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.

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