mantegnaAndrea Mantegna, Parnassus (Mars and Venus), 1497, Tempera and gold on canvas, 63 x 76 inches

Andrea Mantegna offers up a grand celebration in Parnassus (Mars and Venus), brilliant in both its design and its conception of an event. It is a fete champetre par excellence featuring gods and Muses a-swingin’ and a-swayin’ in godly and ungodly ways. The Great Ones show up to cavort and make merry with dancing ladies who represent an allegory of universal harmony and the minor gods show up to support the main event. Presiding atop a convenient rocky archway are Venus and Mars, stand-ins for Isabella d’Este, who commissioned the piece, and her husband Francesco II Gonzaga. They gaze benevolently down on the events below. Gals carouse, Anteros (symbol of heavenly love) aims a blowpipe at angry Vulcan’s genitals, and Mercury looks like he’s giving Pegasus one of those irresistible, come hither looks that horses so enjoy. Quite a carousel of fun and divine hijinks, you might say if you happened to venture onto this scene from the surrounding caves or the tiny town nestled under Mount Helicon in the distance.

But there is more to this scene than just fun. The best artists always find ways to subvert the so-called natural order of things – Caravaggio’s Madonna di Loreto a great case in point – and Mantegna in 1497 was no different. Mantegna weaves all these disparate moments together into a tight composition via his use of distinct geometrical shape orders—large, medium and small. Leonardo da Vinci once theorized, echoing Egyptian theosophy, that the square was male, representing the material world and the circle was female, symbolizing the spiritual domain. In Parnassus, one very large square shape plays the largest compositional role, hugging the left-hand side of the picture plane. It contains within it almost everything of dramatic importance: Venus and Mars, the dancing Muses, Apollo with his lyre, and the rocky outcropping to the left with a cave that houses Vulcan, Venus’ husband. True to the kinkiness of the scene, however, this same bold square kicks out at the bottom right with the feistiness of a can-can girl, as it follows the diagonal line of one of the Muse’s legs.

Negative shapes also contribute rich material to this story, and there is one large and marvelous phallus-shaped area of negative space driving a wedge down into the square from the top left of it, literally penetrating the grand square and just missing the large circular negative shape to its right – the archway or portal opening directly underneath Venus. Other wonderfully phallic, negative shapes of sky and background descend into the scene in several places, like post-coital members still hoping to play.

Breaking down the composition further, we find still more enticing relationships that reveal more sides to the story. In the very top middle of the composition is another square — this one medium-sized — in the form of a bushy tree jutting out in four corners and acting as a foil for the figures of Mars and Venus standing atop the arch. Mantegna’s bushy square is distinctly dominant over the large circle of negative space formed by that rocky archway, and this relationship reinforces the hierarchy of the genders: man dominates woman. Interestingly, the jagged edges of the bushy square are echoed in the jagged rock form to its left, atop (behind) Vulcan’s cave. But the rocks are dead forms while Mars’ bush is alive with fruit, at least on his side. Venus merits only one piece of fruit on hers. Could this be an allusion to the great number of sperm it takes to fertilize one egg? Was Mantegna ahead of his time since Antony Van Leeuwenhoek wouldn’t discover that multitudes of sperm strive together to fertilize one egg until 1677? We can’t know what he was tapping into, but Venus and Mars are clearly united, their bodies forming semi-circular halves of a lovely oval.

However — and here is the capstone of the painting — Venus is not only posed in the middle of the square, she also comprises the central focus of the composition, and she seems to be slightly pushing Mars off the apex of rock that they are occupying. What is Mantegna saying with this positioning? What does it mean that she appears to be displacing the war god? Remember, it was Isabella who commissioned this piece, so perhaps Mantegna is arguing that Venus, not Mars, dominates the masculine realm. She, glowing in all her ivory nudity, is like a flashlight, eclipsing him. All he can do here is give way to her beauty, with staff in hand to keep himself from falling over. In this light his armor even seems compensatory. Thus Mantegna swiftly upends the social and gender hierarchy of his age.

Below them, the Muses dance in front of the large circular void of the rock arch, which provides a misty view of deep space. Nestled in the distance is that small town and, even further, a range of mountains, first two peaks then one furthest away — the uniting of two into one. This is a feminine space, beckoning us to enter it deeply. The women dance in a circle, reinforcing the circular shape of the arch. Other circles echo in the linking of arms by two Muses in front and one in back who create a kind of wedding ring for Mars and Venus out of their entwined arms. This conflation of space — when events in the background collide with those in the foreground to make meaning — is something only two-dimensional work can do so beautifully and uniquely.

Circles are echoed again and again in the spiraling cave structures in the hills. They speak pictorially to us of the marvels of all that femaleness, generously opening distant, yet unexplored, realms of being to the viewer. The scene is one of ecstatic unfolding as boy gives way to girl, husband submits to wife, man to beast, and the dance of life goes on.

Julie Heffernan, Standing my Ground, 2016, Oil on canvas, 68 x 66 inches

Julie Heffernan is a Brooklyn-based painter who exhibits widely throughout the US and internationally. She will be exhibiting her new work in November at Catharine Clark Gallery in San Francisco. She is co-founder of Painters on Paintings.