Andrea MANTEGNA | Saint Bernardino of Siena [San Bernardino di Siena]

Padua 1430 /1431 – Mantua 1506

Saint Bernardino of Siena [San Bernardino di Siena] c.1450
tempera and gold on wood panel
27.5 (h) x 19.1 (w) cm Accademia Carrara, Bergamo
Bequest of Giacamo Carrara 1796

Bergamo’s Saint Bernardino, painted by Mantegna before he turned twenty, is the earliest of the artist’s three existing paintings of the saint. The presence of his (once) golden aureole has led scholars to date the work to around 1450, the date of Saint Bernardino’s canonisation which occurred only a few years after his death.

Saint Bernardino of Siena (1380–1444) confessed that in his youth he was ‘unable to enjoy the Bible’ because he ‘fell asleep,’[1] and that he failed at the hermit life because when he tried to eat a thistle ‘it would not go down.’[2] He nonetheless became one of the most charismatic of the wandering preachers in early modern Italy. Men and women crowded piazzas to hear him preach. His sermons were enlivened by homely anecdotes and humorous illustrations with which he denounced the sin but not the sinner. Although tolerant of many human frailties, he fulminated against abuses in the Church and society and held the prevailing misogynist views of women. He condemned women’s love of finery, fashionably high shoes and elaborate headdresses, describing the latter as ‘the devil’s flags.’[3] Saint Bernardino was implacably opposed to sodomy and deplored the spectacle of young gallants in close-fitting hose that provocatively revealed their flesh. He ascribed the prevalence of the vice to mothers who made their sons’ doublets too short. [4]

In this portrait Mantegna projects the man not the saint, and he omits iconographical elements found in later depictions.[5] This may be explained by the fact that Saint Bernardino was known to Mantegna’s teacher Francesco Squarcione,[6] and almost certainly to Mantegna himself. That the focus is on the friar-as-preacher is evident from the depiction of him as hooded and holding a Bible—standard attributes of preaching Franciscans.

The profile view accentuates the saint’s asceticism. The contrast between the modelled folds of his garment and the austere lines of his face, with drawn cheeks (from the loss of his teeth) and down-turned mouth, refers to the ongoing struggle between the body and the spirit. The profiled head is reminiscent of medal portraits. Mantegna had access to the medal collections of many humanists, including Squarcione’s own collection, and a medal by Antonio Marescotti depicts the head of Saint Bernardino in just such a view.[7] The later practice of painting full-length, three-quarter profile figures of Bernardino-as-saint was preceded by a number of intimate devotional portraits; the Bergamo panel is a fine example of this earlier tradition.

Diana Hiller

[1] San Bernardino da Siena, Le prediche volgari, Ciro Cannarozzi (ed.), 5 vols, Florence: E. Rinaldi, 1940–58, vol. 3, p. 305.

[2] San Bernardino da Siena, Prediche volgari sul Campo di Siena 1427, Carlo Delcorno (ed.), 2 vols, Milan: Rusconi, 1989, vol. 2, p. 789.

[3] Delcorno, vol. 2, p. 1090.

[4] Cannarozzi, vol. 5, pp. 42–43.

[5] Machtelt Israëls, ‘Absence and resemblance’, I Tatti studies: Essays in the Renaissance, vol. 11, Florence: Olschki, 2007, pp. 77–114.

[6] Francesco Squarcione (c.1395–after 1468).

[7] Antonio Marescotti (active 1444–1462). Roberto Cobianchi, ‘Fashioning the imagery of a Franciscan observant preacher’, I Tatti studies: Essays in the Renaissance, vol. 12, Florence: Olschki, 2009, pp. 70–79.