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Series: On Art and Artists
Saint Matthew, and Two Eighteenth Century Italian Artists, and Their Ethiopian Vision
Ethiopia, over the centuries, made a major impact, as we all know – or ought to know – on European, and especially Italian, consciousness.
Francesco Trevisani and Marco Benefial
This week we turn our attention to two notable eighteenth century Italian artists: Francesco Trevisani, or Trevisan (1650-1740 or 1746) and Marco Benefial, or Benefiale (1688-1764).
Trevisani studied in Venice with the painter Zanchie, and later with another artist, Maratta, in Rome. Trevisani worked not only in the latter city, but also in many other parts of Italy, among them Umbria, Toscana and Romagna. His works are found in numerous European capitals, including Paris, Madrid, Dresden, Vienna, Budapest, Moscow, and St. Petersburg, formerly Leningrad.
Benefial studied with the Bolognese artist Lamberti, from whom he developed a love of Raphael and the old Italian masters, and rejected the mannerisms of the Baroque art of the time.
But what you may ask, dear reader, is how is this relevant to Ethiopia?
The answer is that Trevisani and Benefial, or those who commissioned some of their art – were both fascinated with Ethiopia, as part of the Christian world.
This takes us to the northern Italian city of Pisa, site of the famous Leaning Tower. More precisely to the city’s Church of S. Matteo, i.e. St. Matthew, which was restored, and redecorated, in 1720. This fine building contains paintings featuring the life of St. Matthew, two of them of Ethiopian interest.
One painting, by Trevisani, was a canvas measuring 180 centimetres by 360, of “St Matthew Resucitating the Son of the King of Ethiopia”.
Trevisani also produced two modelli, or drafts, for his Resucitation painting. They show the personalities depicted in rather different poses. Both paintings are extant, on canvasses measuring 32.2 by 64.8 centimetres. They are in private possession in England – and, if any reader would like to purchase them, the pair can be obtained for 35,000 pounds Sterling. I can arrange sale (without asking for any commission!)
The other painting in Pisa is by Benefial, and depicts “St Matthew Baptising the Queen of Ethiopia”.
Let us now return, dear reader, to the story of Saint Matthew Resucitating the Son of the King of Ethiopia, which is known in both Europe and Ethiopia.
The story is found in an old Ge‘ez, or Ethiopic, account, also translated, early in the present century, by Wallis Budge, and reproduced in his Contendings of the Apostles. We read there how Matthew arrived at an unspecified city, where he proved the superiority of Christianity over the beliefs of the “pagans”, by his ability to raise the dead.
The text, which is written in Biblical English, declares:
“The king said to him…”
“Then Matthew went unto the king and said to him, ‘I see that thy heart is sorrow-stricken because thy son hath died; call now upon Apollo that he may raise him up (again) for thee’. And the king said unto Matthew, ‘Which of the gods can make the dead to live again?’ And the Apostle said unto him, ‘My Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of the Living God, (can do this), and if thou believe in Him, He will raise up thy son alive from the dead for thee’. Then the king swore a mighty oath unto the Apostle and said unto him, ‘If I see this marvelous thing (wrought) by thy God Jesus Christ, and He raise up my son from the dead, I will never again worship Apollo, nor any other idol whatsoever.”
“And when Matthew had heard (these) words from the king,” the text continues,
“he became strong in the strength of the Holy Spirit, and he lifted up his eyes to heaven, and stretching out his hands he prayed, saying, ‘I bless Thee, O my Lord Jesus Christ, at all times, O Thou Whose habitation which is raised above the heights, groweth not old. And I give praise unto Thee because thou didst not conceal Thyself (but didst give Thyself) for sinners, and didst make us to be participators (in) the faith, and I give thanks unto Thee because Thou Thyself alone canst raise up the dead (to life). And I beseech Thee, O sustainer of all, Thou Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, to send Thy exalted and sublime power to break the thorn of death, and to destroy all in its power, and may the keepers of the gates of Sheol fall down; and may the guardians (thereof) be destroyed and put to shame; and may all the deceits of the devils be brought to naught, and may the head of the Serpent be broken! Send down Thy hand from above, O my Lord Jesus Christ, and raise up the young man so that the king and all those who dwell in this city may believe. ”
“And It Came to Pass…”
“And it came to pass”, the text goes on,
“that when Saint Matthew had made an end to his prayer, he rose up and went to the place wherein was the dead man, and taking him by the hand, he said unto him. ‘O thou young man, in the Name of our Lord Jesus Christ, rise up and live’. And by reason of this the young man made haste (to rise up), and he took hold of Matthew’s hand at that moment, and said unto him. ‘I beseach thee, O servant of God Almighty, baptize me, and I entreat thee, O good one, to make me a participator in the Holy Mysteries, and not to take me again unto Sheol.”
“And it came to pass”, concludes the text,
“that when the king saw this wonderful thing which God had brought forth in the days of Saint Matthew, he rose up without delay, and in that same hour he commanded all those who were in the city to be baptized, together with all the people who were in his house, by the hands of Matthew, in the Name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. And there was great rejoicing in the city, and the king burnt Apollo in the fire which he had made in order to burn Matthew; and the fire did not separate itself from Apollo until it had burnt him to ashes”.
The Ethiopian Synaxarium
The above story of Matthew raising the son of the king from the dead also found its way into the Ethiopian Senksar, or Synaxarium, for the twelfth day of the Ethiopian month of Teqemt. This well-known text states that when Saint Matthew went into the city:
“he went to the temple of Opollo, and found the high priest, and talked with him concerning the gods, and Saint Matthew made him know that they were not gods; and he wrought miracles and wonders before him, and light rose upon them, and a table came down to them from heaven.”
It was at that very moment, according to the Synaxarium, that “the son of the king died, and Saint Matthew made supplication to our Lord Christ, and he raised the king’s son from the dead; and straightway the king and all the men of the city believed”.
We present in this article a photograph Trevisani’s Pisa painting, and one of the first of the earlier, and more different, of the two Resucitation drafts in London.