Antonello da Messina (1430–1479) had almost certainly learned to paint in oils when he was a pupil of Niccolò Colantonio (c 1420-1460) in Naples. By late 1474 he was working in Venice, where he painted a succession of superb oil paintings which must have had great impact on other Italian artists of the day. These include Saint Jerome in his Study, which I showed in the previous article, and at about the same time the paintings shown below.
It’s not clear how long Antonello remained in Venice, but he was still there in 1476, and is recorded as having returned to Messina on the island of Sicily, far to the south, by September.
This version of Calvary or Crucifixion with Saint Mary and Saint John Evangelist is dated 1475 in its cartellino at the foot. Like so many of Antonello’s works, it then apparently vanished for 350 years until it reappeared in the Netherlands.
It reuses some of the elements from Antonello’s earlier and plainer Christ Crucified, but here includes the other two victims of crucifixion and a different landscape background, which result in an altogether grander but still pious and contemplative composition.
Also believed to have been painted while Antonello was in Venice is one of his better-known paintings of the Madonna and Child, known as the Benson Madonna, and in the National Gallery of Art in Washington DC. This is reported as being painted in egg tempera and oil, showing again that Antonello didn’t completely abandon more traditional media even then.
Its nickname reflects that it was once owned by a Robert Benson. It has sadly had quite a troubled life, and before coming into the care of the National Gallery of Art had been transferred from its original panel to plywood. During that process and associated cleaning and repainting, it lost several details, and is now rather plainer as a result. It remains one of the great paintings of this popular motif from the Italian Renaissance.
The main reason for Antonello going to Venice was most probably a commission from Pietro Bon there to paint what would have been his largest and most elaborate work, a polyptych altarpiece for the church of San Cassiano. This is securely dated to 1475-76, and for the next century or more was studied by a great many artists, making it as influential in its day as any of the works of Leonardo da Vinci.
Tragically, this magnificant work was dismembered in 1638-39 to be taken to England, then following the English Civil War it moved on to Brussels, where it was copied by David Teniers. Its fragments were next takem to Vienna, where only the central panel was exhibited. Two more panels were discovered in a store, but two others had been lost.
In addition to its elaborate details of fabrics and clothing, Antonello has embarked on some of the Flemish exercises in depicting optical test pieces, such as a glass of water, and the fine glass rods just to the right of the female saint’s face. This is strongly reminiscent of Jan van Eyck’s optical explorations, such as in The Arnolfini Portrait (1434).
Another of Antonello’s paintings dated by his cartellino is the magnificent Salvator Mundi (Christ Blessing) from the same year, 1475. This shows great sophistication in the modelling of the face and rendering of hair, and in style is quite unlike contemporary paintings from the northern Renaissance. It’s closer to the distinctive Italian style seen in the work of Leonardo da Vinci, such as his controversial Salvator Mundi claimed to be from about 1500, twenty-five years later.
Paint analysis shows that the dominant drying oil used here was walnut oil rather than linseed.
Another of Antonello’s paintings fairly securely attributed to his time in Venice is his outstanding Virgin Annunciate from 1475-76, again painted in both oil and egg tempera. There is an almost identical copy, made by Antonello’s nephew Antonello de Saliba, in the Gallerie dell’ Accademia in Venice. Not a full annunciation with the Archangel Gabriel, this considers the Virgin Mary in isolation, at a lectern with a book open in front of her.
Although it shows signs of its age and a badly executed cleaning in the nineteenth century which removed much of its upper paint layer, Antonello’s rendering of flesh is masterly. For many years, this painting was attributed to Dürer, but was finally accepted as one of Antonello’s finest works in the mid nineteenth century.
In the next and concluding article I will look at a selection of Antonello’s later works.
Caterina Cardona, Giovanni Carlo Federico Villa (eds.) (2019) Antonello da Messina, Skira. ISBN 978 88 572 3098 2.
Thomas Skorupa (2015) Antonello da Messina and his Workshop, The Master’s Legacy, Logos Verlag. ISBN 978 3 8325 3929 0.