17 January 2017

Antonio Moscheni - Jesuit painter

Unique legacy of chapel frescoes in India

Antonio Moscheni made his own paint using vegetable dye
Antonio Moscheni made his own paint
using vegetable dye
The painter Antonio Moscheni, best known for the extraordinary frescoes he created in the chapel of St Aloysius College in Mangalore, India, was born on this day in 1854 in the town of Stezzano, near Bergamo in Lombardy.

St Aloysius, situated in the state of Karnataka in south-west India, was built by Italian Jesuit Missionaries in 1880 and the chapel added four years later.  A beautiful building, it would not look out of place in Rome and the Baroque extravagance of Moscheni's work, which adorns almost every available wall space and ceiling, makes it unique in India.

The chapel welcomes thousands of visitors each year simply to marvel at Moscheni's art for the vibrancy of the colours and the intricacy of the detail.

Scenes depicted include the life of St. Aloysius, who as the Italian aristocrat Aloysius Gonzaga became a Jesuit and was studying in Rome when he died at the age of just 23, having devoted himself to caring for the victims of an outbreak of plague.

The interior of the chapel at St Aloysius, painted in its entirety by Moscheni in the space of two and a half years
The interior of the chapel at St Aloysius, painted in its
entirety by Moscheni in the space of two and a half years
Also painted are the Apostles, the lives of the Saints and the life of Jesus. The picture of Jesus with a group of children on the rear wall, opposite the main altar, is considered the best of Moscheni’s work.

The artist's skill enabled him to create the illusion of three dimensions, so that figures painted on flat walls, for example, appear at first glance to be statues.

Another interesting feature is the chapel floor, all of which is paved with stones brought from Bergamo which again creates the perception of three dimensions. Visitors at first can mistake the tiles for steps.

Remarkably, often hanging precariously from scaffolding, Moscheni painted the entire 829 square metres of surface area by himself, using paints he made using vegetable dyes, the project taking two and a half years.

The Jesuits were lucky that they had such a talented artist among their brethren.

The Chapel of the College of St Aloysius in Mangalore
The Chapel of the College of St Aloysius in Mangalore
Educated at the prestigious Accademia Carrara in Bergamo, where he studied with accomplished masters from whom he learned the most advanced techniques, he also spent a year in Rome studying the masterpieces of Michelangelo at the Vatican.

When he returned to Bergamo his ability was in great demand. He was commissioned by many churches in the city and the surrounding area and his work at the Sanctuary of Madonna dei Campi in his home town of Stezzano was particularly admired. He exhibited in Milan and Turin and had the prospect of a brilliant career ahead of him.

In 1889, at age 35, however, Moscheni turned his back on fame to enter the Society of Jesus, enrolling himself as a lay brother.

Yet it was not the end of his career as an artist.  Aware of his talents, his superiors wasted no time, once his novitiate was completed, in despatching him to Croatia and Albania to work on Jesuit churches, and on his return sending him to Piacenza and Modena.

The Villa Moscheni in Stezzano is a private house
The Villa Moscheni in Stezzano is a private house
He left for India in 1898 and expected to return to Italy once the St Aloysius project was finished, yet his reputation spread in India as it had at home.

He was asked to decorate the Hospital Chapel at Kankanady, as well as a local church and the Seminary of Mangalore before being invited to paint frescoes at the Holy Name Cathedral in Mumbai.

Moscheni moved from there to the Basilica of Santa Cruz at Fort Kochi, in the state of Kerala, at the personal invitation of the Bishop in 1905.  Sadly, Moscheni fell ill with dysentery while he was working there, although he battled against the illness with impressive fortitude and finished the job. He died in November 1905, four days before the consecration of the church, and is said to have been buried at the Carmelite Monastery in Manjummel.

Travel tips:

Stezzano, situated just outside Bergamo not far from the airport at Orio al Serio, marked the 100th anniversary of the death of Moscheni in 2005 when a bust created by a local sculptor, Learco Campana, was unveiled in the Biblioteca Comunale.  Moscheni's home in Stezzano, the Villa Moscheni, in Via Carrara Beroa, is in private ownership and has been fully renovated. The six-bedroom property, which includes some frescoes by Moscheni, has been on the market recently for €980,000.

The Sanctuary of Madonna dei Campi at Stezzano
The Sanctuary of Madonna dei Campi at Stezzano
Travel tips:

The historic centre of Stezzano is a fortified farming village of medieval origin that has changed little in appearance. It is mainly characterised by former farmhouses and four substantial 17th century villas - the Villa Zanchi, Villa Morlani, Villa Maffeis and Villa Moroni, which dominates the picturesque Piazza Libertà. The grand parish church of San Giovanni Battista is a short distance away in Piazza Dante. The Sanctuary of Madonna dei Campi can be found a little out of the centre, on the road towards Grumello del Piano.

More reading:

The Chapel in Padua that is home to Giotto's stunning frescoes

How the work of Tintoretto still adorns Venice

The mysterious death of Caravaggio

Also on this day:

1472: Birth of Guidobaldo da Montefeltro, Duke of Urbino

(Picture credits: chapel interior by Vijay Bhat; chapel exterior by Haydn Blackley; Sanctuary of Madonna dei Campi by Luigi Chiesa; all via Wikimedia commons)


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