Out of the shadows
Out of the shadows
Masterpieces at MUŻA
July 29, 2021
4 min read
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Pan and Syrinx by Francois Boucher.
Heritage Malta is on a mission to make art accessible to the public. As part of this, it is showcasing 13 Old Master paintings, from an international private collection, many of which have been hidden away from the public for decades. Warren Bugeja, from Heritage Malta, walks us through some of the works forming part of this prestigious exhibition.
In the top left-hand corner of an otherwise intensely illuminated Renaissance painting, a brooding St Joseph occupies a shadowed arcade.
Resigned but still confused, the saint is portrayed as lost deeply in thought, over his foster-fatherhood. His psychological distance accentuated by his physical separateness from the brightly lit sacred actors at the foreground of the Madonna of Divine Love attributed to Raffaello Sanzio and workshop.
Madonna of Divine Love attributed to Raffaello Sanzio and circle.
A subtle interplay of light and shadow unfolds in each of the five thematic sections into which Masterpieces at MUŻA is divided. The prestigious exhibition, an extension of Heritage Malta’s mission to make cultural patrimony accessible to the public, showcases 13 Old Master paintings on a long-term loan from an international collection. The paintings, the majority of which are being reintroduced into the public arena after decades out of sight, span over a period that encompasses the idiom of the High-Renaissance up to the extravagance of Rococo. 
The remarkable artwork represent a gradual transition from the vivid naturalism of Maestro Tommaso and Lorenzo di Credi, to the delicate and smoky ‘sfumato’ technique pioneered by Leonardo da Vinci, the dramatic contrast of ‘chiaroscuro’ employed by Giovanni Baglione, and the pastel rosy hues of François Boucher. 
Saint John the Baptist by Giovanni Baglioni.
Both Florentine statesman Pietro Soderini and the anonymous sitter in Portrait of a Young Woman are painted against a blank, dark backdrop devoid of any distractions, which enhance the immediacy in which they present themselves to the onlooker.  
Giovanni Baglione’s autograph painting of St John the Baptist, whilst heavily influenced by Caravaggio’s style in its naturalism and chiaroscuro lighting, displays overtones of late Mannerism, especially chromatically, in the use of bright red. 
The direct gaze of the Baptist and the gesture of his hand, the dark background, and the use of a young man as a model, belies Baglione’s source of inspiration. An admiration that quickly soured following a series of defamatory poems circulated by Caravaggio and his cronies accusing Baglione of plagiarism.
The Tempest by Claude-Joseph Vernet.
An enigmatic and audaciously androgynous St John the Baptist gradually emerges from a background of profound darkness in a painting attributed to the circle of Leonardo Da Vinci. The warm but dull light imbues the subdued atmosphere of the artwork with a sense of mystery and sensual provocation. Da Vinci’s far-reaching influence is evident in the sfumato finish of the muted brushwork and the radical departure from the traditional portrayal of the Baptist as a rugged and careworn ascetic.  
François Boucher’s Pan and Syrinx, a Rococo retelling in pastel pinks and blues of the nymph’s flight from the love-struck faun, contrasts the pale nakedness of a reclining Syrinx with the saturnine complexion of an onlooking Pan. His darkened hand clutches the reeds into which the nymph will be transformed, an effective foretelling in symbol and shadow. 
Dwarfed by the raging elements, the outstretched arm of a tiny orange-clad figure directs our gaze in The Tempest by consummate landscape painter Claude-Joseph Vernet. Pivoted at the centre of the maelstrom of wind, waves, and destruction, the figure points to the promise of calmer weather and blue skies that peek through the tumultuous bleakness of the sky.
Masterpieces at MUŻA is open all week except Tuesdays, from 10am till 4:30pm. There is an entry fee of €10 which covers both the exhibition and a visit to MUŻA.
St John the Baptist by the circle of Leonardo da Vinci.
The exhibition is open until the end of October 2021. The exhibition is supported by Visit Malta; the Ministry for the National Heritage, the Arts, and Local Government; the Ministry for Finance; and the Department of Art and Art History at the University of Malta. MUŻA is a project part-financed by the European Union under the European Regional Development Fund – European Structural and Investment Funds 2014-2020. 
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