The Madonna and Child with Saints Joseph, Elizabeth, and John the Baptist
Recordings for Adults
Mantegna often used distemper, a glue-tempera medium, for small devotional pictures such as the Kimbell’s painting. Distemper is generally painted on a fine linen canvas and imparts a matte surface to the painting, similar to pastel. This technique allows for the remarkable precision in handling for which Mantegna is so justly renowned. Very few of Mantegna’s distemper paintings retain their original unvarnished surfaces. Perhaps the best preserved example is Ecce Homo (Musée Jacquemart-André, Paris).
When using other media, such as egg tempera, however, Mantegna would coat the surface with varnish. There has been some discussion about whether the artist used a pure distemper technique of if he added oil to increase the saturation of the colors in The Madonna and Child with Saints Joseph, Elizabeth, and John the Baptist. The painting was given a light coating of varnish in the 1987 restoration, based on visual evidence that the painting was carried out in a mixed oil-distemper medium.
Mantegna’s thin and exquisitely rendered surfaces are very fragile. On close examination of the Kimbell’s picture, it becomes apparent that the Madonna’s coral robe was once embellished with a rippled pattern of gold embroidery that has become abraded with time. A well-preserved example of this type of ornamentation can be seen in the Madonna and Child in the Pinacoteca dell’ Accademia “Carrara,” Bergamo. In some of the best preserved areas of the Kimbell painting, such as the figure of the young Saint John the Baptist, the wonder of Mantegna’s extraordinary technique can still be appreciated.