Belisarius was a general in the army of the Byzantine Emperor Justinian in the sixth century AD. He lived in the capital, Constantinople (now Istanbul), and waged successful wars for the emperor. According to the legend, Belisarius fell from grace and lost his eyesight. In the end, he was reduced to penury. Mattia Preti depicted him as a beggar in a coat of mail, holding a lance in his left hand. Above him, on the right, is a note inscribed with the Latin words ‘Obbulum Bilisari’, meaning ‘Belisarius’s obol’ (an obol was a coin in ancient Greece). Four men approach the former general. The man on the far left has a lion’s skin draped over his head and shoulders. A young man in armour stands beside him and hands Belisarius a coin. They are accompanied by an elderly man with a grey beard, and a soldier wearing a helmet. The group might be construed as representing characters from antiquity, like Hercules, Alexander the Great or Diogenes.
Preti spent many years in Naples, where the influence of Caravaggio’s consummate chiaroscuro was most clearly in evidence. The brilliant play of light and shade, which greatly enhances the impact of this painting, suggests that Preti, too, was inspired by his work.