The Life of St John the Baptist, 1661-1666, oil on stone, vault paintings.
Preti divided the narrative cycle to fit the six divisions of the vault. Each bay is subdivided into three sections. The story of St John starts from the first bay at the main door with the vision to the priest Zachary and ends with the beheading of the saint in the sixth bay.
The apse, shows St John holding the Order’s standard, being presented to God the Father by Jesus Christ. The lunette above the main door depicts the allegory of the Order represented by a female warrior trampling over Moorish figures in chains. On either side sit the Cotoner grand masters Raphael and Nicolas who were great benefactors of the Order and this church. In the background knights are depicted slain in battle and angels descending from the sky holding palm fronds. This is a symbol of martyrdom.
The technique mostly used for painting on walls is the fresco technique which is a water based medium painted on wet plaster. In this case Preti used an oil based paint technique applied onto the stone.
Chapel of the Langue of Aragon
One of the most richly embellished chapels in the church, the Chapel of the Langue of Aragon, is dedicated to St George, the patron saint of the Aragonese Knights. The langue of Aragon consisted of the Priory of Catalonia and Navarre.
St George on Horseback, c. 1659, oil on canvas, altar-piece 275 x 207 cm.
The altar painting in the chapel of the langue of Aragon depicts St George riding a white stallion after slaying the dragon that had terrorised Silena in Libya thus saving the city’s princess from sure death. The smooth dramatised depiction and the opulent colours display his artistic ability.
The dramatized style together with the opulent colours used to depict St George, show the Venetian and Bolognese styles that Preti favoured during his late Neapolitan production of the 1650s.
The painting is carefully executed using thickly applied rich pigment and luminous highlights. The ample use of blue pigment, derived from lapis lazuli, an expensive pigment, reflects the patron’s fine taste. Preti’s artistic ability is shown by the fine draughtsmanship and the modelling of the figures with the use of light and shade and effective highlights.
St Francis Xavier, 1658, oil on canvas, 229×183 cm.
This painting was commissioned by grand master Martin de Redin soon after his election in 1657. Previously De Redin had been Prior of Navarre and wanted a painting of St Francis who was the patron saint of Navarre.
Preti depicts St Francis with intense spirituality. The Jesuit saint looks up towards the heavens at a subject outside the picture plane which is only suggested to the viewer. The circumstances indicate a divine calling with the appearance of the symbol of Jesus, it catches his attention and he opens his arms suggesting acceptance. The scene is washed with soft light focusing mainly on the facial features. The painting’s reflective mood is a feature which Preti often used to interpret a spiritual experience.
The rich pigment-laden brushwork and attention to texture and finish compare well with the paintings he produced during the mid-1650s.
St Firmin, 1660, oil on canvas 229 x 170 cm.
The painting depicts St Firmin as a learned man of venerable age. He kneels on clouds dressed in his bishop’s cape and mitre holding a crosier. St Firmin was the first bishop of Pamplona a city within Navarre.
Preti’s use of rich golden hues and fluid brushwork give this painting an appealing naturalistic effect. This painting was produced as a pair to St Francis for the chapel of Aragon. It is similar in dimensions and composition and consists of the saint in a meditative mood.
The saint is accompanied by angels who hold a sword, the symbol of his martyrdom, and a scroll inscribed with his title: SANCTUSO FERMINUS PAMPLONENSIS EPISCOPUS AMIENSES MARTYR indicating him a martyr, bishop of Pamplona.
St Firmin’s inclusion in this chapel is a direct link to grand master Martin De Redin who hailed from Pamplona and his patriotism of the region of Navarre.
St Lawrence meeting Pope Sixtus II on his way to martyrdom, c. 1660 oil on canvas, lunette 259x 526 cm.
The painting depicts Pope Sixtus II while being led to his execution when he was stopped by St Lawrence. This picture is a companion piece to St Lawrence’s martyrdom which hangs opposite. Preti selects an original and meaningful detail from the story of St Lawrence’s life and shows his able choice of subject to provide interesting material to portray in pictorial terms. The narrative is clear and he demonstrates his sensitivity to the subject matter. The composition focuses on the Pope whose hands are bound as St Lawrence kneels before him. The executioner holds a sword whilst Valerian’s soldiers look upon the scene. The event takes place in a classical open landscape, several onlookers witness the scene whilst an angel holds the Pope’s mitre.
The Martyrdom of St Lawrence, c. 1660, oil on canvas, lunette, 259 x 526 cm.
The composition of this painting focuses on the moment of the saint’s martyrdom. St Lawrence has been stripped of his robes. Two executioners roughly lay him on the hot iron grid, while another stokes a burning fire. St Lawrence looks towards the heavens with outstretched arms as a sign of acceptance of his fate. Preti capitalised on the horizontal format of the lunette spreading the composition over the picture plane. The activity of the soldiers and other priests that witness the cruel scene shows Preti’s flair for heightening the dramatic effects of his compositions. His intelligent use of colour composed of mainly earth pigments add to the sobriety of the event.
Chapel of the Langue of Italy
The Mystic Marriage of St Catherine, c. 1660-1665, oil on canvas, 361 x 203 cm.
This painting is the altarpiece of the chapel of the langue of Italy. It depicts the mystic marriage of St Catherine. The iconography follows the traditional setting of the vision the young princess had as the Child Jesus slips on a wedding ring symbolically marrying her to the church. The beautiful young Catherine is dressed in fine robes of silk held together by a golden clasp. Her golden locks fall gently about her shoulders as she kneels at the feet of the Virgin. The painting is beautifully animated with angels that seem to occupy every possible corner to get a glimpse of the mystic event. The child Jesus tenderly places a ring on Catherine’s finger while an angel promptly puts a crown of roses on her head. A young angel innocently plays with a spiked wheel foretelling the cruel torture she had to experience, while in her left hand she holds a palm frond, symbol of martyrdom.
Chapel of the Langue of Castille
St James Major, c. 1664-66, oil on canvas, 306 x 209 cm.
The altarpiece of the chapel of the langue of Castile, Leon and Portugal depicts St James Major as the patron saint of the Spanish langue. For this reason, the saint is accompanied with symbols of these regions such as a lion and a castle bearing the coat-of-arms of Portugal.
The saint is shown wearing the habit of a pilgrim, adorned with a scallop on his shoulder, also a pilgrim’s symbol representing his evangelising voyages to the Holy Land and Spain. The monumental figure of St James stands prominently in the foreground whilst a golden shaft of light washes over him.
St James gazes to the heavens in quiet communion with God and points the direction of the viewer to the young angel holding onto a lion and the accompanying angel who carries a castle with the Portuguese cross-symbols of the langue of Castille, Leon and Portugal.
It is executed with a restricted palette of earth colours that correctly conveys a contemplative mood of this work. The sober tone of the painting enhances the spiritual content of the iconography.
St James and the Virgin of the Pillar, c.1664-66, oil on canvas, lunette, 259 x 526 cm.
This painting depicts St James and the Virgin Mary as she appears to him whilst he was on a mission in Spain, evangelising the region. She appears to him seated on pillar as she tells him not to give up hope and continue with his work.
The richly applied opulent oil pigments give the painting a rich texture. The splendid lyrical qualities compliment the celestial scene that takes place in a dark landscape.
Preti uses warm earth colours that contrast beautifully with the crimson red and golden cinnamon hues of the angels’ garments and the pure lapis lazuli of the Virgin’s gown. He uses drapery abundantly adding to the richness of the paintings.
St James defeats the Moors, c. 1664-66, oil on canvas, lunette, 259 x 526 cm.
This painting shows St James in battle against a Saracen army. The Spaniards were greatly outnumbered, but suddenly St James appeared and led the army to victory.
Preti clearly illustrates the battle at Clavijo in Spain in pictorial terms. St James appears riding a white stallion holding a sword ready for battle.
The artist uses dramatic gesture to animate the battle scene in an interesting composition. The colourful palette with details painted from life adds to its aesthetic appeal.
Chapel of the Langue of France
The Conversion of St Paul, c. 1668, oil on canvas, 338 x 220 cm.
The altar painting of the chapel of France depicts the moment of St Paul’s conversion when Christ spoke to him as he was struck by a blinding light that caused him to fall of his horse.
The composition is highly dramatised with several figures engaging in the event. Glance and gesture assist the narrative of the story.
The colourful palette predominantly composed of warm shades of cinnamon and burnt umber recall the influence of the Bolognese school whilst the complex figure group rendered in naturalistic form show his interest in the naturalism of the Neapolitan school.