Antonello da Messina paintings are exposed in many museums all around the world and, with the perfectly portrayed emotions on the faces of their protagonists, the vivid colours of the cloths and the rich symbolisms, they have the power to leave each and every one of their admirers struck by their beauty. Antonello da Messina is probably the most famous and acclaimed, not only by posterity, Sicilian painter.
With his clever use of light and ability to condense different art styles in its strokes, he certainly is one of those few and rare figures who was able to leave an indelible mark in Italian and world art history. And today, the 14th February, exactly 542 years after he spoke his last wishes, we’d like to celebrate the life and art of one of Italian most talented artist ever existed.
Antonello da Messina paintings: traces of a lifetime
Antonello da Messina paintings tell us more about the author than most of the written sources, even though we know little about his life, the painter’s evolution through time, the different influences that changed his artistic vision and the strong connection to his hometown are strikingly clear in all his painting. Antonello da Messina, born in 1430 in Messina, at a time where Sicilian art was not at its peak, was the major Sicilian painter and with his magnificent works was able to bring a breath of fresh air to the artistic and cultural scene in Sicily.
Giovanni Michele de Antonio, the father, was a mazonus, a word that can be translated as marble cutter or mason, and taught Antonello da Messina the basics of arts, igniting the spark that will make the son thrive in the magnificent and prosperous world of the Italian painting in the XV century. He continued studying and started apprenticeships in Messina, Palermo and Alcamo until, in 1450, Antonello da Messina went to Naples and became the pupil of the famous artist Colantonio, absorbing everything the Neapolitan artistic scene had to offer and soon the student surpassed the teacher.
Here, he met the innovative techniques and art of Jan Van Eyck that perfected the oil painting technique and depicted refined landscapes and drapery defined by plays of lights and shadows, influenced by the new technique, Antonello da Messina paintings can be ascribed to the Flemish Artistic Movement. Inspired by the hispano-flemish style of Colantonio, most of his earliest works and what is considered to be Antonello da Messina first work, Como’s Virgo Advocata. Interestingly enough, even though the many years passed in Naples the painter’s heart never left Messina and the love for his hometown can be seen in many of Antonello da Messina paintings with small details or entire landscapes dedicated to it.
In the Sibiu Crucifixion, conserved in the National Museum of Art of Romania, the atrocity of the scene is contrasted by the beauty of the landscape, which depicts, with some artistic liberties, the natural port of Messina and the Aeolian Archipelago.
In 1455 Antonello da Messina returned to his hometown where he married Giovanna Cuminella, had three kids and by 1457 was already working in his own studio. Written records tell us he went to Rome in 1459, where he probably met one of the main artists of the newly born Italian Renaissance, Piero Della Francesca.
The proof of this encounter is also supported by the change of artistic style in Antonello da Messina paintings, which now featured renaissance aspects inspired by Piero Della Francesca and Fra’ Angelico, like the perspectival representation of the figures in Reggio Calabria’s St. Jerome Penitent and Three Angels Visit Abraham. This will be for Antonello da Messina the most prolific period of his artistic career, with the Virgin Annunciate, the Crucifixions, the ecce homo and the portraits that made him famous all over the world.
Again, in 1474, a trip to Venice, where he had the chance to enjoy Giovanni Bellini’s paintings and come closer to Flemish Art, will influence his artistic vision, which already showed a perfect understanding of the human form and psychology. In Antonello da Messina Louvre’s painting, Portrait of a man, known as The Condottiere, the influence of the Flemish art of Jan Van Eyck is evident. The dark background and black vest really make a protagonist out of the man’s face. The unknown man immediately becomes a commander with his determined expression, almost tangible muscles and mysterious scar.
The connection to his land, instead, can be seen from a deeper understanding of Antonello da Messina paintings, the noose that characterises many Ecce Homo of this period can be linked to the processions of sentenced criminals that were forced to walk with a noose hanging from their neck near Antonello da Messina house.
The perfect fusion between the Flemish and Renaissance art, as shown in Messina’s San Gregorio Polyptich and Dresda’s St. Sebastian, represents a more mature style in Antonello da Messina paintings.
In 1476, almost as if called by destiny, he will go back to his beloved Messina where on a rainy day of February, in 1479 Antonello da Messina will be buried in the Monastery of Holy Mary of Jesus, in accord with his last wishes that exactly 542 years ago, on February 14, Antonello da Messina pronounced on his deathbed.
Antonello da Messina: pieces of Messina around the world
The fame of Antonello da Messina Paintings has spread through time all over the world and the Sicilian artist’s works can now be found in many museums, from Messina to Palermo, Rome, Venice, London, Paris, Sibiu and New York.
What most amazes about Antonello da Messina, is his ability to always bring a little part of Messina in his paintings, from beautiful landscapes to anecdotes linked to his hometown. One big example of his way of honouring Messina and its culture is Antonello da Messina Virgin Annunciate, a beautiful piece made in his late years that shows the Virgin Mary receiving the news while interrupted at her reading.
The simplicity of her gesture with one hand mid-air almost as to keep the angel away and the other hand holding the cape in a motion of demureness, the deep emotion inside her eyes and softness of the cheeks is what makes Antonello da Messina Virgin Annunciate an absolute masterpiece. But what makes it even more interesting is the perfect resemblance with a young Smeralda Calafato, mostly known as Saint Eustochia, who founded a convent in Messina in the exact same period Antonello da Messina had his own studio in the city.
In St Jerome in his Study Antonello da Messina shows his talent in playing with lights and shadows, the focal point of the painting is the book that is illuminated by one of the many rays of light that give the composition depth and realism. The lion in the back is almost invisible and only captures the observer’s attention after looking at the illuminated arches on the right.
Symbolic elements are positioned all over the painting, from the peacock on the bottom to the geranium, both representing Christian symbols. In St Jerome in his Study Antonello da Messina, again, finds a way of giving his Messina eternal life. Some argue that the glimpse of landscape given by the windows is in fact Messina and that the external arch is a tribute to the Church of the Santissima Annunziata dei Catalani.
In a moment where travelling seems like a fairytale, is nice to know that Antonello da Messina paintings, with their glimpses of Messina’s places, history and culture, are the author’s way of making us fly to an XV century Messina and when fairytales will actually come true, maybe a Messina tour, the city that so much inspired Antonello da Messina, is a must-do.