Antonello da Messina
Messina ca. 1430 – Messina 1479
oil on panel
52.5 x 42.5 cm
Inventory number 4

This rendering of Calvary by the Sicilian Renaissance artist Antonello da Messina is a symbolically charged masterpiece about death and redemption. The crucified Christ at the centre of the picture is flanked by Gestas and Dismas, the bad and the good thief, who have been tied to tree trunks. Before them, amidst a litter of skulls and bones, Mary grieves as John kneels in prayer and looks up at Christ. The skulls in the foreground are a reference to Adam. According to one tradition, he had been buried at Golgotha, the hill where Christ died. It was because Adam and Eve had been unable to resist temptation that evil entered into the world. With his death on the cross, Christ redeemed mankind. The snakes writhing through the skulls represent death and the devil. The owl in the foreground is a metaphor for sinners, who turn their backs on the ‘true faith’ like a nocturnal bird shuns the daylight. From the tree trunk behind the cross grows a twig, a symbol for the demarcation line between the Old and the New Covenant between God and humankind. In the bottom left, a sheet of paper on a piece of wood reads ‘1475. Antonello da Messina painted me’.

Anatomically accurate

Antonello da Messina was fascinated with the human form: he studied anatomy and engaged in dissection to enhance his modelling. And successfully so, for the bodies of the executed men are rendered extremely realistically.

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