Searching for Oil

John Haber
in New York City

Antonello da Messina

Antonello da Messina passes through the early Renaissance like an apparition. One knows his home in Sicily, and one has legends of his travels going back to Vasari's Lives, but hardly more. No one can say for certain how he learned to paint in oils, then a rarity in Italy. He died in 1479, before his fiftieth birthday. Little of his work survives.

His exhibition at the Met has less still, including just four loans. The earliest, perhaps his earliest known painting, still has all the challenges of a recent scholarly discovery. The omissions hint at a more revelatory exhibition that perhaps could and should have appeared. Virgin Annunciate (Galleria Regionale della Sicilia, Palermo, c. 1465–1475)

And yet the Met still provokes one to imagine the course of a career. One can speculate on Antonello's novelty, even eccentricity—as an outsider with his own fantastic world and his own startling realism. One can sense the impact that he and his new technique made on Venice. One can see, too, how his art came increasingly to define the Renaissance.

The vanishing act

Even Antonello's brief appearance in New York seems like a vanishing act, a neat irony for such a master of illusion. He has two modest panels and a drawing from the permanent collection, one painting from a private collection, and the three from Italy that occasioned the exhibition. His one room hides off to the right as one enters European painting, past Nicholas Poussin and the French Baroque. One could almost believe that it took two centuries—and perhaps Poussin himself—to appreciate Antonello's oil colors. Not even Poussin could imitate his blend of studious reserve and intimate drama.

Bred in Messina, Antonello eventually returns to Sicily, and no one can firmly track his movements in between. As a youth apart from the action, he must first have studied an already dated style, including icons imported from the east. Somehow he encounters the revolution in art, perhaps in Rome. He sustains the contemplative spirit of the leading Florentine artists, especially Piero della Francesca. A Virgin Annunciate, the show's best-known painting, has a distinctively earthy version of Piero's gravity.

Somehow, too, Antonello learns about oil painting and establishes it in Italian art, but no one can say for sure how. He may have seen northern European art almost anywhere, perhaps even in Sicily. Southern Italy had its sea routes, but central Italy had power. More pertinent still, Florence had a thriving merchant class, including the Italians in Bruges who sat for portraits by Hans Memling. However, the novelty of Flemish painting lingered to the end of the century, as did the cultural divide between north and south. Hugo van der Goes stunned Florence when his Adoration of the Shepherds arrived—some years after Antonello's death. Michelangelo still derided its proliferation of detail as unsuited for grown men.

Antonello may or may not have visited Bruges, where Jan van Eyck—who yet another legend claims invented oil painting—had already died and Petrus Christus had not long to live. He may have studied the practice in person with the Master of the Aix Annunciation, a French artist active in Antonello's teens and tentatively identified as Berthélemy d'Eyck. The Met's single drawing by Berthélemy suggests the elegance of the French school but little else. His few known paintings adopt cool colors and a diagonal church architecture, both characteristic of northern painting but unlike anything in Antonello's future. Alternatively, Antonello may have studied with an even more obscure painter, Niccolò Colantonio, in Naples.

Regardless of the details, he had uncannily rapid exposure to more than a century of change in painting. He must have felt each element as if it had appeared on the scene only the day before. He also had the character and the skill to absorb it all—from Gothic decoration to Florentine sculptural simplicity, from peasant piety to a cosmopolitan sensibility, from gold leaf to the translucency of oils. His art turns on making these work together.

With that achievement, he unleashes an explosion in Venice. On arriving there, he learns from the fine line of Jacopo Bellini and the increasingly subtle portraiture of Bellini's oldest son, Gentile. He gains a fascination with perspective, perhaps from Gentile's brother-in-law, Andrea Mantegna. In turn, he influences the newfound dignity of Gentile's brother, Giovanni Bellini, who will dominate Venetian art for years to come. Antonello's oils made possible such painters as Titian. The Met compares one figure's air of dignity and mystery to the Mona Lisa.

Crisis and stability

All that amounts to Antonello's place in history, but what of his art? How did so many unknowns add up, and what made the summation so influential? One can turn to that earliest painting for clues, but only as a beginning.

The tiny panel seems hardly revolutionary. Almost every known work dates from the mid-1470s, and Antonello probably began this one at least fifteen years earlier. Like many an icon, it has two painted sides. On the back, an Ecce Homo retains a halo in tooled gold leaf. The front has the older double scale, of a donor in profile dwarfed by a Madonna and child.

A painted ledge set before that trio intrudes into the viewer's space. It adds a sense of realism, as with Duccio and his circle long before—or as in any number of portraits and still lifes yet to come. However, its implicit separation of the painted, supernatural world from one's own is already on its way out.

Even here, however, one can sense the future. The suffering god has a rough beard and puffy, almost frightened face, and Antonello will invoke that subject again and again. A viewer may once have worshipped here, but also felt that suffering as a real-life challenge. One recalls that an Ecce Homo means Jesus crowned with thorns—and presented not to his followers but to his accusers.

Mary's cloak, too, brings a religious scene alive in the present. It owes something of its lightness to wear and tear, but also to thin applications of paint, which lend brightness and transparency. One can see why the artist would seek a new medium.

Like the ledge, that cloak allows him to extend the Renaissance conception of pictorial space. It adds to Mary's breadth, echoing the sculptural concerns of cutting-edge Italian painting, but its folds run every which way. Neither the flat planes of older art, the simple columns and pyramids of Masaccio's followers in Florence, or the silky gradations of the Northern Renaissance will do. Antonello is creating a visually familiar world of active figures, while at the center of that activity lies stable masses and eternal truths.

The cathedral of a woman's hand

The rest of his art will explore that dual awareness, of the here and now and of what it means. Already, Antonello portrays a religious scene as a critical moment in the life of a human being—and a crisis for the viewer. At the same time, he requires something more lasting. Thoughts of a viewer's daily concerns become a meditation on eternity.

When Mary's hand reaches out, her forward gesture makes an immediate demand on the viewer. However, it seems to enclose the donor in a painted architecture, almost like the dome of an unseen cathedral. One can easily anticipate the looming interiors, shadowy colors, and intent saints of Giovanni Bellini's altarpieces.

The High Renaissance will make much of that double scale in space and time, the duality of perception and meditation. No doubt every religious painter has to deal with it. A painter of the early Renaissance, such as Filippo Lippi, at times incorporates two vanishing points, one for the viewer's eye and one above the reach of the senses. Leonardo's Last Supper, writes Leo Steinberg, does the same thing. Finding something larger than life may have had increasing appeal at the end of the fifteenth century, as Italy's city states and the papacy faced any number of threats.

With Antonello, however, the sense of two worlds has its own very personal logic, With him, it often rises to a triple or quadruple scale, like a meditation upon a meditation of perception. One can see why he must have loved the patient naturalism of oil, with its own multiple layers and its own invitation to vision. Oils dry more slowly than tempera, but he seems to have taken his time anyway, judging by his meager output. Increasingly, the viewer must as well.

Favorite themes include that Ecce Homo. A second, later version at the Met has exquisite rendering of the beard and wisps of hair, but also peasant features and wild eyes akin to madness. Jesus's humanity here accommodates the harsh existence of Sicilian street life, but the figure's isolation removes him from any transient context. Antonello also favors bust-length portraits, similar in format to Memling's but in three-quarters view and, at least in one case, with a smile that appears barely to suppress its savage irony.

He often surrounds a single figure in contemplation or in agony with painstaking detail, as with a picture, also on display, of Saint Jerome in the wilderness. Past owners have abraded Jerome almost to invisibility, no doubt owing to the intensity of worship that the painting evokes.

Layer upon layer

A Crucifixion in London represents that intensity explicitly. The cross rises to unnatural heights, only partly removing it from the richly colored landscape stretching into the distance. On the ground, to either side of the skull, Mary and John fall back, somewhere between awe, sorrow, and weariness. Their arched backs echo an actual curved frame at top, and they also lean against a fictive frame below, pressing out toward the viewer. The landscape truly shows what Antonello could do with oil—and how he could transcend it. One can only regret that the painting did not make it to New York.

Neither did another painting in London, again of Saint Jerome. Besides the wilderness, the ravaged ascetic knew a different kind of solitude, the quiet of a scholar. He translated the Bible, and the painting shows him in his study. However, the studio rises like a stage set, in a deep cathedral interior.

Light plays across the wooden shelves and the tiled floor as gloriously as anything in northern European painting. Oil painting really has found a new home. One contemplates a very worldly vision, but one set apart. And that vision just happens to include a man contemplating what it all means.

The painting's command of light and perspective also brings out the sheer illogic of that interior. It turns out less symmetric than one expects from the cathedral floor or the central arch above. One spots a landscape through a rather ordinary rectangular window, set deep within the interior at the left. That window frame contrasts with the pointed architecture at right and the curved shapes above. Perhaps Jerome's studio has its workmanlike side after all, despite its isolation from the outside world.

On a ledge in front, a brass bowl offers up its mysterious contents, while a quail and a peacock seem ready at any moment to step down into the viewer's space. The bowl, set out for a ritual, and the birds probably signify the immortal soul. Together, they offer further hints of both nature and eternity. Rather than mingling this world and the next, the painting invokes them in layer upon layer.

For Jerome, a book represents the inward focus that Antonello so nurtures, the same focus that conveys both psychological depth and religious study. That motif also appears in the finest work on display at the Met, the Virgin Annunciate. Looking up from her hymnal, Mary can stand for his whole approach. She typifies his actors in her direct encounter with the viewer while she goes about her more miraculous affairs. And she, too, comes wrapped in mystery: art historians have dated the painting anywhere from 1465 to 1476.

A lost opportunity

As so often, Antonello starts by isolating his subject, here against a dark background. Mary looks up and raises her hand, as if in deference to the angel of the Annunciation, but she looks outward rather than to a companion panel. I am no angel, but I could imagine myself brushing against one. Her dark features, right out of southern Italy, accentuate her youth. No wonder the Met compares the painting to an actual portrait like The Mona Lisa.

With one hand, she draws her shawl about her, giving her a girlish shyness, a womanly reserve, and a monumental presence. With the other, she reaches out toward the viewer—or the angel—with the ambiguity of a blessing, a reaching out, and an act of self-defense. As in the early Madonna and Child, shadows play across her open palm. It creates a kind of niche in which the viewer might well stand.

The ambiguity of immediacy and stability extends to Mary's lectern. Its edges spread widely, implying a close-up view and showing Antonello's skill in foreshortening. However, the light and shadow beneath its arched supports give the book rest its own monumental architecture.

I expected somewhat more transparent oil colors. I might incline to date it fairly early in Antonello's career, although a surface now marked by dark spots plays a factor. Despite the toll of years, however, the dark, monochrome background suggests an icon while permitting a study in depth. Mary presents at once a mere girl in a moment of awakening, a character in a familiar narrative, and a subject for lasting contemplation.

For all this, Antonello represents a lost opportunity. As with Fra Angelico the same winter, one sees so little characteristic of the artist. One never does see him at his most precise or spatially complex. Only a portrait in the Met's permanent collection shows his oil technique fully intact today. Now, rare loans from Italy do not appear every week, and I have to admire the Met for assembling something this special and coherent. I could not help wondering, however, if the museum could not have waited a year, long enough to negotiate with museums in London, Munich, and elsewhere.

The Met could have included a painting or two by his supposed teachers. It could have tackled his religious narratives or created more of a portrait gallery. One sees a few singular works, with little effort to reveal thematic relationships or personal growth. With a painter this elusive, even just twice as many works would have marked the retrospective of a lifetime. Then again, even a lifetime might only add to the mysteries. So few paintings somehow fit an artist who requires a slow, intimate encounter—and then turns away toward something else again.

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"Antonello da Messina: Sicily's Renaissance Master" ran at The Metropolitan Museum of Art through March 5, 2006.


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