Book Review | 2019
"His eyes and smile create a humanised figure that is filled with life, mystery, stories and wonder and much like the previously mentioned works it is hard for the viewer to leave this painting"
ANTONELLO DA MESSINA | Skira Edition
Books are not just something to behold they are treasures to be in awe. Each book holds its own magic over the reader but few have the ability to make it near impossible to open. One of the rewards of getting a new book is cracking it open, looking through the text and being taken aback by the images. And yet, once in a while, a book comes along that makes it difficult to even open.
Antonello da Messina (c. 1430–79) influence on the Renaissance is indisputable and across 300 pages this new book from SKIRA is the quintessential book on Antonello da Messina to be published in the past few decades. Christ Crowned with Thorns (1470) St Jerome in his Study (c.1460); Portrait of a Man (1475); and San Cassiano Altar (1475-76) are some of Antonello is most celebrated works and each possesses the uniqueness and virtuosity that Antonello became renewed for.
In Antonello da Messina (Skira 2019) the cover features Antonello’s beautiful L’Annunciata (the Virgin Annunciate) (1475-76). It is impossible not to become transfixed by the image and by the incredible way Antonello has painted the eyes. In their introduction Caterina Cardona and Giovanni C. F. Villa say:
"He [Antonello] goes straight to the heart and feelings of anyone lingering before one of his paintings, inspiring a mixture of admiration and emotion."
And this is what makes this book so essential and so special. The realism that Antonello created with his paintings is almost unbelievable and unreal. One is drawn to his paintings in a way one can never describe but this draw one feels in almost instant the moment you see his works.
Like the cover image I was silenced by Death of Christ Supported by Three Angels (p249). There is a delicate, brutal and innocence within this painting that makes it hard to leave or let go. The emotion that Antonello extracts from the viewer is hard to describe and almost impossible to put into words. It is as though the paintings are a deeper and truer reflection of life, the characters within each painting are real and as we view them we begin to feel their lives, their breaths, their moments of living. This feeling is most felt with Death of Christ Supported by Three Angels as the viewer becomes become privy to the death of Christ in a way they may never have felt before.
As one spends more time with this painting the focus shifts to the faces of Christ and the three angels. Damaged and almost erased the delicate, sincere sadness that is still legible on the face of Christ makes it impossible for the viewer to move beyond it.
"Antonello puts great effort into the eyes of his subjects."
One feels this powerful message being shared between the three angles; one is lifting Christ while the angle another the is consoling Christ. But it is the Angel behind Christ looking down towards him, not helping and not consoling him but perhaps telling him that only he can make the choice he needs to make.
This is true also true of L’Annunciata and many of the paintings that are within this new book. Antonello’s style, ability and creativity it seems is based on the power he has to elicit the raw emotion from the viewer. His work is not just meant to be looked at but is meant to be admired in a unique way that pulls in the viewer and keeping their focus.
As one begins to really devour the images within Antonello da Messina we see something truly remarkable. Antonello’s works have a subtle theme within them that is an intentional part of the reason why his audience becomes so fixated on his work.
From Ecce Homo (p114), Portrait of a Young Man (p198), Portrait of a Man (p214) to Salvator Mundi (p229) Antonello puts great effort into the eyes of his subjects. They either gaze at you or are looking slightly away from you but in each of his portraits, this humanism he created brings a new boldness of life, meaning and emotional connection between him, his subjects and his viewer. As Jhumpa Lahiri points out in Portrait of a Young Artist (p41-45) when talking about visiting Portrait of a Young Gentleman (1474) at the Philadelphia Museum of Art:
‘He observes me a bit askew. His way of looking, resigned and enigmatic, a touch ironic, is both welcoming and wary.’
The images trap you in a way and act as though they have something to tell you, a secret and though they are frozen within the portrait their eyes tell you there is something more they want to share with you which is perhaps best captured in Portrait of a Man (p139).
His eyes and smile create a humanised figure that is filled with life, mystery, stories and wonder and much like the previously mentioned works it is hard for the viewer to leave this painting. This is the true power and importance of Antonello’s works, his unique ability to hold you and to give you a painting that demands and takes your attention.
In bringing this artist and his works to life Giovanni C. F. Villa’s stunning chapter From Myth to History The Antonello of Cavalcaselle eloquently captures the pull and allure that this, at one time, the lost master had and continues to have to this day. There is something about this chapter that offers the reader a concise and unique introduction to Antonello, his history and place with the world of the great Masters of art. This chapter also offers great insight into why he is so revered.
Antonello da Messina is a glorious book that lets the reader find themselves lost within the beautiful images and flicking back to the start to re-read the chapters before going back to explore, in greater detail, Antonello’s works.