One of Malta’s most important early renaissance paintings is being restored and conserved through a sponsorship by Banif Bank. This was announced through a press conference given this morning at the St Catherine’s Parish Church in Zejtun.
The oils on board painting of the Enthroned Virgin and Child on the altar of the Virgin of the Rosary in the St Catherine Parish Church of Żejtun, was identified by The Research Programme for the Study of Medieval and Early Renaissance Art in the Department of History of Art (Faculty of Arts, University of Malta), directed by Professor Mario Buhagiar.
It is one of the finest early renaissance paintings in Maltese collections. It carries the signature of Pedro -Nuñez de Villavicencio (1640-c. 1695) and the date 1672 on the Virgin’s throne, and has for long been thought to be a copy of a much venerated, prestigious, lost, Renaissance painting.
One other copy is executed in oils on canvas and is situated at Verdala Palace, Buskett.
According to art accademics, the artist of the Żejtun painting had an intimate knowledge of Antonello da Messina (c. 1430-1479), and the painting is possibly by his nephew Antonio de Saliba (1466/7-c. 1535). De Saliba was extremely prolific and ran a busy bottega. De Saliba was the son of Antonello’s sister and of a Maltese father.
Villavicencio was a distinguished Baroque artist from Seville, and a Knight of St John who while in Malta was greatly influenced by Mattia Preti whom he copied on several occasions. In the inscription on the Żejtun painting, he describes himself as Capitano Fra.
It was uncharacteristic of what is known about Villavicencio to copy faithfully in oils on panel an Early Renaissance work. Ongoing research has shown that the painting is much older than 1672, and that Villavicencio’s intervention was carried out for restoration purposes.
This concealed many interesting features that will be revealed with this much-needed restoration interference, and will solve the mystery of the Villvicencio signature and the 1672 date.
The painting can in fact be traced back to the sixteenth century and that it was the central panel of a triptych in the Old Parish Church of Żejtun (San Girgor). It remained in the Old Parish Church until 1709 when it was transferred to the new Parish Church of St Catherine and placed on the altar dedicated to Our Lady of Rosary, where it still has cultic relevance.
Diagnostic tests on paint samples carried out on private sponsorship by scientists engaged by ReCoop Restoration Laboratories (Malta), have identified Early Renaissance pigments. At the same time, infrared and ultraviolet photographs were also undertaken at ReCoop which established that Villavicencio intervened heavily on the painting.
The inscription on the panel therefore commemorates its restoration not its execution. This was noted in 1693 in the Pastoral Visitation Report of Bishop Davide Cocco-Palmieri.
The conservation and restoration exercise by ReCoop Conservation Lab is being undertaken thanks to the generous sponsorship of Banif Bank. This will give back to the painting its original qualities and make it possible to attribute it in a meaningful context.
Present for the press conference where Hon. Mario de Marco, Parliamentary Secretary for Tourism, the Environment and Culture, Professor Alfred Vella, Pro-Rector of the University of Malta, Professor Mario Buhagiar, Head of Deppartment of History of Arts and Ms. Charlene Vella, Assistant Lecturer from the Department of History of Art.
Wirt iż-Żejtun thanks the University of Malta for taking this initiative and Banif Bank for supporting it. We look forward towards other similar initiatives in the near future.