. Zeno, renaissance, painting, predella.


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