In the words of novelist Jorge Luis Borges: “All things have been given to us for a purpose and an artist must feel this more intensely. All that happens to us, including our humiliations, our misfortunes, our embarrassments, all is given to us as raw material, as clay, so that we may shape our art.”
Artist Antonio Mifsud creates sacred narratives out of tablets of clay, his fingers teasing out figures from the inert material and develops narrative drama into his high-relief (altorilievo) friezes. The monochromatic earthiness imbues these sculptural works with a beguiling timelessness. At other times, Mifsud decides to breathe colour into the fissures and cracks, thus enriching the composition with chromatic rhythm.
Mifsud owes his academic grounding to his tutor, Alfred Camilleri Cauchi, who induced in him a love for the sacred art genre. The Catholic Maltese upbringing, the obligatory after-school lessons in catechism, and a simple life that centred around the village church activities also contributed to his pronounced inclination towards a sacred art that defines the artist.
The anecdotal quality woven into the narrative along the years provides the artist with the liberty to interpret and thus recreate a personal context for a biblical episode or its apocryphal version.
“Sacred art is one that makes use of other genres to tell a story.
“A glance at the work of past masters shows a proficiency in landscape, still life and portraiture. A roaring sea, a dramatic cloudy sky or a foggy winter’s sunset adds drama and volume to the episode as it enfolds if it has nature as its backdrop. A still life of food on a table or a floral one symbolising some saintly virtue enhances the pictorial narration if the context requires the stillness and sobriety of a room, rendered through contrasts in the theatrical play of light, shadow and contemplative silence,” Mifsud says.
He adds that other factors can contribute to a work of sacred art, such as the materials used.
High relief integrates painting and sculpture
“The materials used can also direct you towards a certain path. Painting and papier-mâché (kartapesta) act in their idiosyncratic way, while bronze, marble and limestone offer other possibilities that can be alternatively developed but which can also prompt you towards the same result.”
In his eight-station Via Crucis for the Mater Dei chapel in Msida, Mifsud breaks with tradition and offers an original and modern take on the centuries-old tradition that compartmentalised the account of the Passion of Christ into 14 tableaux.
He metamorphoses Christ’s death and resurrection in his Risen Crucifix for the Archbishop’s Seminary school at Tal-Virtù, the colour-adding drama as the body of Christ is released from the heavy darkness of death into the golden glory that shines with eternal life and hope.
Mifsud is synonymous with high relief but admits that he was initially unaware that this would become his defining mode of expression.
“With hindsight, I realise that my inclination towards relief was part of a natural process and it was more of a case of the technique choosing me rather than vice-versa. My inclination can be described as a two-way communication. A Lorenzo Ghiberti door exerts an attraction and draws my undivided attention,” he notes.
The artist, who mentions the celebrated sculptor Antonio Sciortino, Giuseppe Briffa, Willie Apap and Anton Inglott, apart from Camilleri Cauchi, among his major influences, suggests that his original and initial predilection for painting could explain his preference towards altorilievo.
“High relief integrates painting and sculpture, thus offering me more possibilities as I employ the idiosyncrasies of both. Although I occasionally produce three-dimensional sculptures, I feel that I express myself more eloquently through high relief. Many consider this to be my forte and my fingerprint,” Mifsud remarks.
Melchiorre Cafà was the first major Maltese artist to employ this technique, treading in the footsteps of such giants as Donatello, Ghiberti and Michelangelo. Although having strong roots in classical antiquity, sculptural relief was modernised by 20th-century artists like Pericle Fazzini, Francesco Messina, Emilio Greco, Giacomo Manzù and even Lucio Fontana.
His landscapes, which are very expressionist and which nod towards geometrical abstraction, contrast with the traditional approach of his sculptural work. He occasionally needs these releases from the restraint and discipline that go into his reliefs.
The constituent elements of the landscape are abstracted as their chromatic spiritual and non-representational equivalents. His wet-on-wet technique in oils elicits spontaneity in handling the medium, imbuing the finished work with the freshness of a watercolour, capturing the transient atmospheric moods effectively.
The sacred themes are not limited only to Mifsud’s sculpture. An example of this is his Annunciation, which is the main altarpiece for the Lunziata chapel in the limits of Rabat. By using a diptych format, he separates the terrestrial from the divine. However, the vibrant colour palette that is common throughout integrates the whole composition into one cohesive story of hope and salvation.
Mifsud claims that his profession as a nurse working at Mater Dei Hospital plays second fiddle to his being an artist.
“I was first and foremost an artist much before I decided to pursue the nursing profession. I feel that my academic education in art provided me with the knowledge of technique and materials and with the tools to learn from my mistakes,” he says. He chose nursing as his parents were rightfully concerned that he could not make a living as a full-time artist although they never discouraged him to pursue his dreams.
Nursing provides job security as otherwise his future would have been jeopardised; eking a living just out of art only is extremely hard in our country.
“The nursing course furnishes students with a very good knowledge of human anatomy. This obviously increased the dexterity in my sculpture as regards musculature and the proportions of the human figure,” he points out.
Besides this, a nurse deals with complex situations of human drama, of life and death situations, trying one’s utmost to save lives.
“Acknowledging the fact that notwithstanding one’s best efforts, not all lives can be saved is a humbling experience that we nurses have to face in every moment of our working life. It is a fulfilling profession but one that is very hard and taxing. I guess these experiences are packed away and stored mentally and I must admit that, at times, they resurface years later in my art.”
So is art a necessary therapeutic tool? Mifsud believes that one could look at it that way.
“Nursing is not a joke, there is the necessity to psychologically unburden when back home. Art provides the necessary solitude and soul-searching that is balmy and redeems me to enjoy life with my wife and three children.”
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