Home Introduction Jesus Mary Apostles Saints Spiritual Themes Genesis Moses Deuteronomic History Educating Arte Full new Screen

The Agony in the Garden of Gethsemane

The Agony in the Garden

Andrea Mantegna (1430-1506). The National Gallery – London.

Jesus made his way as usual to the Mount of Olives, with the disciples following. When he reached the place he said to them, “Pray not to be put to the test”. Then he withdrew from them, about a stone’s throw away, and knelt down and prayed. “Father,” he said, “if you are willing, take this cup away from me. Nevertheless, let your will be done, not mine.” Then an angel appeared to him, coming from heaven to give him strength. In his anguish he prayed even more earnestly, and his sweat fell to the ground like great drops of blood. When he rose from prayer he went to the disciples and found them sleeping for sheer grief. And he said to them, “Why are you asleep? Get up and pray not to be put to the test.” G38

So far goes the story of Luke. Matthew told additionally that Jesus took with him Peter and the two sons of Zebedee, John and James.

Andrea Mantegna made a painting of the ‘Agony in the Garden’ that became one of his best-known pictures, not in the least because it is the pride of the National Gallery in London. The striking feature of the picture is the molten lead curvature of the landscape that bends to a road leading to Jerusalem. Mantegna’s vision is the dream of Peter, James and John. The scene does not really exist except in the minds of the apostles. Therefore, Jerusalem consists of skyscraper towers leaning against ferocious mountains that rise as fingers to the heavens. A dream is a bend of the mind, leading from one scene to the other and thus Mantegna’s vision unfolds from the sleeping disciples to the crowd that is approaching to arrest Jesus.

Andrea Mantegna was a very individual painter. He worked during the Italian Renaissance, but he always had his particular view on the world, which sometimes was in conflict with the visions of his time. When he needed the static of Gothic, he applied that style and when he needed strong emotion he changed the style. Mantegna regularly went more profoundly into any subject than most painters before and after him. His views are always new and surprising. His ideas for a scene are fresh and mature. Mantegna had a profound and very rich imagination.

In the ‘Agony in the Garden’, Jesus does not confront the viewer. Mantegna stayed close to the story of Luke so Jesus is seen at a distance. Mantegna’s way of representation forces our attention to the sleepers and thus he enhances our conviction that this picture is a dream scene.

Mantegna stayed close to the story of the Evangelists. He read the story of all the holy writers and assembled the details. The apostles Peter, James and John are sleeping on the ground. Jesus is some distance away and seeing the angels. The angels are giving him strength. Jesus is kneeling alone. He wanted intimacy and that is exactly how Mantegna showed Jesus: away from the viewer, with his back to the viewer. The scene plays on the Mount of Olives, so Jesus is on a symbolic mount. And the arresting party is already coming to the garden.

In a dream it is acceptable for a cloud to descend, bearing young children angels showing Jesus the cross of his near Passion. In the story of Luke the angels comfort Jesus and Mantegna has shown the angels thus presenting to Jesus his coming triumph. The cross is of wood and to the right of the picture one can see the dead trunk, already in the form of a beam for the cross. The tree next to the dead trunk is also almost dead; the tree bears practically no leaves. It is a symbol of death and so is the black scavenger bird or raven in the top of the tree. Dreams also have hallucinating aspects; Mantegna could not miss this aspect of dreams.

Particular aspects of the picture are indeed more hallucinating. Such is Jerusalem, depicted as an ancient New York. But this was painted in the late fifteenth century. Towers rise menacingly out of the desert. Mantegna was a Florentine. Florence had many high and slender buildings, which came to be constructed both out of protection and because as many people as possible wanted to live inside the fortified walls of the city. Mantegna only had to amplify this image of Florence. Skyscrapers as a particular aspect of towns were familiar to him.

Jerusalem is barren of love and compassion. So tells us the desert ground of what should be the Garden of Gethsemane in which this scene allegedly happened. Desolation, hallucination, isolated symbols are what dreams are made off, exactly as Mantegna designed in his painting. All this then is rendered in crystal clear line and detail. Even the sharp clouds in the skies and the soft hills with the palm tree of the lost Eden are painted in the uncompromising style of the rational Florentine. A Florentine was incapable of painting a vague dream hulled in mysterious mist of ages, in soft colours that would flow into each other. In Mantegna’s picture, all areas are clearly separated in form and colours as in a fresco. The yellows and browns dominate, but Mantegna has added pure colours in only two separate instances, which are enough to enliven the picture and make it more striking. He painted splendid blue and light red in Peter, some red and a very little pure yellow in James and John and then he brought some of these colours in the advancing party of figures to the right. The pure colours are thus balanced in the frame and they are only present in the lower strip under the symbolic Mount of Olives on which Jesus receives the vision of the angels. Dreams are not in colours, so the light brown pervades the whole picture, but against a background of a dream also sometimes particular aspects appear crystal clear. Thus Mantegna painted the ‘Agony in the Garden’.

This painting is a rare vision. Foremost it tells us again of the very many painters that have read the gospels, absorbed them and tried to live in every scene they would depict. How sincerely must Mantegna have thought about this scene to come forward with such a novel idea! How powerful his imagination to be able to surprise us after the centuries. Mantegna kept the idea days and days in his head. He turned the idea over and over. He must have been desperate at times in search for new ways of representation, compromising for no existing concept. The result is pure spirituality, novelty, and a surprise of heavenly imagination. Mantegna had faith.

Other paintings:

Copyright: René Dewil Back to the navigation screen (if that screen has been closed) Last updated: January 2007
Book Next Previous

Copyright: René Dewil - All rights reserved. The electronic form of this document is copyright. Permission is granted for electronic copying, distribution in print form for educational purposes and personal use. If you do reduplicate the document, indicate the source as 'René Dewil - The Art of Painting - Copyright'. No permission is granted for commercial use and if you would like to reproduce this work for commercial purposes in all or in part, in any form, as in selling it as a book or published compilation, then you must ask for my permission formally and separately.