The transparent mystery in Antonello da Messina’s portraits

Antonello da Messina Metropolitan Museum, New York, 1470

Metropolitan Museum, New York, 1470

Roman art critic, Claudio Strinati once commented that Antonello da Messina (1429-1479) painted portraits with such “personal style […] that they are instantly recognizable; after seeing just two or three of the portraits by this Sicilian artist, a good art expert or art lover can easily attribute the fourth one he encounters.”

But while their authorship may be evident, there is a great mystery about these paintings – a mystery conveyed in the look of the faces portrayed: a paradoxically clear mystery, as transparent as a stark question aimed straight at the viewer… “And who are you?”

Not many people would be able to answer that question going beyond their first and last name, venturing to truly define their identity.

We agree with both Strinati and Karl Kraus, who in a famous aphorism claimed, “In a true portrait, one must recognize which artist it represents”. But the greater mystery remains unsolved, on the canvas and within every man’s soul.

July 22, 2014