National Gallery of Canada / Musée des beaux-arts du Canada

Annual Bulletin 1, 1977-1978

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Mattia Preti: The Feast of Absalom

by John T. Spike

Pages  1  |  2  |  3  |  4  |  5  |  6

The same observations apply to the Christ in Preti's evidently contemporary painting of Christ and the Woman of Samaria (Heim Gallery, London) (fig. 4). (13) Now we arrive at our referent for the Ottawa Feast of Absalom. With unusual exactness, Preti applied the same observations of a brilliant white light falling on a milky complexion to the characters of the Samaritan woman and of Absalom. It is indicative of the degree of abstraction in Preti's style of this period that the identical facial type shared by a young man and a woman does not seem odd in either instance. The similarities extend to the reddish tint of the nostrils and the copper-coloured hair. Other coincidences between the Ottawa and London pictures are in the treatment of drapery. The stiff fabrics buckle in their folds. Compare Absalom's cloak with the Samaritana's, or Absalom's sleeves and Christ's mantle. These last two are the same shade of deep blue with a subtle resonance of dark green where the underpainting is allowed to show through in the shadows.

The Feast of Absalom is easily related to the Samaritana, but is not so close to other works apparently coeval to the Sambughè paintings, among them a Raising of Lazarus, now in Genoa (Palazzo Spinola). These pictures are populated by intense, emaciated types comparable to the Christ of the Heim Samaritana, but which lack the solidity of Absalom and his weighty clothes. It stands to reason, therefore, that the Ottawa canvas falls on the chronological limits of this group. Naturally, one cannot pretend to take the paintings of a prolific and experimental artist such as Preti and order them in ranks like playing cards.

But by invoking other evidence it becomes possible to suggest whether this Feast of Absalom precedes or follows most of the group we have associated with the fifth section of the vault of St John's.

A comparison that demonstrates the precedence of the Ottawa Feast of Absalom also proves our assumption that Preti painted the vault progressing towards the altar. Two paintings I believe contemporary to the sixth section of the vault (thus representing the style into which our Sambughè group evolved) are the Madonna with Ss Nicholas, Peter and Raphael (the altarpiece dedicated to the name saints of the Cotoner brothers. [The Tal-Mirakli Church, Lija, Maital) and The Liberation of St Peter (Akademie der Bildenden Künste, Vienna) (fig. 5). Reconstruction of the Tal-Mirakli Church was begun in 1664, under the auspices of Grand Master Nicholas Cotoner. (14) These paintings evince the same extreme saturation of colour and an insubstantiality of form not found in the Feast of Absalom. The abstraction for decorative purposes has been extended to the drapery folds, which have been transformed into blocky shapes, unconvincing as fabric creases, but marvelous as fields of colour. This peculiar pattern of folds is found in some of the saints flanking the windows in the sixth section of the vault.

We can derive an idea of Preti's very early style in Malta by the relation of the oil on canvas Christ Risen in Glory with Saints (Museo del Prado, Madrid) (fig. 6) to two of the paintings in the first section of the vault of St John's. As we noted above, Preti executed this section before 17 June 1663, but it was certainly his first task when commencing the vault, probably in mid-1662. (15) Portrayals of The Blessed Pietro G. Mecatti (fig: 7) and St Toscana flank windows on opposite sides of the nave. Both of these figure types occur in the Prado painting, as if the same models had been used, although the types are most likely imaginary. Equally comparable is the handling of the heavy folds of the coarse Franciscan habits.

Preti's descriptions at this time of physiognomies and fabrics are far more differentiated and less abstracted than in the Ottawa Feast of Absalom. The volumes of the figures in the Prado picture are stressed and their locations are clearly defined within a vast sweep of space. Their arrangement has not been adjusted for optimum decorative impact. An intervening stage in this development is represented by the Pilate Washing His Hands of mid-1663, which was recently acquired by the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

The Feast of Absalom represents, then, a renewed investigation by Preti of the Late Baroque tendencies he had developed in 1658-1661, but put aside when he began work at St John's, Vailetta. Valerio Mariani observed that Preti's apse painting is disappointingly conventional in its disposition of figures. Preti may have felt constrained at first by old-fashioned preferences on the part of his Knight patrons, or by the awesome grandiosity of the commission he had undertaken.

The other paintings that we believe are near in time to the Ottawa picture reveal the same fresh consideration of decorative colourism and idealized features. Most of these, for instance the Sambughè canvasses, were painted for export. The alterpiece at Lija (c. 1666) proves, however, that the artist did not have one style for Italy and another, presumably more conservative, for Malta.

The presence of this Feast of Absalom and so many other paintings by Preti in Naples ensured that his achievements were not forgotten. (16) Borrowings from Preti can be found in the paintings of every Neapolitan who succeeded him, although for the remainder of the seventeenth-century in Naples, Luca Giordano's star rose to unchallenged supremacy. The deepest impression of Preti's art was not felt until the next century, when the fame of even Giordano's school was eclipsed by the ascendency of Francesco Solimena ( 1657 -1747) and his distinguished pupils.

Although greatly influenced by Luca Giordano, Solimena had not studied that master solely. Instead, he supplemented his education with observations of Mattia Preti's draftsmanship and naturalism. De Dominici remarked that Solimena could be considered a pupil of Preti's and attributed to Solimena the maxim: "Whoever follows the Calabrese will never lose the way to perfection." (17) By augmenting his Neapolitan legacy with works dispatched from Malta, Mattia Preti had founded a "school" in absentia. (18)

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