Art history is a subject unknown to many. Even those who are aware of art history occasionally find it inexplicably boring. When talking with my peers, I often feel their apprehension toward art’s ever continuing timeline and their general ignorance in the field. In fact, on the off chance we speak about such a topic, our discussions never diverge from the most renowned artists: Leonardo, Van Gogh, Picasso, Michelangelo, etc.
Given this focus on the well-known greats, I want to reserve a special mention to an artist considered to be in a “second band”: Antonello da Messina. In my opinion, he is not so far from the mastery of the first.
Born in 1430 in Messina, Italy, da Messina worked in one of the major Italian centers of the time. A fundamental step in his career took place in Naples, where he became acquainted with Flemish painting through the Angevin court of Alfonso I. This was a crucial time, in which the skillful artist managed to combine the characteristics of Flemish painting (refined details and rich symbolism) with those of Italian painting (geometric precision and clever use of perspective).
Da Messina’s paintings are characterized by this unification of careful geometric study paired with a symbolism with references to the classic. The final product of this combination is astonishingly perfect, as exemplified by his work, “Saint Gerolamo In His Study.”
We note how the scene is inscribed in a round or ‘Catalan’ arch, where inside, we see that there are two-light and ogival vaults, as well as the vanishing point: the book of St. Gerolamo. The protagonist is represented and central to the piece, assumably translating the Bible from Greek into Latin. The animals about him all have a particular meaning: the lion to the right in the portico is a reference to classical iconography, the cat next to the plants represents loyalty, the peacock directed towards a bowl of water symbolizes eternity. The direct partridge’s significance lies in its apparent ability to recognize a mother’s voice among many other voices. The colors are clear and derive from the use of oil painting of Flemish influence, while the light is diffused and unifies all the elements of the scene.
As depicted through his cross-cultural, impactful artwork, Antonello da Messina emphasizes the importance of writing more than just “the best” of artists into the recording of art history.