According to the Gospel of Matthew, the Roman governor Pontius Pilate tried to save Christ from death and symbolically washed his hands, stating “I am innocent of the blood of this righteous person.” Pilate has been given monumental form in this rare depiction of the subject, while Christ is shown in the middle ground being led to the cross. The young African attendant is given a central role, not only in the composition but also through a facial expression that registers the import of Pilate’s action. Preti based his use of such African figures on Renaissance precedents, notably by the Venetian painter Paolo Veronese, though Preti executed this work in Malta, an island with a particularly multiracial population due to its centrality in the Mediterranean slave trade.
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Title:Pilate Washing His Hands
Artist:Mattia Preti (Il Cavalier Calabrese) (Italian, Taverna 1613–1699 Valletta)
Medium:Oil on canvas
Dimensions:81 1/8 x 72 3/4 in. (206.1 x 184.8 cm)
Credit Line:Purchase, Gift of J. Pierpont Morgan and Bequest of Helena W. Charlton, by exchange, Gwynne Andrews, Marquand, Rogers, Victor Wilbour Memorial, and The Alfred N. Punnett Endowment Funds, and funds given or bequeathed by friends of the Museum, 1978
The Artist: Mattia Preti was one of the most accomplished painters and spirited draftsmen of the Italian Baroque, best known for his naturalistic and emotionally-charged paintings that reveal his close study of a wide range of painters, including Caravaggio, Guercino, Poussin, and even Veronese. Known as Il Cavalier Calabrese for his two knighthoods from the Knights of Malta, Preti worked for over sixty-five years, with notable periods in Rome (ca. 1632–53), Modena (1651–52), and Naples (1653–60), before settling on the island of Malta in 1661. His most important public commissions include the apse wall frescoes in Sant’Andrea della Valle, Rome (1650–51) and the ceiling decorations and altarpieces in Saint John’s Co-Cathedral in Valletta, Malta (1661–66). These compositionally vigorous and dynamic paintings were critical in the development of what is now known as Late Baroque painting.
The Painting: In this work, Preti depicts an episode in Christ’s Passion that rarely appears in Italian painting: the moment when Pontius Pilate washes his hands after his failure to pacify the crowd who calls for Christ’s death, while saying, “I am innocent of this man’s blood . . . it is your responsibility” (Matthew 27:23–24). Pilate is the focus of the composition and is easily identifiable by his gesture and his sumptuous fur-lined blue robes, while his seat on an elevated throne and the low viewpoint underscore his importance and monumentality. He also turns and gazes down at the viewer, as if asking us for a response to the scene that we just witnessed, thus implicating us in the narrative. Unusually, Christ is relegated to the composition’s middle ground, where he is shown being led away in preparation for his crucifixion.
The painting’s attribution to Preti was first made by Lina Montalto (1920), citing the “marvelous power of expression” in the representation of Pilate. She also identified The Met’s canvas as probably the painting offered for sale by the artist in two letters dated September 23 and December 11, 1663, to Don Antonio Ruffo (1610/11–1678), a notable Sicilian collector: “mi ritrovo fatto un quadro di palmi nove e 7, donde ci è un Pilato che si lava le mani della morte di nostro sig.re con molte figure . . . “ (I have made a painting of 9 x 7 palmi, where there is a Pilate who washes his hands of the death of Christ with many figures; letters published in Spike 1998). It is unclear whether Preti was referencing the Roman palmo (22 cm) or the Neapolitan palmo (26 cm) in his letter: in each case one of the two dimensions is off by a considerable margin, raising the possibility that it may have been cut in one dimension. Ruffo, who owned Rembrandt’s Aristotle with a Bust of Homer (The Met, 61.198), had a predilection for Preti’s work. In 1661, he had commissioned a painting of Dionysius of Syracuse as a companion to the Aristotle, but for unknown reasons he declined to purchase the Pilate. The two letters that mention it are among twenty or more surviving letters written by Preti to Antonio Ruffo in the family’s archive. The majority date to the 1660s, and they reveal that Preti not only sent his paintings and drawings from Malta to Messina, but he also acted as Ruffo’s agent, negotiating the sale of paintings and offering advice on contemporary painters, including Pier Francesco Mola, Ciro Ferri, Giacinto Brandi, and Salvator Rosa (see Spike 1998).
The Met’s canvas showcases Preti’s mature style, which is a skillful synthesis of diverse sources including Caravaggio, the Carracci pupils, and Venetian painting. In this picture, Veronese’s influence is especially evident, with the classicizing arcade in the background and details like the cluster of heads denoting the crowd in the middle ground, Pilate’s headdress, and the young boy of African descent. Preti likely visited Venice between 1644 and 1645, when he would have seen examples of Veronese’s paintings. Veronese had used such Black attendants as signifiers of the luxurious context and power of those they served, but to a greater degree than his predecessor, Preti regularly placed these figures with unusual compositional prominence. At least sixteen of Preti’s paintings include such figures, though they are typically of a stock character type rather suggest individualized likenesses. Keeping his figures generalized situated his work in relation to art history rather than contemporary life, for he could have observed African residents in Europe, both enslaved and freedmen and women, who were a regular part of Italian society since the Middle Ages. Moreover, in 1661 Preti moved to Malta, where this work was painted. The island was a particularly multiracial setting due to its centrality in the Mediterranean slave trade, which included not only African, but also Jewish and Turkish enslaved peoples.
Even though this painting reveals Preti’s particular reverence for Veronese, he did not abandon the Caravaggesque vocabulary that characterized his earliest paintings. The armored soldier, for example, that features prominently in works by Caravaggio and his followers and the overall tonality and contrasting lights and darks derive from that Roman legacy. This particular composition suggests that Preti could have also been interested in and studied Rembrandt’s etchings in an attempt to appeal to Ruffo’s interest in the Dutch artist, as Pilate’s direct engagement with the viewer and psychological intensity recall those of Jan Lutma (20.46.18) and Rembrandt with a Raised Sabre (17.37.183).
Melissa Yuen 2016; updated David Pullins 2020
Ferrara collection, Naples (by 1920–at least 1929); private collection, Naples (?by 1940–70); Franco Piedimonte, ?Naples (from 1970; sold to Athenaeum); [Athenaeum Gallery, Monaco; sold to Somerville & Simpson]; [Somerville & Simpson, London, until 1978; sold to The Met]
Mattia Preti (Il Cavalier Calabrese). Letters to Don Antonio Ruffo. September 23 and December 11, 1663 [published in Arduino Colasanti, "Galleria Ruffo nel secolo XVII in Messina," Bollettino d'arte, 1916, pp. 127–28 and in Spike 1998], mentions a painting of Pilate washing his hands with Christ on the road to Calvary (probably this picture) and a drawing of the work (not extant).
Lina Montalto. "Il passaggio di Mattia Preti a Napoli." L'arte (1920), pp. 218–19, 223, ill., considers this picture an exceptional work by Preti, noting that the artist's employment of artifical light lends the figures the appearance of terra cotta; points out that Preti mentions this work in two letters to Don Antonio Ruffo (see Preti 1663); describes the picture as a "great sketch" for an idea that never came to fruition; locates it in the Ferrara collection, Naples.
Henry Lemonnier. "Sur l''Ecce Homo' du Calabrèse au Musée Condé de Chantilly." Bulletin de la Société de l'Histoire de l'Art Français, année 1921, (1922), pp. 20–21, mentions this picture as a pendant to Preti's "Ecce Homo" (Musée Condé, Chantilly), noting the striking similarity of the two works.
Antonino Sergi. Mattia Preti, detto il "Cavalier Calabrese": la vita, l'opera, catalogo delle opere. Acireale, 1927, pp. 102, 111, lists it in the Ferrara collection, Naples, and a second work of the same subject painted for Principe Rospigliosi, Rome.
Alfonso Frangipane. Mattia Preti, "il cavalier calabrese". Milan, 1929, pp. 147–48, dates it to Preti's final Maltese period.
Valerio Mariani. Mattia Preti a Malta. Rome, 1929, p. 29, notes that Preti mentions a painting of "Pilate washing his hands" in a letter to Don Antonio Ruffo dated September 23, 1663 (see Preti 1663).
Federico Zeri with the assistance of Elizabeth E. Gardner. Unpublished manuscript for catalogue of Neapolitan paintings in The Metropolitan Museum of Art. [ca. 1970], note that it depicts events narrated in Matthew (24:26); identify it as the painting mentioned in Preti's letters of September and December of 1663 to the Sicilian collector Don Antonio Ruffo; date it 1663 based on the letters and on stylistic grounds; compare its "feigned architectural frame" to that in Preti's decorative cycle of Saint John the Baptist in San Giovanni (Valletta, Malta); suggest that the painting's "directed light and psychological concentration" are unusual for Preti and may reflect his knowledge of Rembrandt's "Aristotle with the Bust of Homer," (now The Met) which was owned by Ruffo; admit that the picture does not appear in Ruffo's inventories.
Mattia Preti ed il Seicento italiano: col catalogo delle opere. Ed. Antonio Pelaggi. Catanzaro, 1972, p. 49, no. 95, as in the Ferrara collection, Naples.
Keith Christiansen inThe Metropolitan Museum of Art: Notable Acquisitions, 1975–1979. New York, 1979, p. 52, ill., suggests that Preti may have offered the picture to Ruffo because of the collector's appreciation for Rembrandt's work.
Howard Hibbard. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. New York, 1980, pp. 300, 302, 305, fig. 541 (color).
"Principales acquisitions des musées en 1979." Chronique des arts et de la curiosité, supplément à la Gazette des beaux-arts no. 1334 (March 1980), p. 33, no. 173, ill.
Nicola Spinosa. La pittura napoletana del '600. Milan, 1984, fig. 577.
Patrick Matthiesen et al. Baroque III: 1620–1700. Exh. cat.London, 1986, p. 120, ill.
John T. Spike. "Europe in the Age of Monarchy." The Metropolitan Museum of Art. New York, 1987, p. 8, fig. 18 (color).
John T. Spike inA Taste for Angels: Neapolitan Painting in North America 1650–1750. Exh. cat.New Haven, 1987, p. 106, ill., dates it 1663.
Valérie Lavergne-Durey inChantilly, Musée Condé: Peintures de l'école italienne. Exh. cat.Paris, 1988, p. 123, points out that the composition of the "Ecce Homo" (Musée Condé, Chantilly) is too similar to the Metropolitan's picture to be its pendant and that the square format of our picture makes such a pairing impossible; adds that in Preti's 1663 letters to Ruffo, the artist mentions only a Pilate Washing his Hands and no pendant.
John T. Spike and Maurizio Marini inMattia Preti. Ed. Erminia Corace. Rome, 1989, pp. 38, 153–54, comments on the picture's abrasion and believes the figure of Christ was once painted in intense color; sees a Venetian influence, especially in passages where light and dark colors are juxtaposed and thickly applied; notes that Pilate serves as the protagonist in this scene, while Christ has a more marginal role; suggests that the use of theatrical devices would have appealed to the literati of the seventeenth century.
Piero Torriti. "Wanted: Realism if Italy Seriously Wants to Protect Its Heritage." Art Newspaper no. 9 (June 1991), p. 13, regrets this picture's exportation.
Katharine Baetjer. European Paintings in The Metropolitan Museum of Art by Artists Born Before 1865: A Summary Catalogue. New York, 1995, p. 139, ill.
Mattia Preti: i documenti = The Collected Documents. Ed. John T. Spike. Florence, 1998, pp. 167–69, publishes Preti's 1663 letters.
John T. Spike. Mattia Preti: catalogo ragionato dei dipinti/Catalogue Raisonné of the Paintings. Taverna, Italy, 1999, pp. 227–28, no. 141, ill. p. 227 and colorpl. 43, observes that Pilate "confronts the viewer as if demanding a response"; identifies it with the work mentioned by Preti in his 1663 letters to Ruffo; refutes Montalto's (1920) belief that the work is unfinished and describes it "as a fine example of Preti's original and forceful interpretations of Scripture".
Sebastian Schütze. "Naples, Mattia Preti." Burlington Magazine (July 1999), p. 437, regrets that it was not included in the exhibition.
Jeroen Giltaij. Ruffo en Rembrandt. Zutphen, The Netherlands, 1999, p. 91.
Mariella Utili inMattia Preti tra Roma, Napoli e Malta. Exh. cat., Museo di Capodimonte. Naples, 1999, p. 58.
Keith Christiansen. "Going for Baroque: Bringing 17th-Century Masters to the Met." Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin 62 (Winter 2005), pp. 39, 41, fig. 38 (color).
James Gardner. "A Saint in Shadows Sees the Light." New York Sun (July 5, 2007), p. 19.
Keith Christiansen in "Recent Acquisitions, A Selection: 2006–2007." Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin 65 (Fall 2007), p. 23.
Keith Christiansen inPhilippe de Montebello and The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1977–2008. New York, 2009, p. 37.
Keith Sciberras. Mattia Preti: The Triumphant Manner. Valletta, 2012, pp. 122, 454 n. 169, p. 459, fig. 148 (color).
Stefano Saponaro in Vittorio Sgarbi. Mattia Preti. Soveria Mannelli, Italy, 2013, pp. 238–39, no. 83, ill. (color).
John T. Spike. A Brush with Passion: Mattia Preti (1613–1699). Exh. cat., Muscarelle Museum of Art, College of William & Mary. Williamsburg, Va., 2013, p. 82, no. 24, ill. (color), includes it among "Additional Paintings by Mattia Preti in North American Collections".
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