The artwork of Antonello da Messina in Sicily

Seeing Antonello da Messina’s paintings in person in Sicily is one of the reasons to visit the region. Antonello is certainly one of the most famous Sicilian artists in the world. His paintings are exhibited in the world’s most important museums such as the Musée du Louvre in Paris, the National Gallery in London, the Gemäldegalerie in Berlin and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. There are six paintings in Sicily, including two of his most famous portraits: the Annunciata in Palermo and the Portrait of a Man in Cefalù.

Antonello da Messina: Life, training and style

Antonio di Giovanni de Antonio, known as Antonello da Messina, was born in Messina around 1430. His father, Giovanni de Antonio, was a stonemason and he probably took his first lessons in perspective from him. Around 1450, Antonello moved to Naples to study in the workshop of the painter, Colantonio. Here, he began to learn about Flemish, Spanish and Provençal painting, all of which would influence his style throughout his career. The study of Piero della Francesca’s paintings would also prove to be key. He absorbed a strict sense of perspective and size from the Tuscan painter. On his return to Messina, Antonello opened his workshop, which was already well established by 1457. At the end of 1474, he travelled to Venice, where he came into contact with the work of Giovanni Bellini. He then returned to Messina and died in 1479.

The artwork of Antonello da Messina in Sicily

There are six paintings by Antonello da Messina that can be seen in Sicily, in Messina, Syracuse, Palermo and Cefalù. These paintings were attributed to the Messina painter either through Antonello’s signature or through official documents such as commission contracts. There are also other pieces that some scholars have proposed attributing to Antonello, such as the San Zosimo in Syracuse Cathedral. All of Antonello’s paintings in Sicily were produced by the painter during his time on the island between 1465 and 1475. However, it was not until 2003 that the two-sided tablet, now in the Regional Museum of Messina, would return to Sicily. This was when it was bought at a Christie’s auction by the Region of Sicily for £220,000.

Antonello’s paintings in Messina

The first stage of this itinerary can only start from the painter’s hometown. In the Regional Museum of Messina (Mu.Me), in addition to two canvases by Caravaggio  and other masterpieces, there are also two pieces by Antonello: the Polyptych of St Gregory and a double-sided panel showing Cristo in Pietà on one side (front) and the Madonna and Child giving a blessing and a Franciscan in adoration on the other (back).

The Polyptych of St Gregory

The Polyptych of St Gregory by Antonello da Messina

The Polyptych of St Gregory is a piece that Antonello da Messina created for the Messina Convent Church of Santa Maria Extra Moenia. Today it consists of five wooden panels painted with tempera grassa on two levels. On the lower level are: in the centre the enthroned Madonna of the Rosary, flanked on the left by St Gregory the Great and on the right by St Benedict. In the upper section, we see an Announcing Angel and the Virgin Annunciate. In this piece, Antonella abandoned the Iberian-Neapolitan model of the icon flanked by minor stories. Instead, he decided to place all the figures within a single environment. To achieve this, it uses perspective and various illusory effects to increase the feeling of depth. These include the feet of the two saints and the tip of the crosier protruding from the step. In addition, there are two details at the Virgin’s feet, created using the trompe-l’oeil technique: the rosary and a card. The latter shows the year the work was completed, 1473, and Antonello’s signature.

The double-sided tablet by Antonello da Messina

The double-sided tablet by Antonello da Messina

The other piece by Antonello di Messina on display at Mu.Me. is a double-sided panel, i.e., painted on both sides, made between 1463 and 1465. Considering its small size, 16 cm high and 11.9 cm wide, it is very likely that the tablet was created for private worship. 

Madonna with Child giving a blessing and a Franciscan in adoration (back)

The back of the panel, known as the ‘verso’, shows a Madonna and Child giving a blessing and a Franciscan in adoration. The Virgin is shown standing on the right and holding the Child, covered only by a transparent veil around the pelvis. On the left, a kneeling Franciscan receives a blessing from the baby Jesus. In the lower part of the composition, a balustrade can be seen, a typical element of Flemish painting in that period. The observer’s attention is immediately caught by the Madonna’s voluminous pink mantle. Antonello’s masterful folds almost make it look like crumpled paper. The similarities between this Madonna and the so-called Salting Madonna in the National Gallery in London are very obvious.

Cristo in Pietà (front)

On the front of the panel (recto) is a Cristo in Pietà. The head of Jesus is shown inside a marble Catalan-Gothic-style fretwork. Here, too, the references to Flemish painting are very evident. On both sides, the halos are painted in such a way as to look almost like fretworked wood. This type of representation is also found in other pieces, such as the Annunciation in Syracuse. The painting on this side is much more worn than the other. According to scholars, this is due to the fact that the effigy was kissed after prayer.

Antonello da Messina’s painting in Syracuse

The itinerary for discovering the artwork of Antonello da Messina takes us next to Syracuse. Here, in the Palazzo Bellomo Museum, is the Annunciation of Palazzolo Acreide. The painting was commissioned in 1474 by the priest, Giuliano Maniuni, for the Church of the Annunziata in Palazzolo Acreide. All trace of the painting was lost until 1897, when it was again found by the art historian, Enrico Mauceri.

The Annunciation of Palazzolo Acreide

The Annunciation of Palazzolo Acreide by Antonello da Messina

In this painting by Antonello, the inspiration drawn from Flemish painting is very clear, but there is also a particular focus on the perspective used by Piero della Francesca. This Annunciation features an interior setting similar to Rogier van der Weyden’s and a detailed construction of the environment visible outside the windows as in the Jan van Eyck paintings. The painting is poorly-preserved, but, even so, it is still possible to appreciate the skill of the Messina painter. In the scene depicted, the Madonna, who has Antonello’s typical physiognomy, is on her knees with her arms folded across her chest. On the left is the Angel, dressed in a richly decorated damask and holding a lily. The two characters are metaphorically separated by a splendid Corinthian column that divides the space into two parts.

The artwork of Antonello da Messina in Palermo

After Syracuse, our itinerary for discovering Antonello da Messina’s paintings in Sicily takes us to Palermo. Here, in the Galleria Regionale di Palazzo Abatellis, you can admire two different works by the Sicilian painter. These are the Triptych of the Church Fathers and Antonello’s most famous painting: the Annunciation.

The Triptych of the Church Fathers

The Triptych of the Church Fathers by Antonello da Messina

The Galleria Regionale di Abatellis exhibits three panels painted with St Jerome, St Gregory the Great and St Augustine. They were originally part of a polyptych made for the Church of San Giacomo in Caltagirone. The composition was probably completed by the figure of Saint Ambrose, but this has been lost. In this piece, Antonello demonstrates a great ability to introduce variations to a fairly stereotypical type of representation. When the painting was produced in 1472, use of the gold background was already considered quite anachronistic outside Sicily, but it was nevertheless expressly requested by the patrons. Looking closely at the three saints, it is clear that they were not painted entirely by Antonello. It is probable that the painter delegated the task of painting parts of the panels to the assistants in his workshop. The precision of the facial features and their striking expressions contrast, for example, with the mediocre execution of the hands or books.

The Annunciation in Palermo

The Annunciation in Palermo by Antonello da Messina

The Annunciation in Palermo is perhaps Antonello da Messina’s most iconic and famous painting. Unlike the painting in Syracuse, here the episode from the Bible is depicted without the figure of the Angel. His presence can be felt by the movement of the pages of the book and the Virgin’s reaction. It is as if his appearance generates a shift of air that sweeps over Mary, making her veil almost fly away. Her left hand then tries to hold it steady while her right hand makes a protective gesture. All the essential traits of Antonello’s style can be seen in this painting, such as the attention to detail learned from Flemish painters. This is especially noticeable in the Gothic-style lectern in which there is no shortage of holes created by woodworm. The teachings of Piero della Francesca and his geometric rationalism are also evident. Her face is oval-shaped and her blue veil forms a perfect triangle.

The Antonello da Messina painting in Cefalù

The last stop on this journey exploring Antonello da Messina’s paintings in Sicily is Cefalù. At the Mandralisca Museum, you can witness Antonello’s incredible portraiture skills in person by viewing the Portrait of an Unknown Man. Legend has it that this painting was bought by Baron Mandralisca from a pharmacist in Lipari who was using it as a door for his cupboard. Some scarring is still visible on the painting, which apparently was caused by a romantic setback. 

The Portrait of a Man in Cefalù

The Portrait of a Man by Antonello da Messina

The Portrait of a Man in Cefalù is the perfect way to fully appreciate Antonello’s mastery of portraiture. The painting has now been dated between 1460 and 1476 and is considered to be one of the painter’s early works. However, one can already recognise all the elements that characterise his way of painting portraits. As in Flemish paintings, the subject is represented in a three-quarter view against a dark background. There is also the same attention to detail. A faint beard is visible on his face, while the buttons and eyelets on his clothes look real. Compared to the Flemish, Antonello’s innovation is to also portray the character of his subjects. The most striking element is, therefore, the barely noticeable smile and the very cunning look. Both of these elements create an enigmatic expression, the second most famous in the world after Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa.

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