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Antonello da Messina: Sicily's Renaissance Master
A Special Exhibition Review by Stan Parchin

About the show:

Room 17 of The Metropolitan Museum of Art's second-floor European Paintings Galleries is usually reserved for works by seventeenth-century Old Masters. Dismantled this Winter for a rare occasion, the same space temporarily holds a small-scale exhibition devoted to the Italian Renaissance painter Antonello da Messina (ca. 1430-1479). Shows of this modest size, called focus exhibitions, introduce an artist, well-known or not, to the viewer without being overwhelming in terms of their content. Antonello da Messina: Sicily's Renaissance Master achieves that objective, both in its selection of 11 offerings (seven by Antonello) and the accompanying catalogue. Three of his paintings in this show have never before been displayed publicly in this country.

The exhibition begins with a left-hand wall display that describes the life and times of the artist, born Antonello di Giovanni d'Antonio around 1430 in the seaport city of Messina, Sicily. The late-medieval Kingdom of Naples, which included Sicily, was ruled by Alfonso V, the Aragonese monarch (r. 1416-1458) from the Iberian peninsula. He defeated his French rival, René I of Anjou (1409-1480), for political control of the region in 1442, having established his hegemony over southern Italy. Shortly thereafter, Alfonso commissioned the rebuilding of the thirteenth-century Castelnuovo, a residential fortress in Naples. The complex is best known for its monumental entrance gate. It incorporates a stone triumphal arch reminiscent of classical Roman architecture.

The deposed Good King René retreated from Naples in 1442 to Aix-en-Provence, the capital of Anjou in France. The realm that Alfonso captured from him had an already bustling seaside economy open to the artistic tastes of Northern European and Venetian merchants. René brought to the Kingdom of Naples his Angevin preference for the Provençal style of Late Gothic panel painting and delicate manuscript illumination from France. Alfonso subsequently displayed a distinct fondness for early Netherlandish and Spanish art. Along with the Aragonese king's interest in the Roman and Tuscan classical revival of the arts on the Italian mainland, Naples and Sicily witnessed a fervent period of artistic cross-fertilization encouraged by Alfonso's Humanist court. This development signaled the beginning of the Neapolitan kingdom's cultural transition from the Late Middle Ages to the Renaissance.

Antonello da Messina mastered the art of oil painting during Alfonso V's reign. He established himself as one of the Quattrocento's brightest painters. Antonello's imaginative compositions, characterized by French and Flemish influences, were not to be surpassed by those of any other Southern Italian painter of the Fifteenth Century. The scant available documentation about Antonello's early training reveals that he was an apprentice to the oil painter Niccolò Colantonio (born ca. 1420) in Naples sometime between 1445 and 1455. Scholars theorize that it was during this formative period in his training that Antonello possibly saw paintings by early Netherlandish and Provençal artists. He made one trip to Venice from 1475 to 1476. There he completed a number of significant commissions and exchanged intellectual ideas with Giovanni Bellini (ca. 1431-1516), the first master of High Renaissance painting in Venice. After his excursion to the Serenissima (the Latin designation for the Most Serene Republic of Venice), Antonello remained mostly in Sicily, having painted many religious and secular works of art.


Antonello da Messina (Italian, Sicilian, ca. 1430-1479)
Madonna and Child with a Praying
Franciscan Donor
(recto), 1450s or early 1460s
Oil on panel
5 7/8 x 4 1/4 in. (15 x 10.7 cm)
© Museo Regionale Messina



Rediscovered in 2003, a double-faced painting by Antonello opens the show. An image of the Madonna and Child with a Praying Franciscan Donor graces the recto (front) side of one panel. In this early work, recently conserved, the Virgin Mary holds the Christ Child above a Franciscan monk. The infant Jesus extends his right hand in a gentle gesture of blessing to the friar, who is painted in strict profile, typical of many donor portraits of the Italian Renaissance. The three figures stand out against a dark background. They are separated from the viewer by a lower parapet. It creates a sacred space in which the three holy figures interact with each other. The crisp crimson folds of the Virgin Mary's mantle are derived from Antonello's possible exposure to works by the French Provençal painter Enguerrand Quarton (ca. 1422-1466). An Ecce Homo or image of the sorrowful Christ's head is on the painting's verso or back side. The expression Ecce Homo (Latin for "Behold the Man") comes from the New Testament Gospel According to John (19:5). They were the words spoken by Pontius Pilate when he presented Jesus Christ, scourged and wearing a crown of thorns, to the crowd who sought his crucifixion. The small size of this devotional panel suggests its portability desired by the original owner, who may have carried it during his travels in a special leather case.


Antonello da Messina (Italian, Sicilian, ca. 1430-1479)
Christ Crowned with Thorns, possibly 1470
Oil on panel
16 3/4 x 12 in. (42.5 x 30.5 cm)
© The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York



Antonello revisited the Ecce Homo theme repeatedly in his career. Christ Crowned with Thorns (possibly 1470) from The Metropolitan Museum of Art's collection has a profound impact on the viewer due to the immediacy of the painting's bust-length format inspired by similar Flemish works. A bare-chested Christ crowned with thorns is shown isolated behind a ledge. His facial features are in no way idealized or classically beautiful, emphasizing his humanity. And the expression of suffering on Jesus' anguished visage does not detract from the figure's sense of dignity. Despite certain abrasions to the panel's surface, Antonello's subtle modeling of Christ's nose and upper torso is still visible today. One can't help but compare this masterpiece of emotion to an earlier one of the same subject by the Florentine painter Fra Angelico (ca. 1390/95-1455), most recently in a special exhibition of his works at The Met.


Antonello da Messina (Italian, Sicilian, ca. 1430-1479)
Portrait of a Man, late 1460s or 1470-72
Oil on panel
12 1/4 x 9 5/8 in. (31 x 24.5 cm)
© Museo della Fondazione Culturale Mandralisca,
Cefalù (Palermo)



In addition to religious painting, Antonello excelled in the art of secular portraiture to a degree that rivaled his Northern Italian contemporaries. The exhibition contains two paintings entitled Portrait of a Man. They form part of a celebrated series of baruni or barons that Antonello painted from about 1470 until his death in 1479. In the oil on panel piece from Cefalù in Palermo, Italy, the artist's sharp visual insight into the sitter's personality is clear. Placed against a neutral background, Antonello portrayed the bust-length man in a three-quarter view common in the Netherlands. This allowed for a wider range of facial expressions and gave the viewer greater appreciation of the sitter's engaging glance, slightly mischievous smile and distinctly Sicilian features. Portrait of a Man draws the observer psychologically into the sitter's gaze.


Antonello da Messina (Italian, Sicilian, ca. 1430-1479)
The Virgin Annunciate, ca. 1475-76
Oil on panel
17 3/4 x 13 5/8 in. (45 x 34.5 cm)
© Galleria Regionale della Sicilia, Palermo



The exhibition concludes with Antonello's The Virgin Annunciate. The panel is a compelling depiction of Mary with an open devotional text on a simply rendered geometric lectern. She acknowledges the implied presence of the angel Gabriel, who is about to tell her that she will be the mother of the Son of God. In response to the angel's greeting, Mary clasps her blue cloak closed and holds it modestly in front of her chest. Meanwhile she gestures outwardly with her right hand extending beyond the picture plane's surface to Gabriel, who occupies the viewer's space. Some art historians feel that the foreshortened quality of the Virgin's right hand was achieved through the use of a velo (a string grid through which shapes were observed, drawn onto a squared piece of paper and then transferred to a painting). Although the subject is religious in nature, Antonello consciously chose a young and humble Sicilian girl for the model of the Blessed Virgin. In this way, he took a theme from the remote Biblical past and made it spiritually relevant, if not awe-inspiring, to anyone who saw the painting. 

The works in this small yet informative special exhibition serve The Metropolitan Museum of Art well in its attempt to familiarize an American audience with the profound pictorial accomplishments of an Italian painter perhaps unappreciated in this country. Antonello's seemingly effortless assimilation of different artistic styles in fifteenth-century Italy attests to his virtuosity as a painter. To that end, Antonello da Messina was indeed Sicily's Renaissance master.

About the catalogue:

Barbera, Gioacchino, Andrea Bayer and Keith Christiansen.
Antonello da Messina: Sicily's Renaissance Master (exh. cat.).
New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2005.

The affordable, color softcover catalogue is light in weight but not in content. Its 56 pages include two excellently written essays on the painter, his world and his art. Entries for each of the exhibition's works are followed by a very complete bibliography of mostly Italian scholarly publications.

For further reading:

Borchert, Till-Holder (ed.). The Age of Van Eyck: The Mediterranean World and Early Netherlandish Painting, 1430-1530 (exh. cat.).
Ghent and Amsterdam: Groeningemuseum, Bruges, 2002.

"Antonello da Messina: Sicily's Renaissance Master" is on view from December 13, 2005 through March 5, 2006 at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1000 Fifth Avenue at 82 Street, New York, NY 10028-0198 (Telephone: 212-535-7710; Website: www.metmuseum.org). The museum is open Tuesday through Thursday and Sunday from 9:30 AM to 5:30 PM and Friday and Saturday from 9:30 AM to 9:00 PM. SUGGESTED admission is $15.00 for adults. Paid parking is available in The Museum Garage.

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From your Guide: Stan Parchin, Senior Correspondent for Museums and Special Exhibitions, is a specialist in ancient, late-medieval and Renaissance art and history, and a regular contributor to About Art History. You may read all of his Special Exhibition and Catalogue Reviews here.




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