Mantegna - the San Zeno Altarpiece

It is almost impossible to fully appreciate the central image of this altarpiece from a flat, two dimensional image on a screen or in a book. It is a masterpiece of perspective. The trompe l'oeil features give an extraordinary sense of depth, when you stand in front of it. The garlands at the top look as if they are strung over the painting: The red rug over the throne looks as if it is there for real. The image becomes an extension of the space the viewer is standing in.
  The Madonna and child are surrounded by musical angels. Above are carved musical angels, or putti, very similar to those found on Roman sarcophagi: they Illustrate an essential element of the altarpiece classical references. The throne on which the Virgin sits is decorated with classical images. The carved columns between the panels are classical, and at the top the capitals turn into painted versions.
  So does the picture glorify the classical era? Well, to some extent, but note: The classical elements are painted in grey: the Christian image of the Virgin and child are in full, brilliant colour. The message here is victory the classical world fades away, and the birth of the new saviour replaces it.
  Click here for a larger image of the panel.

A curious element is the circle behind the head of the Madonna, which at first glance seem to be a second nimbus.  Not a classical image: it is a reference to the rose window on the facade of the basilica.

 
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