The first was painted between 1457-1459, the second from 1458-60, an intensive schedule considering that throughout this period Mantegna was also completing an immense altarpiece for the Benedictine monastery of San Zeno in Verona, a work commissioned by its abbot. In 1453, Mantegna had married Nicolosia, the daughter of Jacopo Bellini, thus becoming brother-in-law to the talented artists Gentile and Giovanni Bellini. This coming together of creative talent in the workshop of one of the founders of Renaissance art, Venetian Jacopo Bellini, resulted in a number of works of great originality.
Inspired by an original drawing by Jacopo Bellini, both Mantegna and Giovanni Bellini worked on versions of the theme of The Agony in the Garden. Mantegna's tempera-on-wood version is now in the Musée des Beaux-arts, Tours. Here Christ is kneeling on the right, face clearly revealed, while his disciples sleep almost at his feet. An angel reaches down to comfort him and strengthen his resolve, while behind him the soldiers, led by the traitor Judas, approach inexorably down the hill from the Holy City of Jerusalem in the background.
In Mantegna's oil panel version, now in the National Gallery, London, Christ is to the left of the painting with the Instruments of the Passion appearing in front of him. Below him, at the foot of the rock on which he kneels, his disciples appear as older men sprawled deeply in sleep. Mantegna' depicts the stone with the detail of a geologist's cross section. Judas approaches with the soldiers. The Holy City is shown as a walled town with elements of Rome, the eternal city, indicated by the equestrian statue and theatre. The brooding sky and sombre colour of Christ's midnight blue robe, worn over a red tunic that makes a bloody slash across its darkness, contrast with the almost pastoral greens and warm browns of the Tours version.
The two versions show clearly the imaginative ability of Mantegna to take a single theme and create two technically and visually diverse alternatives. In intriguing contrast to these two artistic visions, his brother in law Giovanni's version, also in the National Gallery, is deliberately parched, sparse and almost surreal.