Revelations in Sicily

In 1621 Antoon Van Dyck made the overland journey to Italy from his native Antwerp. As a young painter trained in Rubens’ studio, he went south to study the Italian painters of the previous century – in particular le cose di Titian, as he put it in his notebook, which headed a list of works he meant to see.

Italy, and the study of Titian, Veronese, Correggio and others, transformed Van Dyck’s art and turned him into a celebrity. His sitters included members of the wealthiest Roman and Genoese castes: two or three ambassadors, the doge of Genoa and the A-list cardinal Guido Bentivoglio among many others.

Some of these portraits were the first Van Dyck canvases to touch greatness and a choice selection of them later found their way to Britain: the Genoese Lomellini family group now in Edinburgh, the Roman pendant portraits of the Shirleys in gorgeous Persian attire at Petworth and the three-quarter-length of Emanuele Filiberto, Spanish viceroy of Sicily, in London’s Dulwich Picture Gallery. The latter is the centrepiece of an enticing exhibition soon to open at Dulwich, which aims to give a new account of the artist’s Sicilian adventures – a project that has been made possible by recent discoveries in the state archives of Sicily.

Van Dyck’s first biographer was the Italian Giovanni Pietro Bellori. According to Bellori, the painter sailed to Palermo in spring 1624 and, on arrival, painted the viceroy’s portrait, paid a visit to and painted Anguissola Sophonisba, the most famous female artist of the day, and made some religious images of St Rosalia, a patron of Palermo. But when a violent outbreak of plague struck the city he scuttled back to Genoa to complete his remaining Palermitan commissions in safety. He was in the city a mere four months.

Until 1999, all accounts of Van Dyck – including my own biography – accepted this version of events. Then archivist Giovanni Mendola published a series of documents he had found in the Sicilian state archives – commissions for paintings, financial transactions and other legal papers naming the artist – that proved Bellori completely wrong. In fact, Van Dyck stayed in Palermo for almost 18 months, as the plague peaked and at last died away. For a time the city was locked down under draconian quarantine regulations but, far from dashing off a few hasty works before somehow wangling his escape, Van Dyck established a studio practice, producing numerous devotional works and portraits for local clients (most of which are still to be rediscovered) and some atypical curiosities, including a “head of a woman with sparse hair”, a head shouting and another yawning, and a doctor holding a book, treated satirically. A number of his oil sketches on paper apparently changed hands in the city.

The most important of Van Dyck’s Sicilian work, however, was for the government and the church, and this is mostly extant. Dulwich will show its own official portrait of viceroy Emanuele Filiberto, completed soon after the painter’s arrival, alongside the suit of armour worn by the sitter, which has survived in the royal armoury in Madrid. Of all the painters who have attempted to represent the peculiar sheen and glint of metallic armour, none has bettered Van Dyck. He dwells carefully on the steel surface, simultaneously knuckle-bruising and silken, on the golden or brass decorative chasing, on leather straps and the edges of velvet linings.

The opportunity to see the viceroy’s actual armour alongside Van Dyck’s rendering of it is a marvellous one, but I hope that will not obscure the portrait’s overriding achievement – its sensitivity to the sitter’s whole idea of himself. Just as he would later so brilliantly capture the dandified scions of the English aristocracy, Van Dyck here produced a defining image of this son of the Duke of Savoy, grandson of Philip II of Spain, a man who considered himself divinely armoured against the enemies of Spain and of God.

Yet viceregal armour was useless against the plague, and the paint on Van Dyck’s canvas was scarcely dry before Emanuele’s people began to die in large numbers. As the terror of a full-blown epidemic caught hold, the viceroy stuck to his post, trying to organise practical counter-measures. But at the end of July 1624, he too succumbed. His traumatised people searched for an explanation for the disaster within the scope of their understanding. Plagues were seen as biblical phenomena, so the answer must be to placate the wrath of God. Attempts were made to root out the sources of evil, one of which appears to have been recorded in Van Dyck’s notebook: a sketch of an old woman paraded with a conical hat and a gallows rope around her neck. “A witch in Palermo” is the artist’s annotation.

Van Dyck's 'St Rosalia in Glory' (1624)

Then, in August, from high above the city on the slopes of Monte Pellegrino, came new hope. A heap of dry bones was found in a cave that, within days, had been “authenticated” as the remains of St Rosalia, a 12th-century noblewoman who lived as a hermit on the mountain. The discovery of these bones kicked off a surge of Rosalian devotion that was credited with saving the city. Van Dyck was put to work to create her iconography in a series of canvases whose surviving examples will be brought together at Dulwich for the first time: Rosalia praying on a rocky outcrop above Palermo, pleading for the city in the distance, and being borne upwards by angels in a transport of sanctification.

This is religious art made not as mere illustration but as a form of prayer, a focus for meditation, an imaging technique believed to make the sacred real and active in the world; art of intense significance for the suffering Palermitans. Whether created in the heat of the epidemic, or as ex voto offerings after it was over, the paintings played a major role in the imagined drama of their city’s deliverance.

For some years, even after his return to Antwerp, Van Dyck continued to be involved with the cult of Rosalia at the same time as the focus of his religious painting significantly changed. During his early career he had dealt in male figures: Christ, the apostles, saints and prophets. Now he thought about the female principle in religion and made a succession of profound studies of Christ’s death reflected in the mind of his grieving mother.

One or two of these are landmarks in the history of religious art and, while I would not place the Rosalia paintings in that category, they are remarkable as signposts to this new direction. Along with the viceroy’s armour, Van Dyck’s sharp little portrait of Anguissola and a few traces of his contact with a notorious art-loving diamond thief who then lived in Palermo, there will be quite enough to send Van Dyck’s admirers hurrying to Dulwich.

‘Van Dyck in Sicily: Painting and the Plague 1624-1625’, Dulwich Picture Gallery, London, February 15-May 27

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