Baroque Spain: Devotion on Canvas.
In 1622, Pope Gregory XV began restoring and tightening Rome’s grip on the Church’s rightful and overwhelming influence in the world. (His successor, Urban VIII, continued his work and founded a missionary training college that would send messengers of the faith into the world.) The Church celebrated and reinforced their triumph over Protestantism by canonizing saints, including St. Ignatius and St. Teresa of Avila. The effects of this victory on painting and sculpture were quickly realized in Italy, but Spain lagged behind. Italy moved away from the solemn edicts about artistic representation put forth by the Council of Trent and toward what we now call the Dynamic Baroque (e.g., the art of Pietro da Cortona and Andrea Pozzo), which was art that instructs and delights the mind, emotions and senses. Spain was concerned with propriety and religious orthodoxy. Spain was also charged with the serious task of converting natives from the New World. Monasteries sprung up and men dedicated themselves to the quiet, solemn life. As we saw in last week’s post, sculpture represented and brought the presence, compassion, and suffering of Christ into Spanish streets and churches. Painting sought to emphasize the way Spaniards should act, emphasized the importance of hope and faith, and offered people an escape from the horrors of death and plague that eventually swept across the nation.
This week we’ll look at paintings by some of Baroque Spain’s greatest artists: Francisco Ribalta, Juesepe de Ribera, Francisco de Zurbaran, Diego Velazquez, and Bartolome Esteban Murillo.
Francisco RIBALTA (c. 1565-1627)
Francisco Ribalta is the oldest of the Spanish Baroque artists. He trained as an artist in Barcelona and eventually moved to Madrid, where he stayed for 17 years. Ribalta is considered the founder of Spanish Baroque painting. There were no original Caravaggios in Spain, yet Ribalta’s style is extremely Caravaggesque. He may have been influenced by Ribera or may have gone to Italy (there is one year in his life that historians can’t place him in Spain). Like Caravaggio, Ribalta painting intense devotional scenes.
One such scene is St. Francis Embracing the Crucified Christ, a popular devotional item in Spain that Ribalta painted in the 1620s. Spain has a long, tumultuous history with mysticism, but eventually mysticism became very popular. The ultimate goal of the mystic is union with the divine. Francis was a mystic and ascetic who is seen here contemplating Christ’s suffering. Christ appears to him in a vision and embraces him. At first glance, this painting seems rather calm, but it actually has a lot going on. Christ has placed his Crown of Thorns on Francis’ head, inviting Francis to partake in his sufferings. Angels are moving in with a much softer, gentler crown of flowers to place on Christ’s head. Take a close look at the painting and you’ll notice that Francis’ open mouth is literally on the wound in Christ’s side. This might be a reference to communion – Francis is literally drinking Christ’s blood as the command is in the Gospels. While embracing Christ and kissing his wound, Francis is also trampling a leopard wearing a crown – symbols of pride and vanity, which are spiritual killers. The war against pride and vanity is especially strong in St. Ignatius’ ever popular Spiritual Exercises. Even though the iconography of this painting is a supernatural event, Ribalta depicts it in earthly, physical terms.
Jusepe de RIBERA (1591-1652)
Ribera was caught between two worlds and two artistic styles. He spent most of his life in Italy, where he saw and was influenced by the works of Caravaggio, Correggio, and the dynamic Baroque. Naples was a leading center for Spanish intellectuals and artists – it was captured by Spain in 1240 and they maintained control over it until 1860. Until 1626, when Ribera went to Rome (he had gone to Rome several times previously), his art was strongly influenced by the Caravaggisti. After this trip, his art turned toward the Dynamic Baroque style. With the help of an enormous workshop, Ribera mostly painted mythological scenes and images of the grotesque, such as The Clubfoot Boy.
I read the following excerpt, written by Delphine Fitz Darby in a 1953 issue of the Art Bulletin, and after reading it, there is nothing that I say that would do justice to the Clubfoot Boy and Ribera’s ability to paint with power and conviction.
“… Ribera had the sort of personality that wins not friends but lovers, not rivals but enemies, and rarely leaves anyone cold. His works still hold the power of the living man. … I do not feel that he ‘rarely called upon his imagination,’ unless by imagination one means fantasy. How can a man unused to exercising his imaginative faculties have portrayed that ‘monstrous child,’ the boy with the clubfoot and the soldier’s heart, that source of the courage to stand unembarrassed, drawing your eyes to his eyes, away from his deformity, asking no puity but rousing wistful admiration? Here, on Velazquez’ ground, Ribera scores. You do not turn away, as from the Child of Vallecas, wondering how such incomparable skill came to be squandered upon such an unworthy object, for [Ribera] saw in his [Child] the touching heroism of the wretched.”
Francisco de ZURBARAN (1598-1664)
Zurbaran mostly painted religious works. He began his artistic career by training with a sculptor. While he was apprenticed, he painted sculptures. His paintings have a very mature, human, heavy quality to them. He was influenced by Montanes, who he knew, and whose Cristo de la Clemencia we saw in the first part of this series. He was also friends with Velazquez, and when Velazquez was trying to to be made a knight, Zurbaran testified on his behalf. Zurbaran finds his niche in monastic painting. Monastery paintings require an artist who is focused and can translate the spiritual into the visual. Zurbaran did this, and he quickly became Seville’s go-to monastery painter. Seville had a growing number of monasteries. To give you an example of the scale, in all Spain under Philip IV (r. 1621), there were 90,000 monks! Like other monastery painters, Zurbaran received commissions to decorate entire buildings. His art served the purpose of inspiring monks to a greater spiritual awareness. To accomplish such an important feat, Zurbaran and his workshop lived in the monastery they were painting for. In other words, he knew his audience. He knew monasteries’ affinities for quietness and godliness. They wanted art that speaks openly, clearly, that’s sober & chaste, without complicated aesthetic charm. Art was influenced by the monks’ monastic vows. An example of this quiet, aesthetic but not ostentatious art is Zurbaran’s 1628 St. Serapion. This piece was part of an enourmous commission: 22 paintings for the cloister of the monastary of the Mercedarians, who take vows of silence. Unfortunately, most of the paintings have been sold off and dispursed into the world. The Mercedarians were founded in 1249 by Spanish King Ferdinand III at the urging of Peter Nolasco. Nolasco becomes a saint a few centuries later in 1628, during the Christian reconquest of Spain. Nolasco and his followers’ purpose was to rescue Christians who had been kidnapped by Muslims and taken to North Africa, held for ransom. Seville was in Muslim hands until this militant religious order took it back in 1248. In triumph, they established a monastery to commemorate the event and dedicated the order to Our Lady of Mercy.
Nolasco’s recent canonization was the impetus for this commission.
St. Serapion lived in 13th century England, served in the Spanish army, and fought in the Reconquest of Spain. There are various stories about his death, but the one Zurbaran depicted is this: Serapion dies at hands of pirates in Scotland whom he was trying to convert. The pirates tied him to a tree, slit his throat, cut open his stomach, and pulled out his entrails. Gross, right? Yet Zurbaran didn’t depict the gore of the saint’s death. His robes are perfectly in tact and he looks as if he had simply fallen asleep with his hands tied up. Scenes of martyrdom were extremely popular in Spain. Heroic martyrs who suffer for Catholicism replicate Christ’s suffering. Why not graphically portray that suffering, the way Montanes or Fernandez would in sculpture, especially since Zurbaran trained with sculptors and valued realism? Perhaps because this painting was for a monastery, and monks desired simple, obvious, calm works of art to inspire their devotions. Zurbaran referenced St. Serapion’s violent death in a quiet manner by opening up his robes, a reference to his body being cut open. The peaceful quiet of death … When believers die, they enter into eternity and their souls are at rest, no longer battling the sins and injustices of the world. This particular painting hung in a morgue of sorts where monks would be laid to rest once they died. Instead of putting the sadness and gore of suffering and death on display, Zurbaran displayed what the faithful can aspire to: the afterlife. In this way, St. Serapion acts as a visual assurance of the rewards of suffering for Christ, of martyrdom, and of dedicating oneself to converting others to the Christian faith.
Diego VELAZQUEZ (1599-1660)
Velazquez was the Court Painter to Philip IV. His art was private to the court and courtesans, but he enjoyed great success and fame from Philip’s commissions. The Madrid court had a fascination with the grotesque and kept dwarfs at the court because they were considered to be evil. Velazquez painted a series of grotesque images. He also painted genre scenes, which are imbued with subtle spirituality. Velazquez’ most famous painting is Las Meninas, and it has endured a plethora of speculation by scholars since its creation. Velazquez’ biggest wish was to be inducted into the Order of Santiago, a militant religious order of knights. The Order had severe and rigorous requirements, and Philip IV called in several of Velazquez’ painter contemporaries and friends to testify on his behalf. Velazquez was allowed into the Order three years after Las Meninas was painted. Velazquez’ career was marked with masterpieces compelling viewers to examine themselves or the subject(s) of Velazquez’ paintings. Perhaps better than any other Spanish painter, Velazquez captured the emotion and personality of his subjects.
Velazquez’s Christ in the House of Mary & Martha (1618) depicts Mary & Martha’s story, told in Luke 10. This painting is quite interesting because Velazquez painted a normal foreground, but in that foreground there is a window, an alcove, a mirror, or perhaps even a separate painting, where Christ can be seen with Mary and Martha. This part of the painting only takes up a small portion and it is not the entire piece – our focus is divided between two scenes. In this small scene, Christ, wearing royal colors of blue and red, is speaking with two sisters, Mary and Martha. The figures are wearing archaic clothing in comparison to the more normal Spanish garb of the foreground figures. As Luke 10 describes, Christ and his followers had come over. Martha, the older sister, was left to do serving and housework alone because her younger sister Mary was captivated by Christ’s teachings and sat at his feet, listening. Martha complains to Christ, “Tell her to help me with the work!” He gently tells her that “Mary has done the right thing by listening.” This painting is a visual commentary on Luke 10, weighing the merit of the contemplative life over the active life.
Who is depicted in the foreground? Is it Mary & Martha, reflecting on their time with Christ? Or are the women meant to be normal Spanish women, contemplating the way they should act? Velazquez probably meant the women to be examples for modern day viewers, enabling them to place themselves into the scene and think about their own spiritual state. According to St. Augustine, the contemplative life a life better lived than the active life. In the 16th and 17th centuries, Protestants promoted this idea, while Catholics tended to promote the active life (good works, charity, and labor). Protestants denied that you needed good works for salvation because of grace. Why would Velazquez, painting in orthodox Spain, paint something with a Protestant message? Velazquez manipulated the focus on a contemplative life so that it has a Catholic interpretation. The young woman in the foreground, who for our purposes represents the contemplative life, looks discouraged. The older woman, representing the active life, is pointing at her in admonishment, pushing her to keep working. Velazquez used an elderly, possibly blind woman to represent alife of works. This is the same model that was painted in An Old Woman Frying Eggs, which this website examined in What is Art History? By using the same model in multiple paintings, Velazquez gives value to menial tasks and people despite their social rank. The fish on the table are signifiers of Christ, suggesting that the younger woman is being Christlike by desiring a thought-filled life, just as the old woman is being Christlike by constantly working. Through this painting, Velazquez places faith and works on the same level, which is an appropriate Catholic message. Catholics can be pious no matter if they choose to express their beliefs through monastic vows, missions, serving their community, or simply caring for their household and being good wives/mothers and husbands/fathers, which we’ll discuss below.
Bartolome Esteban MURILLO (1617-1682)
Bartolome Esteban Murillo was the baby of the Spanish Baroque painters. At the time of his birth in 1617, Velazquez was in Seville & became a master painter that year; Zurbaran was finishing up his apprenticeship; Ribalta had reached his artistic maturity; and Ribera was in Naples enjoying artistic success. Murillo was an unconventional painter and in a short time became more widely known and more influential than Velazquez, which was due to Velazquez’ role as a court artist. Velazquez’ works were only seen by royalty, not the public. Murillo’s works, on the other hand, were publicly accessible (in churches), and he was a prolific artist who painted around 500 paintings with the aid of a large workshop. Until the early 20th century, scholars considered him the most important Spanish Baroque artist.
The Holy Family with a Little Bird (c. 1650) was a popular scene in Baroque Spain. Murillo depicted the Holy Family pretty normally: they have a dog and a bird, Mary is busily spinning, and Joseph is identified as a carpenter via the carpenter’s bench. Baby Christ, whose blond hair makes him special since blonds were nonexistent in Spain, is teasing the family’s dog with a goldfinch (a reference to Christ’s Passion). Joseph is front & center with Jesus, watching over him, and Mary has been pushed to the back. This seems like a strange position for Mary, but it is specifically Spanish and was present in most Spanish Holy Family scenes. Early Spain was very devoted to Joseph, and glorified him as the embodiment of the perfect father. Still, it was revolutionary that Mary was depicted so far away from the center foreground of the painting. Another revolutionary change that Murillo made in this piece was that Joseph is portrayed as a young and energetic man, not an old man. This doesn’t seem too important, but it is, because it suggests that he and Mary remaining chaste until Christ’s birth is extremely impressive. After all, they’re both fairly young – this makes their chaste marriage even more admirable and miraculous. If Joseph was an old man, then of course he and Mary wouldn’t be intimate and he would be more open to adopting her child as his own. Catholic Spain specified Joseph’s age between 30 & 40. This painting displays Joseph as a young, invigorated father, carefully watching over his son while his wife quietly and happily watches them interact. By painting the Holy Family in such normal artistic language, Murillo made them accessible to the public – he made Mary and Joseph’s perfection, obtained by and through God, accessible to any normal Baroque Spanish parent who might so desire to be a better pious parent. Further, by the couple’s gaze being fixed on the young Christ, so too are viewers reminded to keep their eyes fixed on Christ and remember his Passion.
Each of these artists emphasized religious devotion on canvas in different ways. Ribalta was dramatic and dark, while Ribera embraced the Dynamic Baroque and emphasized internal goodness over external appearance. Zurbaran encouraged believers to take heart even in the face of death and inspired devotion in monks. Velazquez painted genre scenes with subtle spiritual lessons, such as the important of practicing both faith and works. Murillo reminded families to emulate the piety, perfection and harmony demonstrated by Joseph and Mary – and above all, to remember to look to Christ and consider his sufferings.
Next week we’ll look at the art of a Spanish Baroque artist whose fun, eerie, and exaggerated art removed him artistically from his peers, but made him an undeniable force in the art world … That artist is El Greco!