Antonello in the Gallery

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8 November - 7 January 2018

This autumn we present the fifth in our series of international masterpieces in the Prince William V Gallery. Previously on display were paintings by Caravaggio, Titian, Velázquez and Mantegna. Now we’re showing The Crucifixion of Christ, an exceptional work by the Sicilian Renaissance master Antonello da Messina. Like the Flemish portraits in the Neighbours exhibition (now showing at the Mauritshuis), it is on loan from the Royal Museum of Fine Arts in Antwerp.

‘The Italian Jan van Eyck’ is a good way to describe Antonello da Messina (c.1430–1479), with a little artistic license. As none other, he reacted to the innovations of the fifteenth century Flemish school of painting, of which Van Eyck was the forefather. At a time when most Italian artists were still working in egg tempera, Antonello painted in oils, like the Flemish. With transparent oil paint it is possible to achieve greater intensity of colour and to paint with more fluidity than with egg tempera. Antonello’s meticulous attention to countless small details also testifies to the inspiration he drew from Van Eyck and his followers.

Antonello of Messina

Very little is known about the life of Antonello (circa 1430-1479). We do know that he was born in the Sicilian harbour town of Messina: he often signed his works Antonellus messaneus me pinxit, ‘Antonello of Messina painted me’. He was apprenticed to Colantonio in Naples, where there was art from all over the world to be seen. Antonello would have seen and studied paintings there by Flemish artists such as Jan Eyck.There is no evidence that Antonello travelled to Flanders. He was, however, recorded as being in Venice in 1475-1476. This is where he painted this Crucifixion, probably for a Venetian collector.

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Antonello da Messina De kruisiging van Christus, 1475 Koninklijk Museum van Schone Kunsten Antwerpen © - Art in Flanders vzw

Gruesome Bone Yard

According to the Bible the Crucifixion of Christ took place on Golgotha, which translates as ‘Place of the Skull’. Antonello depicted this as a gruesome place, full of skulls, bones and writhing snakes.

The cross bearing the dead Christ is central to the depiction. It towers high above everything else and stands out sharply against the blue sky. Christ’s calm demeanour is in acute contrast to the tormented bodies of the men hanging to the left and right. To the left beneath the cross sits Mary, Christ’s mother. Kneeling on the other side is John, his beloved disciple. Mary’s sorrow and John’s rapt devotion serve as an example to worshippers at prayer, which is exactly what this painting was intended for.

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Detail: Mary and her companions are returning to Golgotha. Two men are carrying a ladder so they can fetch the dead Christ down from the cross.

Lifelike details

The crucifixion scene is uppermost, but Antonello painted a magnificent landscape packed with lifelike details in the background. Nestled between the green hills is Jerusalem with a glorious blue bay in the distance. Rabbits hop about, while deer graze.

A procession of soldiers can be seen making its way through the landscape, heading home. At the stone bridge, they encounter four figures: Mary in her blue cloak – who therefore appears twice in the painting – accompanied by some men with a ladder. They are returning to Golgotha to fetch Christ down from the cross. Antonello excelled at details like this, and in doing so he was following in the footsteps of his Flemish counterparts.

Antonello in the Gallery will be on display until 7 January 2018.

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Detail: Some deer graze peacefully and majestically at the edge of the wood.
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Detail: On a splintered piece of wood – left over from a previous execution – Antonello added a piece of paper with his signature: 1475, Antonellus messaneus me pinxit
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Detail: The owl symbolises the sinners who turn away from the true faith, just as this nocturnal animal turns away from the daylight.