Naples:life,death &
                Miracle contact: Jeff Matthews

    entry July 2007

aolo de Matteis

Paolo de Matteis was born in 1662 near Salerno and died in Naples in 1728. He is regarded as an important artist of the period. According to the Grove Encyclopedia of Art:

…His elegant art encouraged the movement away from Baroque drama towards a more tender, rocaille style in harmony with the earliest manifestations in Naples of the Arcadian school of poetry and of the Enlightenment. He painted frescoes, altarpieces and allegorical and mythological pictures.

De Matteis studied under Luca Giordano in Naples, traveled widely and was appreciated throughout Europe for his allegorical paintings. Among such works are:

  • Allegory of Divine Wisdom Crowning Painting as the Sovereign of the Arts;
  • St Bruno Interceding with the Virgin Mary for Suffering Humanity;
  • Olinda and Sofronia Rescued by Clorinda;
  • Justice, Fortune and Valour Helping Hercules, Crowned by Glory, while Time and Truth Defeat Slander and Envy;
  • Hercules at the Crossroads between Virtue and Vice.

These works, among many others, are not just in Naples, but throughout Europe and elsewhere. One work by de Matteis that goes totally unmentioned in the Grove encyclopedia —probably for reasons of “political correctness” (I’ll be happy to stand corrected)— is The Triumph of Religion over Heresy through St. Ignatius, St. Francis Xavier, St. Francis Borgia and the three Japanese martyrs, while Muhammad is cast down with the Koran (photo, right).

This work, no doubt, fits into the broad range of images—especially of the Prophet Muhammadthat at least some Muslims object to, often violently. The Islamic prohibition against images, human and divine, has origins in the hadith (the collected sayings of Muhammad), not in the Koran (the putative recitations of God given by the angel Gabriel to the Prophet). Hadith relative to the making of images include:

-Who would be more unjust than the one who tries to create the like of My creatures?
-The angels do not enter a house which contains pictures or images.
-The people whose punishment will be the most severe on the Day of Judgment will be those who try to imitate the creation of Allah.
They do not seem much different than the commandments in the Jewish and Christian faiths that say,
You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath...You shall not bow down to them or worship them…
...the interpretation of which has caused much controversy, often violent, over the centuries in various manifestations of the Christian faith. (Having said all that, in the early history of Islam, and even later, there were numerous cases of respectful renderings of the Prophet. (note 1) Indeed, even in Western works on, for example, the history of Islam, there have been neutral and respectful, though fanciful, images of Mohammad.)

There are not a lot of examples of images of Muhammad in Christian art. One in Italy that comes to mind is the 15th-century fresco by Renaissance artist, Giovanni da Modena. It is in the Basilica of St. Petronio in Bologna. (The church has received threats of vandalism.) The fresco is a depiction of a passage in Dante’s Divine Comedy. In Canto XXIII of the Inferno, there is a section reserved for “sowers of discord, schismatics, and heresy” whose punishment is (in the H.W. Longfellow translation) to have “…their limbs miserable maimed or divided in different ways.” Among those suffering such punishment are Muhammad and his son-in-law, Ali:

...vedi come storpiato è Maometto!
Dinanzi a me sen va piangendo Alì
fesso nel volto dal mento al ciuffetto.

"e tutti li altri che tu vedi qui
seminator di scandalo e di scisma
fuor vivi, e però son fessi così.
(Again, transl. Longfellow)
...How mutilated, see, is Mahomet;
In front of me doth Ali weeping go,
Cleft in the face from forelock unto chin;

And all the others whom thou here beholdest,
Disseminators of scandal and of schism
While living were, and therefore are cleft thus.

That passage has also been the basis for more modern renderings by William Blake and Salvador Dalí, among others. The most well-known drawing of the scene is by Gustave Doré (1832-1883) in his illustrations of the Divine Comedy

          Statue of Moses by Michelangelo

De Mateis’ work is NOT based on that scene. The Prophet appears in the lower left of a much larger painting on the ceiling of a church in Naples (photo, above). The depiction simply shows Muhammad holding the Koran and being cast down, out of Heaven. He is shown looking back up at Ignatius and is wearing a head covering crowned by what is intentionally ambiguous: either horns (diabolical) or the crescent moon (Islam). I am reminded by my erudite friend, Warren, that the sense of “diabolical” presents its own anomaly, however. Medieval artists such as Michelangelo, for example, often rendered Moses with horns. This is from the fact that the Hebrew word “KRN” can be read to mean “rays of light” or “horns,” the latter being the translation used in the Latin Vulgate version of the Bible. Recall, too, that “Lucifer” means “bearer of light” in Latin. It is unlikely that de Matteis is endowing  Muhammad with the strength and light of Moses, but rather of Lucifer.*2

It also certainly seems a strange coincidence that “Koran” (or “Qur'an” in more modern transliteration thanks to friend Annemarie for correcting my glottal stop!) also has a similar phonetic root in Arabic—a language closely related to Hebrew. Yet, as far as I know, the meaning of Koran comes from the Arabic root “read” or “recite”. I have found no interpretation that reads it as “light.” Beyond that, I welcome suggestions.

To my knowledge, no one has ever made a fuss about the painting, and I hope no one does. In the interest, however, of discouraging what another friend, Peter, (I know. I have a lot of smart friends. It helps.) calls the “Bamyan Buddha effect,” *3  I shall not disclose the name or location of the church.

(note: De Matteis is entombed within the church of the Concezione al Chiatamone, the premises of which contain a number of either his paintings or those of his students.)

*1. A scholarly review of such art may be found in "From the Literal to the Spiritual: The Development of the Prophet Muhammad's Portrayal from 13th-Century Ilkahnid Miniatures to 17th-Century Ottoman Art," by Wijdan Ali (of the Royal Society of Fine Arts, Amman) in the Proceedings of the 11th International Congress of Turkish Art, Utrecht, The Netherlands, Aug. 23-25, 1999, No. 7, 1-24, in EJOS (Electronic Journal of Oriental Studies), IV (2001). M. Kiel, N. Landsman and H. Theunissen (eds.)  (back to place in main text)

*2. The phrase relevant to “horned Moses” is to be found in Exodus 34.30 (or 34.29, depending on the translation). The Jewish Publication Society (in their 1917 translation)  renders the verse as: “…when he [Moses] came down from the mount, that Moses knew not that the skin of his face sent forth beams while He talked with him…” The Septuagint (the oldest—between the 3rd and 1st centuries b.c.—of translations into Greek) translates the Hebrew phrase as "his face was glorified.” The Vulgate Latin translation by Jerome in the early 5th century, a.d., however,  translates the phrase into Latin as cornuta esset facies sua— "his face was horned". The King James version (1611) has, simply, that the skin of Moses' face “shone.”

*3. Recall that the Buddhas of Bamyan were two monumental statues of standing Buddhas carved into the side of a cliff in the Bamyan valley of central Afghanistan. They were destroyed by the Taliban in 2001, working on the principle, presumably, that you shall destroy that which offends your faith. With all due respect, that is a strange interpretation of the tolerant passage in the Koran that says, “When you see those who meddle with Our revelations, withdraw from them…” (The Cattle, 6:68).

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