The legacy left behind by the Knights of St John (1530-1798) is rich on many different levels, and comprises architectural, military and artistic treasures. Artistically, one of the names that always stands out from the Knights’ period in Malta is definitely that of Mattia Preti (1613-1699), a High-Baroque artist whose contribution remains unchallenged to this very day.
Moving to Malta in 1659 subsequent to being made a Knight of Grace in the Order, Preti created some of the most iconic art the Maltese Islands host, including the phenomenal ceiling of St John’s Co-Cathedral. Now some of the Wignacourt’s prime treasures include artworks left behind by Preti during his 40 years in Malta, and many are representative of the style he adopted later on in his life.
The dynamism and brilliance that were staple in his early works were put aside to focus more on the expression of the figures being represented. In both Penitent Peter (NA) and the St Peter in Pontifical Robes (ca. 1690), for example, Preti left the imprimatura or middle ground visible. Onto this he later added the darker tones and highlights which give the figures’ expression of remorse and absolution life – in other words, his technique gave previously heavy and robust figures a more corporal weight.
Another of Preti’s artworks housed at Wignacourt is the very atypical Madonna of Sorrows (NA). Apart from the fact that it was painted on a wood panel, which is very unusual for a Preti, the work is also rather small when compared to most of his pieces. This has led many to believe that Preti painted the Madonna for himself and needed it to be smaller so he could carry it around with him. Her expression, just like those of Penitent Peter’s and St Peter in Pontifical Robes’s, however, is the main focus point of the artwork as it draws the viewer in to feel the passion and the grief she is supposed to be experiencing.
Preti’s main talent, in fact, was more than that of an artist, because like other great artists’ his art makes people feel, think and indulge – and not everyone who can paint can do that. So if you want to see Mattia Preti’s work in all their glory, pop by to the Wignacourt in Rabat to revel in some of Malta’s most beautiful masterpieces.