Renaissance paintings are rare on the Maltese islands, but there are a significant few in public collections that deserve scholarly attention. Dr Charlene Vella has studied the artistic oeuvre of the nephews of Antonello da Messina (1430-1479) who was a renowned Renaissance master active in Messina and Venice, Antonio de Saliba and Salvo d’Antonio, whose works survive on the Maltese islands. This has led to the diagnostic investigation, restoration and conservation of some of these pictures.
Following the successful interventions on Antonio de Saliba’s (c. 1466/7-c.1535) Madonna adoring the Child in the Parish Museum of Zejtun, and the Madonna and Child with Angels and the Deposition in the church of Santa Maria di Gesù, Rabat, held in the last seven years, the Department of History of Art at the University of Malta then turned its attention to a predella panel portraying Christ and the twelve Apostles by Salvo d’Antonio (doc. 1493 - d. pre-1526), another of Antonello’s nephews, housed in the Mdina Cathedral Museum. Salvo was Antonello’s most gifted nephews and his artistic oeuvre is still being properly understood by scholars.
The predella panel portrays a central Christ as the Salvator Mundi holding an orb in his left hand and blessing with the other. He is immediately flanked by St Peter and St Paul followed by ten Apostles. It bears the artist’s signature and date ‘Magister Salvus de a[nton]i messanensis / me pinsit 510’, and it is a work of notable quality that showcases Salvo’s artistic capabilities. This panel was originally the lowest tier of a polyptych that served as the titular altarpiece of the church of the Benedictine nuns in Mdina, of which only one other panel portraying St Peter in the same collection is known to survive. The detailing and individualisation in the figures is especially remarkable and the technique is most refined.
The laborious conservation treatments have uncovered the original beauty of the colours used along with the crisp outlines of the figures and drapery folds, that were all partially hidden beneath several layers of dirt and aged varnish. The wooden auxiliary support together with the multi-layered stratigraphy was strengthened. The painting was found to be extremely fragile and handling was kept to a minimum until it was well consolidated. Initial analysis were carried out by taking a series of pictures, documenting it in diffused lighting, Infra-red, Ultra Violet and X-Ray.
The aim of this particular conservation operation was to safeguard the panel and to better appreciate the high artistic level of its execution shedding light on the artist by whom such little survives. The intervention was entrusted to ReCoop Ltd. This would not be possible if it were not for the interest and dedicated work of both the management of the Mdina Cathedral Museum, who are currently renovating the entire museum, and Prof. Mario Buhagiar and Dr Charlene Vella from the Department of History of Art at the University of Malta, as well as the help of a private sponsor, Ms Yulia Vasina.
Salvo d’Antonio’s predella is back on display at the Mdina Cathedral Museum.