How friendly rivalry gave rise to beauty

Spot the artist: Mantegna’s Presentation of Christ in the Temple

Mantegna and Bellini offer an exquisite game of spot the difference, says Daisy Dunn

Mary clings to her tightly swaddled son in Mantegna’s Presentation of Christ in the Temple (c1454). As Simeon reaches out to receive him, she seems reluctant to let him go. There is little of the temple architecture in the painting. It is all about the figures, who glow ochre against the darkness, their flesh and fabrics illuminated by candlelight. But who is emerging from the background? Only the artist and his wife.

In 1453, Andrea Mantegna married Nicolosia, the half-sister of Giovanni Bellini, thereby uniting himself with the most powerful family of artists in Venice. It is incredible to think that Mantegna & Bellini, which has just opened at the National Gallery, is the first exhibition ever dedicated to the brothers-in-law, for together they did so much to define Cinquecento art. While Bellini had the advantage – his father stood at the head of Venice’s principal painting workshop – Mantegna, the son of a carpenter from Padua and the first of the two artists to establish himself, was by no means lacking in confidence. One of the great revelations of this show is that, more often than not, Bellini was borrowing ideas from Mantegna, not the other way around.

Nearly 20 years after Mantegna completed his exquisite Presentation of Christ in the Temple, Bellini traced it to produce a version of his own. His painting is brighter, cleaner and, despite his removal of the holy family’s halos, busier, with two extra witnesses to the scene. The Christ child is supported by a large marble parapet (in Bellini’s Davis Madonna (c1460) he in fact sleeps on the parapet) but otherwise the composition is much like Mantegna’s.

Clearly Bellini felt that he had something to learn from emulating Mantegna’s pictures, for he did so repeatedly throughout his lifetime, even going so far as to have copies made which he would paint over and render his own. Going around this superb exhibition can feel like a game of spot the difference, with so many iterations to compare and contrast. Two paintings of the Agony in the Garden provide the best opportunity to assess how the artists diverged. Where Mantegna created a dream piece, with a kneeling Christ, sleeping disciples and an ominous bird in a dead tree, Bellini placed his focus on the landscape – its dips and curves and poetic skyline – which his figures seem almost to intrude upon.

If Bellini was the stronger landscape painter, Mantegna is usually said to have been most at home with the grand historical narrative, unfazed by the challenge of transforming pages of classical or vernacular text into monumental canvases. The most awe-inspiring of the rooms in this exhibition contains three of his dramatic Triumphs of Caesar series inspired by accounts of the Gallic Wars.

Mantegna, who in 1460 became court painter to the Gonzaga family in Mantua, was truly visionary in his approach to classical antiquity. He was particularly adept at bringing arcane ideas from mythology imaginatively to life. One of the highlights of this show is his painting of Minerva expelling the Vices from the Garden of Virtue, in which the Vices, fat and deformed, have been pushed into a pond. Behind them, arches of topiary glow with flowers and fruit, and a tree with breasts and a mortal face lurks behind the goddess Minerva. For a painting that celebrates morality it could hardly be more entertaining.

It was commissioned by Isabella d’Este, Marchioness of Mantua who, at the beginning of the 16th century, requested a narrative history painting from Bellini too. The Venetian was reluctant and put the project off, apparently believing that his strength lay rather in religious scenes, an anxiety that seems misplaced when you consider how far classicism underpinned his work. Bellini’s portrait of Doge Loredan (c1501-2) – to my mind the most beautiful in the National Gallery’s permanent collection – has all the majesty of a Roman bust.

In time Bellini proved himself just as capable of handling classical themes as his brother-in-law. Bellini’s Feast of the Gods (1514–29), painted for Isabella’s brother, the Duke of Ferrara, and completed by his protégé Titian and the Ferrara court painter Dosso Dossi, is a triumph. All the more mesmerising for the obscurity of the story, in which Priapus is frustrated in his attempt to assault a sleeping nymph, the painting marries classical narrative and landscape with a confidence more typical of Mantegna. Bellini had perhaps come to the realisation that Christian and pagan themes do not necessarily require drastically different approaches.

When so many artists of the 15th and 16th centuries thrived on the kind of rivalries which engendered bitter hostility and resentment, it is refreshing to imagine these two brothers-in-law thinking nothing of revisiting each others’ paintings and reworking them to their own satisfaction.

Mantegna & Bellini is at the National Gallery, London, from October 1 to January 27, 2019; and at Gemäldegalerie, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, from March 1 to June 30, 2019