By the early 1650s, the reputation of Bartolomé Esteban Murillo (1617–1682) had surpassed that of the great Zurbarán, at least in Seville. So far, though, Murillo had concentrated on standard religious works, and had not developed a particularly distinctive individual style.
Murillo made several fine paintings of one of the most popular of Catholic religious works, showing the Virgin Mary with the infant Jesus. Perhaps not his best-known, my favourite of these is his Virgin and Child with a Rosary from about 1650-55, when his backgrounds remained very dark.
He follows the lead set a century earlier by the likes of Raphael in portraying the mother and child as very earthly and almost contemporary figures, helping mothers and their families identify with them, and avoiding anything which might have run contrary to the Counter-Reformation. This is augmented by his inclusion of an anachronistic rosary, a gentle nudge to viewers to carry and use theirs.
As is traditional, Mary’s clothing adds brilliant colour, and he renders the fabrics particularly well.
Commissioned by the saint’s home church, the cathedral in Seville, Murillo painted his magnificant portrait of Saint Isidore of Seville in 1655. Isidore is accepted as being the last of the Fathers of the Church, and the last real scholar of the ancient world. Born in about 560 CE, he succeeded Saint Leander of Seville as Bishop of Seville in 600 or 601, became Archbishop in about 604, and remained in post until his death in 636.
Among his many achievements is the compilation of the first Christian encyclopedia, in the 448 chapters of his Etymologiae. This summarised and preserved much of the Roman learning which had survived into Late Antiquity. He also compiled histories, and a book on astronomy and natural history.
Murillo shows him with his best-known attributes, his books, but a little surprisingly omits any reference to his most distinctive, a swarm of bees or beehive. Isidore is now officially the patron saint of the internet, computer users, technicians, and programmers.
Adoration of the Magi (1655-60) is another standard set-piece for the religious painter, showing the visit of the three Magi to pay homage and present gifts to the newborn Jesus.
Murillo’s version captures the essentials – the Magi and holy family – in a close-cropped composition which focusses attention on the infant, and the directed gazes of those around. This prevents distraction by extraneous details, but those that he provides are a delight. The two children at the left edge are wonderfully real, and he provides a narrative cue in the star at the upper left, which brought the Magi to Bethlehem.
Murillo continued to develop his secular works too, in domestic genre scenes with their emphasis on the figures and characters rather than their surroundings. Two Women at a Window from about 1655-60 shows the pair looking intently at something out in the street. The older woman discreetly covers her laughter with her veil, a manner of those brought up in the upper classes, but the younger woman smiles with an open face. Murillo not only follows a more northern trend towards this type of genre painting, but makes it almost a trompe l’oeil.
The viewer is left to speculate who they are. Is this a young woman from a good family, in the company of her nurse/maid/chaperone? Although it seems unlikely, it is always possible that their relationship could have been that of employment, one possible theme of the next painting.
Four Figures on a Step (c 1655–60) is probably Murillo’s finest and most enigmatic secular work, and quite revolutionary for its time. It shows four disparate characters from the street life of Seville, and encourages the viewer to speculate on their lives and relationships.
At the left is a youth dressed quite snappily, leaning forward on his knee and looking straight at the viewer, a broad smile on his face. Behind him is a slightly older but still young woman, who is restraining the youth by his left shoulder. Her face is twisted in a grimace, which could be an attempt to wink with her right eye, but may represent a more lasting facial palsy (then commonly the result of birth trauma, injury, or disease). She is more plainly dressed, her left hand twisting her headscarf/veil free of her face.
At the right is an older woman, who is wearing prominent pince-nez spectacles which look out of place. She too is plainly dressed, and sits with the head of a young boy on her lap. Her hands rest on his hair, as if checking it for nits and lice. The young boy wears the rough and tattered clothing of an urchin, the seat of his trousers torn open to reveal his buttock. His face is concealed, but the soles of his shoes do not appear to be in a poor or worn state.
The young woman’s raised scarf is an old sign of marital fidelity, but if she is trying to wink, that could easily signal the opposite instead. The older woman is even harder to read: with her spectacles and the position of her hands, she could just be checking the boy’s hair. Others have considered that her spectacles and scarf refer to the celestina figure of Spanish literature, making her a procuress, presumably for the young woman.
The boy’s exposed buttock has caused this painting some problems, and it has been painted over on more than one occasion in the past. All overpainting has now been removed, and this work appears as was intended by the artist.
Jacob’s Dream, from 1660-65, is one of Murillo’s paintings of an Old Testament narrative, based on the book of Genesis, chapter 28, verses 10-19. Jacob went to sleep one night when he was travelling, and dreamed that a ladder had been set up, stretching from earth to heaven. Angels were ascending and descending the ladder. God spoke to him in the dream, telling him that the land on which Jacob was sleeping would be given by God to Jacob and his descendants. Jacob then named the place Bethel, and in the future it did become part of the land of the Israelites.
Murillo follows convention in showing the story as described in the Bible, with winged angels ascending and descending a ladder. For comparison, the image below shows Salvator Rosa’s account, painted at almost exactly the same time.
Murillo’s second version of another Old Testament narrative, Joseph and Potiphar’s Wife from the 1660s, contrasts markedly with his previous painting from 1640-45, shown below. The later work uses the same basic scene and composition, but Joseph is shown in a more dramatic gesture as he is trying to flee from the predatory wife of his employer.
She is shown almost naked, bared down to the waist and her left leg exposed right up the thigh. She has also gained a small dog, which emerges from a pile of clothing and cushions beside the bed. The constraints of the Counter-Reformation appear to have been easing, and maybe Murillo had become more confident in depicting the nude figure. There is now no need for more subtle messages passed by fabric contrasts: the viewer can plainly see ‘what type of woman’ Potiphar’s wife is intended to be.
The next article will look at Murillo’s later paintings.