The Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A) touts itself as “the world's leading museum of art, design and performance housing a permanent collection of over 2.3 million objects that span over 5,000 years of human creativity”.
Dr Charlene Vella from the University of Malta’s Department of Art and Art History has just published a research paper in The Antiquaries Journal, the Journal of the Society of Antiquaries of London that was founded in 1707, about one artefact housed at the V&A: a rare Renaissance eastern Sicilian panel painted crucifix. The paper titled ‘New insights into the painted crucifix attributed to Antonio de Saliba, in the V&A Museum, London', is already available online but will be published in the printed version of The Antiquaries Journal in September 2020.
It hangs high up from the ceiling of room 50b of the Paul and Jill Ruddock Gallery in the Medieval and Renaissance galleries before the Cappella Maggiore taken from the c. 1493-1500 Church of Santa Chiara in Florence probably by Giuliano da Sangallo. The crucifix can also be viewed at closer range from a bridge in the gallery. The aim of this display was to recreate a Renaissance church set up with side altars that is made complete with the crucifix.
The crucifix was purchased for the V&A in 1895, and was believed to be the work of an English artist and exhibited as such in the 1896 Society of Antiquaries of London ‘Exhibition of English Medieval Paintings and Illuminated Manuscripts’. It was attributed to Antonello da Messina’s (1430-79) prolific nephew who was active in Venice and Messina, Antonio de Saliba (1466/7-1535) in the late 1960s by Vincenzo Scuderi, the then superintendent for galleries and works of art for Sicily based in Palermo. This attribution was sustained by C M Kauffmann, the then Assistant Keeper of the Department of Paintings at the V&A. However, despite having been attributed to a known painter from Sicily for the last fifty years, it is peculiar that the V&A crucifix was omitted from most studies of eastern Sicilian Renaissance paintings, even those directly related to Antonio de Saliba.
The painted crucifix, that is 220cm × 155cm and is 7cm deep at its thickest point, and weighs 23.5 kg, has been meticulously scrutinised by Dr Vella, who in this paper discusses the fretwork extant on the crucifix’s border, the iconography of the suffering Christ, the attribution to Antonio de Saliba, its style, identifies the original 1508 commission of this crucifix, as well as the crucifix’s intended use and location. With regards to the latter, Dr Vella concludes that this crucifix should not have been viewed high up as it is currently displayed, but was meant to be displayed for veneration behind the main altar of the Medieval church dedicated to Santa Domenica which is now the rebuilt Chiesa Madre re-dedicated to St Sebastian in Limina (Province of Messina).
Therefore, this paper challenges the preconceived idea that such painted crucifixes were destined to be displayed high up in a church, on a tramezzo or beam.
Dr Vella has dedicated her time and energy on the study of Renaissance paintings by the nephews of Antonello da Messina as well as their family ties with Malta. She has since 2010, with the initial push by Professor Mario Buhagiar and Fr Gino Gauci, diagnostically studied seven paintings by these masters in public collections that led to their conservation. The most recent project is the Triptych of the Madonna del Soccorso in the Mdina Cathedral Museum.