Mattia Preti, St Peter setting off with the keys..
One of my favourite paintings. On a lecture trip to Vienna, in the middle of April, at the invitation of Tom Holert to talk to his colleagues and students at the Akademie on Practice Based Research, one of the pedagogic and intellectual travails of our days, I had, of course, time for the Kunsthistoriches Museum. In these times, rather than days, the Breughel looks more apocalyptic than ever, the Children's Games, as Francis remarked, an horrific exploration of the conditions for eventual massacre rather than daily pleasures, the details of torment in all its modalities, as if the surviving adults will eventually avenge the massacred innocents who hang just along the wall. But, of course, the unreasonable beauty of the work, the saturation of vision in paint to the edges of pain, of suffocation.
Preti, of course, offers a different register of pleasure in the abandonment of the museum, an affect and an allegory of the queerness of the image as the drives unsettle the fabric of theology. There is no reason, no latent homosexuality, or coded homo-eroticism in the fashion attributed to Preti's generational senior, Caravaggio. It's just that in the play of lights, hands and arrested and moving gestures, the folds and flows of drapery, as the narrative of Peter's escape unfolds to the 'right' edge, the entire combined energies of the image flow up around the angel's wing, back through the orange drape that umbilically connects Peter and his sleeping guard across the highlight on his knee and into the darkened shadow of his throat. In the closeness to the spear, my oh-so entrappèd gaze penetrates the shadow with desire and sexual longing (Preti is good at these chins); in retrospect the Church will never be founded or will founder on that desire that floods, and flows around its rules. To stay in the painting is to abide exactly in the queer space that bigotry outlaws, a kind of Eden of affect.
This is, of course, a characteristic of the best Catholic painting....and one of the reasons why I am happy to be an art historian