Andrea Mantegna’s compelling painting Ecce homo on view in the Prince William V Gallery
The Prince William V Gallery will be exhibiting the masterpiece Ecce Homo by Andrea Mantegna (circa 1431-1506), one of the most important painters of the Italian Renaissance, from 13 October through 18 December 2016. The painting will be shown alongside Old Masters such as Steen, Rubens and Potter in the special presentation Mantegna in the Gallery. This loan from the Musée Jacquemart-André in Paris is the fourth international masterpiece to be presented in the Gallery. In previous years the Gallery exhibited paintings by Caravaggio, Titian and Velázquez.
Andrea Mantegna was born near Padua in northern Italy. At the age of eleven he was apprenticed to the Paduan painter Francesco Quarcione. With its Roman origins and venerable university, the city of Padua was a major humanist centre that attracted philosophers, scholars and artists. It was here that Mantegna gained a knowledge of classical antiquity. In 1460 he was appointed court painter to the dukes of Mantua, the Gonzaga family. He served three generations of dukes and spent the rest of his life living and working in Mantua. Mantegna became known for his monumental frescos, such as those executed for the matrimonial bedroom or Camera degli Sposi in the palace in Mantua. In addition he painted religious works such as the Lamentation over the Dead Christ held in Milan’s Pinacoteca di Brera and Ecce Homo, now on view in The Hague. Mantegna is one of the best-known artists of the Italian Renaissance. Typical of this period is the inspiration painters derived from the art and architecture of classical antiquity. The composition of Mantegna’s Ecce Homo is reminiscent of the sculptural reliefs on Roman sarcophagi. There are no paintings by Mantegna in any Dutch public collections.
Extremely compelling and incredibly close: that is the power of Mantegna’s Ecce Homo. The painter focussed on the torso of the flagellated Christ shortly before his crucifixion. He is depicted with a rope around his neck, bloody welts from being flogged and the sharp crown of thorns puncturing his forehead. Four men (two standing slightly obscured behind) press him forward, hold him fast and mock him. They wear headgear with text in pseudo-Hebraic lettering. The Bible tells us that the irate throng called for Christ to be put to death: Crucifige eum, tolle eum!, ‘Crucify him, get him!’ Mantegna renders this chorus on two notes in the upper corners of the painting. The words shouted by the assembled crowd are practically audible, but Christ remains silent. Ecce homo is Latin for ‘Behold, the man’. These words were said to have been uttered by Pilate when he paraded Christ before the angry crowd. Mantegna seems to have literally depicted them. The tight framing of the image confronts the viewer directly – there is no escaping Christ’s resigned and penetrating gaze. Behold the man and suffer with him.
Ecce Homo is executed in the so-called Tüchlein or distemper technique: paint made of finely ground pigments and animal glue applied to finely woven linen. The colours of works painted in distemper are particularly vibrant and remain clearly visible even in poor lighting. However, such works are extremely fragile as the paint remains soluble, meaning they can never be varnished. It is extremely rare for such paintings to remain as well preserved as this one.
Series of masterpieces
The Prince William V Gallery showcases an international masterpiece every autumn. These works are drawn from international collections and comprise paintings by masters seldom or ever exhibited in the Netherlands. Other works in this series of masterpieces include Boy Bitten by a Lizard by Caravaggio from the National Gallery in London, Venus Rising from the Sea (The Birth of Venus) by Titian from the National Galleries of Scotland in Edinburgh and last year’s showpiece, Portrait of Don Diego de Acedo by Diego Velázquez from the Prado in Madrid.
Mantegna in the Gallery has been made possible by Johan Maurits Compagnie Foundation.
The Prince William V Gallery is a hidden gem in the historical centre of The Hague. Stadtholder Prince William V of Oranje-Nassau commissioned the gallery to be built in 1774 in order to exhibit his paintings. The walls were covered from floor to ceiling in order to show off the wealth of his collection. The Gallery has recently been restored to its former splendour and now displays over 150 Old Masters, including Rembrandt, Jan Steen, Rubens and Paulus Potter. Crystal chandeliers, silken wall coverings and lavish curtains add to the regal atmosphere.