The iconography of the work, probably intended for the artist's private devotion, refers to the compositional scheme of the Lamentation over the Dead Christ, in which the mourners are grouped around the body of the master prepared for burial, stretched out on the stone of anointing and already anointed with perfumes.
The most convincing hypothesis, despite the uncertainties derived from the existence of several variants of the same theme, identifies the Brera painting (Milan) with the "Foreshortened Christ" found in Mantegna's workshop at the time of his death, sold by his son Ludovico to Cardinal Sigismondo Gonzaga and inventoried among the property of the lords of Mantua in 1627.
The later fate of the painting remains a matter of debate among scholars, who are faced with a complicated series of changes in ownership only partially, and confusingly, documented: according to the most recent but inconclusive theory, the painting was sold in 1628 to Charles. I of England together with the most valuable pieces of the Gonzaga collection; then it went to the antiques market to the collection of Cardinal Mazarin; in the dispersion of the latter it disappeared for more than a century. No more was known about the painting until the year 1806. In fact, the secretary of the Accademia di Brera Giuseppe Bossi asked the sculptor Antonio Canova to act as an intermediary in the purchase of his "coveted Mantegna", which finally reached the Pinacoteca in 1824.
The composition produces a great emotional impact, accentuated by the extreme foreshortening: the body of Christ is very close to the point of view of the observer who, looking at it, is drawn to the center of the drama; In addition, each detail is reinforced by the incisiveness of the lines, which forces the gaze to stop at the most detailed lines, at the rigid limbs in rigor mortis, as well as at the wounds, openly presented in the foreground as required by the tradition of this type of image.
The theme of the Lamentation is common in medieval and Renaissance art, although this treatment, dating back to a theme known as the Anointing of Christ, is unusual for the time. Most of the Lamentations show much more contact between the mourners and the body. Rich contrasts of light and shadow abound, infused with a deep sense of pathos. The realism and tragedy of the scene are enhanced by the violent perspective, which shortens and dramatizes the recumbent figure, accentuating the anatomical details: in particular, the thorax of Christ. The holes in the master's hands and feet, as well as the faces of the two mourners, are depicted without any concession to idealism or rhetoric. Well drawn curtains covering the corpse add to the dramatic effect. Unique to this painting is a design that places the central focus of the image on the genitals of Christ, an artistic choice that is open to a multitude of interpretations. Mantegna succeeded instead in painting a very specific depiction of physical and emotional trauma.
Mantegna presented both a harrowing study of a heavily foreshortened corpse and an intensely moving depiction of a biblical tragedy. This painting is one of many examples of the artist's mastery of perspective. At first glance, the painting appears to be a strikingly realistic study in foreshortening. However, careful scrutiny reveals that Mantegna reduced the size of the figure's feet, which, as he must have known, would cover much of the body if correctly depicted.
Mantegna probably made this painting for his personal burial chapel. His children found it in his study after his death and sold it to pay his debts.
This masterpiece is typical of Mantegna's art, in which the confined space in this painting is architecturally defined as the cold and dreary cell of a morgue. Looking in, we see an almost monstrous spectacle: a heavy corpse, apparently swollen by exaggerated foreshortening. In front are two huge feet with holes in them; to the left, some fixed masks stained with tears. But another look dissipates the initial shock and a rational system can be discerned in the dim light. Christ's face, like the other faces, is stitched with wrinkles, which harmonize with the watery satin of the pink pillow, the pale granulations of the marble slab, and the veined onyx of the ointment jar. The damp folds of the shroud emphasize the folds of taut skin, which is like torn parchment around dry wounds. All of these lines are echoed in the wild waves of the hair.
Mantegna's realism prevails over any aesthetic indulgence that might result from an exaggerated delay in the material aspects of his subject. His realism is in turn dominated by an exalted poetic feeling for Christian suffering and resignation. Mantegna's creative power lies in his own interpretation of the "historical", his feeling for the spectacle on both a small and large scale. Beyond his apparent coolness and studied detachment, Mantegna's sentiments are those of a historian and, like all great historians, he is full of humanity. It has a tragic sense of the history and destiny of man, and of the problems of good and evil, life and death.
This famous painting is an absolute pinnacle of Mantegna's output, a work whose expressive force, severe composure, and masterful handling of the illusion of perspective have made it one of the best-known symbols of the Italian Renaissance.
The painting is in the Pinacoteca di Brera in Milan, Italy.