The Brush-Sword of Mattia Preti

Mattia Preti, Saint John the Baptist with Self-Portrait (c.1672) in lower right with two details. Oil on canvas. Taverna, Monumental Church of St. Dominic.

After the recent post on a new book of cartoons, Daggers Drawn, this one is on the same subject 350 years earlier.

Mattia Preti (1613-1699) was a major Italian artist who is little-known because he spent much of his life on the island of Malta where many of his pictures remain. Here he portrayed himself (lower right) holding a paintbrush and sword. A blade, as regular readers will know, is a traditional but virtually unknown metaphor for an artist's implement, whether brush, palette-knife or pencil. All are long and thin. So is a pointing index finger which is why Preti highlighted the similarity between John the Baptist's finger (lower right) and his own well-lit paintbrush. An art historian recently observed that this link was intentional without being able to say why.1 Swords are in any event rich symbols. Preti’s also conveys his high social standing and the honor of his craft. Like his Spanish contemporary Velazquez who holds a brush in Las Meninas, Preti proudly displays the emblem of his knighthood, the Maltese Order of St. John the Baptist.

Beware though of mimetic perceptions and superficial appearances. Much smaller than the saint above him, the artist should not be imagined as though he was just having a vision, the conventional explanation of such images. Imagine him instead standing in front of a giant painting, perhaps an altar-piece. It is as though Preti’s studio-reality and the painting he is conceiving (which is his more real vision) have been fused. Although that type of illusion is common in religious art, I'm showing this particular piece because rarely is a sword’s equivalence to a paintbrush so patently obvious. And do note how the bowl on the stone ledge near the artist's brush (top right) is just as likely to be the brush's paint-pot as the Baptist's traditional attribute. Like the picture itself, it bridges two realities.

Separately, I only discovered recently, not being a painter myself, that there is an actual brush called a sword-brush (above). It doesn’t matter whether Preti and other artists knew it by that name or even had a brush of that shape. It’s just more evidence that in the visual thought of all periods from the Bronze Age onwards a sword is a natural metaphor for an artist's implement.

You will find many more examples under the theme Swords/Weapons as Brushes.

1. Kristina Herrmann Fiore, “The Effect of Dürer’s Prints on the Art of Mattia Preti” in Mattia Preti: Faith and Humanity (Valletta: Midsea Books) 2013, p. 89

Reader Comments

Leave a Comment

The EPPH Blog features issues and commentary.