Malta’s art ambassador speaks on Caravaggio, Renaissance painting |

Malta’s art ambassador speaks on Caravaggio, Renaissance painting

Hilary Stunda

A retired priest. An art curator. An artist. A restorer of art. As art ambassador to Malta, Father Marius Zerafa has been responsible for Malta’s publicly owned collections of art and artifacts for more than two decades. Zerafa was recently awarded the Chevalier Award for Arts and Literature this past Bastille Day for his commitment to Malta’s artistic heritage.

Tonight, at the Aspen Art Museum, from 5:30 p.m to 6:30 p.m., Zerafa will present a lecture and slide show about Caravaggio and other Renaissance painters, their techniques, and the art of restoration. This is an exceptional and rare opportunity to meet and learn from one of the most highly visible personalities and art historians in Europe.

In Malta, culture and religion are virtually synonymous. Excavations have turned up megalithic temples devoted to fertility goddesses. They are the oldest free standing structures in the world, having been built between 3800 and 2500 B.C. In 60 A.D., St. Paul, a prisoner en route to Rome, was shipwrecked on the island. According to legend, it is believed that he converted the islanders to Christianity.

In 1530, the islands were given to the Knights of the Order of St. John of Jerusalem by the Spanish Crown. The Order was founded during the Crusades to protect Christian pilgrims traveling to and from the Holy Land and to care for the sick.

The knights were drawn from aristocratic families or, like the great painter Caravaggio, because of talent. Michael Angelo Merisi, a native of the town of Caravaggio, in Lombardy, became a knight in 1608.

It was the knights who placed Malta in the mainstream of European art. Besides attracting artists like Caravaggio, Preti and Favray, they also encouraged local artists by helping them study abroad.

In his first year of knighthood he began painting “The Beheading of St. John” in the oratory of St. John, where it remains today. “This is the biggest painting Caravaggio ever did. It’s the only one signed, and it’s considered the most important painting of the 17th century,” says Zerafa. “It is signed in blood because he associated himself with St. John, him being another martyr.”

The “Beheading of St. John” shows the executioner finishing off the beheading with a knife. “The composition is beautiful, with a semi-circular point of view; the guardian of the prison, an old woman, looks on with dismay. She is like the Greek Chorus,” he says. The other prisoners look on. The light glows with intensity and slowly dissipates around the remaining characters in the tableau. It is a powerful and astonishing work of art.

Caravaggio was an impetuous and passionate man who had skirmishes with the law his entire life. Arrested and outlawed from Rome, Caravaggio escaped from prison many times only to return to Rome seeking the Pope’s pardon. Ironically, the one time he was wrongly arrested, he caught fever and died. But despite his troubled social life, he almost single-handedly brought about a revolution in art. He was renowned for his vivid realism and his rejection of idealization, an approach that was revolutionary at the time. “`I don’t care for Rapahel,’ said Caravaggio, which was shocking,” says Zerafa. “`Nature has given me all these masters.’ Which meant that he was going to copy nature directly, not through the eyes of previous artists,” says Zerafa.

Caravaggio often used coarse peasant types for his models of saints and apostles, and is even said to have painted one of his virgins from a drowned prostitute fished out of the River Tiber. “He never did any drawings. He painted the canvasses red and painted a glaze of black on it so you get this rich brown. Then with the back of his brush, he scratched the painting to do the outline and just painted directly,” says Zerafa.

Zerafa’s knowledge and expertise on Caravaggio and other Renaissance painters stems from a rich and textured life as a priest, artist, teacher and curator. He studied philosophy and art history at Oxford; and received a degree in theology and social sciences in Rome. He then spent a year learning artistry at one of London’s most prestigious institutes before returning to Malta, where he taught at the art school for 20 years.

But it was in 1978 when Zerafa joined the Museums Department as Curator of Fine Arts, that he was able to fuse together his love for the arts and his desire to make Malta’s heritage more widely known. Since then, he has been instrumental in opening the new exhibition hall at the Auberge de Provence which houses the National Museum of Archaeology, and he has organized many art exhibitions throughout his career. He considers one of his greatest challenges the series of sacred art exhibitions he promoted at the annex of St. John’s Co-Cathedral in the 1970s. But one event stands out in his career – his role in the retrieval in August 1987 of the priceless “St. Jerome,” one of the two masterpieces by Caravaggio in Malta’s possession.

The story unfolds like a scene from a movie. Thieves chained off an area of the museum where the masterpiece hung on the wall and put a sign up that read, “Work in Progress.” When a disappointed and curious American tourist asked the curator if she could see the painting, they found what was left of it. The painting had been cut from the frame and stolen.

“For two years we heard nothing. Then one day, a young man came and gave me a tape and an envelope which said do not open until you have played the tape. Of course I opened it and there was a Polaroid of the painting with a coffee pot on top of it!” says Zerafa.

“What really killed me was that no one was interested,” says Zerafa. “I went to tell the Minister and he said if we find it we’ll make a scoop. You don’t say that about a Caravaggio!” The lack of official interest meant that Zerafa had to keep stalling the thieves, who were just interested in getting rid of the picture. They threatened to sell it in America. For eight months Zerafa was in touch with the thieves, haggling over the ransom price trying to gain time. Then there was a change of government. The new minister after the 1987 elections, Dr. Ugo Mifsud Bonnici, was the first person to realize how important it was to bring the painting back home. “He agreed to bring the police in. Finally we were able to trace the call to a small factory in Marsa,” says Zerafa.

Finally, with the police, Zerafa and friends identified and shadowed the suspects, an Italian and a Maltese man, and in a brilliant move involving helicopters and chase cars, the painting was retrieved. “I took it to Rome, had it restored, and now it’s back in Malta. They told me they had paid to have me kidnapped during the exchange!” said Zerafa.

“St. Jerome” is back, taking its rightful place with the rest of Malta’s treasures.

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