Van Dyck in Sicily: Painting and the Plague 1624-25 at Dulwich Picture Gallery

By Duncan Andrews | 24 February 2012
An image of an oil painting of a half-naked man reading an ancient book
Sir Anthony van Dyck, Saint John the Baptist in the Wilderness (circa 1624-5). Oil on canvas. Houston Baptist University, permanent Collection and gift from the Morris Collection Houston TX© Houston Baptist University
Exhibition: Van Dyck in Sicily: Painting and the Plague, 1624-25, Dulwich Picture Gallery, London, until May 27 2012

This new exhibition at Dulwich Picture Gallery examines the prolific year-and-a-half the Sir Anthony Van Dyck spent in Scilly between 1624 and 1625. Almost immediately after the Flemish painter’s arrival in Palermo the city was struck by the plague. What ensued was one of the most violent epidemics of the 17th century and most of the population of Palermo died.

In the same year, the bones of Saint Rosalia were discovered in a cave on the Monte Pellegrino. After being ordained by the Archbishop of Palermo, these bones were paraded through the city and the plague subsided. Saint Rosalia was immediately proclaimed protector of the city. Van Dyck was commissioned to paint a series of devotional paintings depicting the saint interceding on behalf of the city against the plague.

The small-scale nature of the exhibition at Dulwich is perfect for creating an engaging narrative, and the public are encouraged to follow a chronological journey through Van Dyck’s artistic output during this fruitful spell.

This is the first exhibition which documents all 16 works from this largely un-researched period, and it is also the first time that Van Dyck’s 1624 portrait of Emmanuel Philibert has been displayed in England. The curator, Xavier Solomon, has assembled an interdisciplinary mix of works including: suits of armour, paintings and Van Dyck’s sketchbook.

We start our journey before the artist arrived in Palermo, with a self-portrait of Van Dyck believed to be dated from 1620-21. The portrait depicts our young artist as a richly dressed aristocrat in his early 20s. The floppy hair, extravagant clothes and arrogant pose suggest Van Dyck frequently consorted with the Gentry, and presumably he felt was something special.

Van Dyck had built up his reputation in the preceding years by painting portraits of eminent figures from England and later Genoa. It was perhaps this reputation which convinced the doomed Emmanuel Philibert, the Viceroy of Sicily to commission a portrait in 1624.

Van Dyck’s stately portrait of the Viceroy depicts a proud, regal and healthy man and not a subject who would succumb to the plague some three months later. The intricately detailed armour, the lace collar and cuffs are all beautifully painted and draw the eye from the Viceroy’s receding hairline. Van Dyck is able to instil beauty in even the most conservative figures.

Van Dyck would have presumably left the city and returned to Genoa, had the outbreak of the plague caused chaos throughout the island. The death of the Viceroy precipitated a state of martial law and effectively quarantined Van Dyck. During this sojourn Van Dyck set up a studio – believed to be in the home of the Flemish Consul – and took commissions from local clients.

Room two displays two devotional paintings, commissioned by local aristocracy, as well as two portraits of local artist Sofonsiba Anguissola. The third and final room of the exhibition displays five devotional variations of Van Dyck’s iconic images of Saint Rosalia.

Van Dyck depicts the saint as a young and beautiful woman beckoning to heaven for intercession on behalf of the citizens of Palermo. Each image contains the traditional European memento mori of the human skull – reminding its intended audience of transience of human life. These moribund metaphors are juxtaposed by the redemptive promise offered by heaven and the afterlife.  

Continuing the gallery’s fine tradition of exhibiting the European Masters, this exhibition is the second in The Melosi Series: Rediscovering Old Masters. Visiting such a thoughtful and intimate collection is a rare and rewarding experience.

The exhibition aptly showcases Van Dyck's early talent whilst creating an enthralling narrative about his own artistic development and the fate and eventual redemption of Palermo.

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