This bottle-shaped maiolica pharmacy jar bears the coat of arms of Grand Master Alof de Wignacourt. He commissioned a set of pharmacy jars for the Sacra Infermeria (Holy Infirmary) of the Knights of the Order of St John in Valletta. These most probably came from the workshop of Maestro Bernardino in Venice, pupil of the more renowned Domenego de Beti. On a blue background are painted stylised flowers and foliage in vibrant yellow, brown, and green.
There is the possibility that this painting of the ‘Martyrdom of St Catherine of Alexandria’ may be identified as Mattia Preti’s presentation piece preceding his first visit to Malta in the summer of 1659. He wanted to impress by donating to the Langue of Italy a superb representation of its patron saint. A painting of the saint is recorded being presented by Preti in June 1659 to be displayed in the Auberge d’Italie, the building where MUŻA is housed. This painting was a testament to Preti’s bravura, and may have been one of the reasons why he was asked to stay in Malta to paint the ceiling of St John’s Co-Cathedral when he permanently settled in Malta in 1661. Apart from the subject and possible origin, this painting is also remarkable for the ‘pentimenti’ that are visible almost to the naked eye. The painting was originally conceived as a ‘Martyrdom of St Paul’ and was reworked by Preti so that the figure of St Catherine was painted over that of the male saint, while other signs of Preti’s evolving ideas are visible in the changes he made to the crowd.
During his long stay in Rome from 1817/18 till his death, Salvatore Busuttil is recorded as having excelled not only in creating series of prints of the characters and costumes of Rome, but especially in the production of miniatures. In small paintings such as this scene of a man and a woman on a boat, he applies the gouache medium with precision and economy. Four charming images of couples exchanging love letters, holding hands, and playing music are embedded within the tendrils of the decorative border in the corners. Intricate foliage, flowers, and a golden net are used by the artist to show off his exceptional brushwork and attention to detail. The idyllic tranquil scene in the centre, rendered in transparent delicate hues, is made mysterious by the barely perceptible figure in the water behind the boat. Is he drowning, or caught in the fishing net? Is he a reference to the despair one feels when seeing the object of his or her love with another? This detail shows how exceptional Busuttil is at creating narrative in miniature as he leaves little passages of humour for the perceptive viewer to discover.