Painted on poplar
Christ as the Suffering Redeemer is painted on a poplar panel. The colour is egg tempera, i.e. the pigment (the colour powder) is mixed with an egg yolk. The technique is characterised by the fine, individual brush strokes which can be seen when one looks closely at the picture.
This was an old-fashioned method round about 1500, as most painters had taken up oil-painting. However, all Mantegna’s pictures on panel are painted in this fashion, and with his virtuoso mastery of the technique, he created works of a unique clarity and precision, which made him famous even in his own time. The picture was carefully planned in all its details. This is why practically no alterations were made during the painting.
Egg tempera technique was well suited to creating the very fine details in the background of the picture: the hill of Golgotha with the skulls, the masons, the shepherds, and the women on the road shown in the detail under here. It is possible that Mantegna employed a magnifying glass when painting the tiny figures. This sort of magnifying glass was produced in Venice as early as the 13th century.
The pigments and dyes in the picture are typical of their time. For the sky, Mantegna employed the very costly blue pigment ultramarine together with another blue, azurite, which was much cheaper. We know that he did not do this to save money, but to achieve a specific colour effect. The detail above shows a colour sample from the sky, photographed through a microscope. Some colours have changed over the centuries, which is true of the red angel’s tunic, for example, which originally had a much stronger colour.
Mantegna used gold to paint the haloes, the highlights on the feathers of the angels’ wings, as well as the rosettes and the signature on the base of the sarcophagus. Like egg tempera, this was a technique which had partially gone out of fashion at the time when Christ as the Suffering Redeemer was painted. But Mantegna continued to use gold paint, Muschelgold, though less is used here than in many of his earlier pictures.