Caravaggio’s Angel

Farah Mendlesohn/ October 26, 2019/ / 0 comments

by Chris Quinton

Caravaggio's Angel by Chris Quinton

When Paul Calleja learns that his great-uncle has passed away, he drops everything and travels half-way round the world to deal with his estate. Arriving in Malta he begins to find out how much he didn't know about Larry in his lifetime, and meets and is attracted to Angelo - a local handyman and artist's model - who seems to be concealing some extraordinary secret. It's not long before Paul and Angelo are plunged into complications which will have a profound effect on both their lives - and also on their chances of a future life together ...

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The unknown model hadn't been the plump-faced pretty androgyne so often featured in Caravaggio's work. By the standards of male beauty in the artist's time, the man was not handsome. But the proud-boned features framed in a shoulder-length tangle of black hair were real. Eyes so blue their color seared, gazed from beneath frowning brows arched like a falcon's wing. The level glare was fixed on a point above the viewer's line of sight, and Paul always fancied he could read accusation there. Why did you allow this … The full, perfectly shaped mouth was set in anger and sorrow. In his clenched fists he held a cream-colored robe, splashed with blood. Gilded by diffused light, wings of iridescent black feathers were mantled, protecting the robe or whoever had worn it.

This was no adoring angel, soulful and acquiescent to God's will. That fierce gaze challenged as well as mourned.


Lawrenz Calleja had always maintained the painting was a section removed from a much larger picture depicting the martyrdom of Saint Sebastian, cut away because Caravaggio had refused to paint over it. He'd seen a letter from one of the artist's patrons, or so he asserted. The writer had complained that Caravaggio was impossible-temperamental-unwilling to bow to the wishes of the one paying for his talent. Rather than change the offending section he had snatched up a knife and cut it away. Uncle Larry was convinced the letter referred to his angel. If he was right, and scientific tests would go a long way to proving it, the panel would be worth a fortune.

Not that the artist's fame had been the reason why he'd bought the painting in the 1930s. It had belonged to a friend, Victor Mazzelli, from another old Maltese family. To say the younger Larry had fallen for the angel would be something of an understatement.

The artist's tempestuous life story would have done justice to a TV soap opera, and it culminated in commissions from the Knights Hospitaller of Saint John on Malta, followed by a disastrous fall from grace that saw him incarcerated by them. The Mazzelli family tradition had it that Caravaggio had escaped from the Knights' prison back in 1608, and had sold the painting to Manwel Mazzelli in order to buy passage on a ship away from Malta. However, no one took the legend seriously.

When Victor's family hit financial problems just before the Second World War and was too proud to accept an outright gift or a loan, Larry had offered five hundred lira for it to help them out. The idea that it might indeed be an undiscovered masterpiece never crossed his mind, until a disparaging remark made by a lover after the war. The lover had rapidly become an ex, and Larry had started on the research trail.

Unfortunately, his technique was haphazard. He could never remember where he'd seen the transcript of that old letter, and refused to let the painting out of his possession for tests. He'd decided this was a genuine Caravaggio, and nothing visiting experts told him through the years made the slightest dent in his conviction.

Paul cleared the books off one of the shelves below the painting, and took the urn out of its box. "Here you go, Uncle," he whispered, and carefully placed it below the angel. "I'll take you to your favorite place, where we scattered Uncle Art's ashes." Ghar Lapsi was a tiny inlet and sea cave not far from Valletta. But then, distance was relative on the island.

Reluctantly, Paul turned away from the painting. One more ritual needed to be performed. He climbed the narrow stairs to the roof, where a single large room opened onto a wide terrace with views over the Grand Harbor. This was Uncle Larry's studio. He'd done a lot of his painting in the unique Mediterranean light, there and on the terrace. The overhead lights showed the canvases stacked around the walls, lined up on the specially designed racks. Larry had sketched and painted in oils, watercolors, and acrylics all his adult life, and in Paul's opinion, was damned good. But he'd never held an exhibition, never sought to sell a single picture.

For a while, Paul looked through the unframed canvases, each one a precious memory of Maltese places and people. A lot of them were of himself, from a laughing child with curly black hair and dark brown eyes, to a fine-boned coltish adolescent with the promise of handsomeness. Two self-portraits had been tucked away at the back of one rack. One was of Larry as a young, good-looking man of Paul's age, late twenties. Paul would have the same riotous mane of curls if he hadn't tamed his hair by having it cut to a fairly severe style. The family resemblance was unmistakable in the lines of their features. The second portrait showed Larry in his seventies, unruly white hair, dark eyes sparkling under bushy brows, and a devil-may-care lilt to his smile. Paul put that picture to one side. He'd have it framed and hung in the living room.

The portraits of Arturo Dimech, Uncle Larry's long-time friend and lover, were close by, all except the one that hung in his uncle's bedroom. Arturo-Uncle Art-had died ten years ago. Since then, as far as Paul knew, Larry had lived alone, but for his visits.

Then he brought out Angelo's portfolio case, and opened it up on the paint- and solvent-stained table.

His uncle's obsession with Caravaggio's model hadn't lessened over the years. It showed here in his own artwork. The dates scrawled in pencil on their backs covered well over half a century. Paintings and sketches of that face and wingless form in various settings, all in contemporary dress and against modern backgrounds-if the medieval city could be called modern-filled the portfolio.

Reviews:Elaine White on Divine Magazine wrote:

a beautiful story of love, life, and self-discovery

52,000 words

About the Author

Chris lives in the southwest of England, in a small city with ancient roots. Writing has been an important part of their life for more years than they care to remember, and they daily thank The Powers That Be for the invention of the computer and the world wide web.

Other Books By Chris Quinton

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