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Tom Gurney BSc (Hons) is an art history expert with over 20 years experience
Published on June 19, 2020 / Updated on January 4, 2024
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Antonello da Messina is considered by some to have been responsible for the introduction of oil painting into Italy, when previously frescoes had been the single dominant force.


This is one of the reasons for his style being compared to the great Early Netherlandish painters, such as Jan van Eyck, Rogier van der Weyden and Hieronymus Bosch.

As his name would suggest, the artist was from Messina, a town in Sicily which at the time of his birth was a part of its own Republic. It is today known for tourist, food and drink, most notably, and during this artist's lifetime the main regions for Italian art lay to the north. He appeared in the 15th century and was successful in convincing others that the south of the country could also contribute some significant innovations within the art world.


Indeed, he is generally accepted as having been particularly influential on some major names within Venetian art and so his achievements went far beyond the boundaries of the Kingdom of Sicily. That said, Antonello da Messina received his training elsewhere, predominantly in Rome and Naples as far as we can best tell. Although detail on his early life is relatively sparse, it is true to say that Netherlandish art was a key influence in both cities during the mid-15th century and so this connects well with the style that he would later incorporate into his work.

Focus on Religious Themes

In keeping with the fashion of the period, most of Antonello da Messina's paintings would cover religious themes, including some famous depictions of the crucifixion as well as the Virgin Mary and other saintly figures. The artist would have struggled to attract weathly patrons who desired anything else during this period in Italian history and so they were forced to a certain degree to concentrate on such topics. One interesting aspect to the artist's development was his time spent in the company of Petrus Christus, who himself from a North European artist who followed Jan van Eyck.

They would exchange technical knowledge from their respective regions, and pass on new ideas which could then been fed back into the own artistic communities. Da Messina would explain concepts around linear perspective, and in return was taught the fundamentals of oil painting. He also witnessed Van Eyck's own Lomellini Tryptych in person whilst in Naples and this encouraged him of the clear merits of this alternative method of art.


The earliest spread of this relayed information on oil painting techniques is believed to have been passed on by Antonello da Messina to Gentile and Giovanni Bellini. Da Messina returned to his hometown and served as the master painter of the region. He would marry and have children, one of whom, Jacobello, would become a successful artist himself and continue the family name for a further generation as well as protecting the artistic success found in the town of Messina.

As commissions started to roll in, the artist was able to expand his oeuvre quickly, backed by a sold family structure which could support him financially. Some works in the 1460s have been declared as showing influence from Piero della Francesca, who himself had a unique approach which was based around mathematics and an innovative use of perspective. It is important to remember that this aspect of art was very much in a period of transition during this time, with most art from the Middle Ages being known for very flat and undeveloped perspectives that bared little connection to reality.

As a further symbol of the artist's family's involvement within his career, his studio would start to expand over time and this gave the opportunity for him to introduce his brother, Giordano, into the fold for the first time. Both Italy and the Flemish regions during this period had a long history of passing on skills through the generations and so this would have been seen as entirely expected, once the younger brother had shown any inclination towards art as a career.

Mature Period

Towards the end of the 1460s the artist would begin producing single portraits in large numbers, which was not something typical of the period. This can be considered another strong influence that he left upon others. He would continue to work efficiently, possibly relocating for a period to the Italian mainland where he could more easily attract wealthy patrons. His style also continued to evolve, under the influence of other artists, many of whom he was already personally familiar with.

Virgin Annunciate, Portrait of a Man, St Jerome in his Study and St Sebastian are some of the most famous paintings produced by Antonello da Messina across his career. His impact and reputation ensures that some of his most significant artworks can be found in some high profile European art galleries and museums, helping to tell the story of the influence made by Southern Italian artists to the Renaissance, which is sometimes forgotten.

Connection to Fellow Artists

His connection to several famous names from Italian and Flemish art has also helped more people to discover his work, and it is his involvement in promoting the use of oils within his own native region which perhaps was the most important impact that he made across his career. There are around thirty artworks left in existence which have confidently been attributed to the artist, with many still remaining in Italy, and others based in France, Germany and the UK, with all of them now commanding considerable valuations.


The artist eventually passed away in Messina in 1479 having moved back home just a few years earlier after a successful stint living in Venice. His unfinished paintings were taken on by his highly trained studio, including his son Jacobello. He had by this stage built up a successful studio which would be able to continue to function effectively even after his death, meaning his legacy was secured, as was the financial security of his children.

Normally in these circumstances there would be a school which continued his stylistic traits, but sadly that was not to be the case for Antonello da Messina. Despite that, his legacy is entirely understood and he served a critical role in the exchanging of ideas and techniques between the two major artistic regions of Europe at that time - namely Italy and the Flemish regions in the North. The result would be future generations being able to find innovative ways of fusing these two movements together and taking the best bits of both.