Beauty In The Banal: Spanish Still Life Painting

A reader recently contacted me regarding what she should try to look at, when she visits The Prado during a one-day stop in Madrid. Naturally I pointed out some must-see paintings in the museum’s collection, including “Las Meninas” by Velazquez, “The Descent from the Cross” by Rogier van der Weyden, etc. I also strongly urged her to seek out a genre of Spanish painting called a “bodegón”, which I think you will agree is particularly appropriate, now that we are entering harvest season, and the year begins to slide toward its close.

For our purposes, a bodegón refers to a type of picture that became particularly popular in Spain during the 17th and 18th centuries, and has continued to influence art in that country (and indeed around the world) up to the present. Spanish artists in this period tended to focus on simple, everyday food and domestic objects, displayed in a very stark, almost minimalist way. Usually the objects selected by the painter are shown resting on a rather plain surface in the foreground, usually a stone slab, while the background is just a black void. This creates an almost photo-realistic picture, centuries before the invention of photography.

An example by one of the greatest of these artists, Juan Sánchez Cotán, “Still Life with Game, Vegetables, and Fruit” (1602), is one which my traveling reader may end up viewing in Madrid. You can see how the incredibly realistic details of the fruit, vegetables, and birds are made all the more stark by placing them in a minimalist setting, with the end result that the pictures looks almost Surrealistic. I particularly love the detail of the lemons, and have a large reproduction of this portion of the painting hanging in my kitchen:

limones

One of the later masters of this genre was Luis Meléndez (1716-1780), as we can see in the example below from the MFA in Boston. “Still Life with Bread, Ham, Cheese, and Vegetables” (c. 1772) shows a large hunk of the famous cured Spanish ham known as “jamón serrano”, which is like prosciutto but better, resting in a bowl along with some herbs and vegetables. Surrounding it are: a ceramic pitcher holding a wooden spoon peeping out from under a pottery shard lid (a “tapa”) placed on top to keep the flies out of whatever is inside; a wedge of Manchego cheese; a selection of bread, garlic, and beefsteak tomatoes; etc. Far in the back, we can see the top of a bottle of wine. What’s particularly interesting about this composition is that you can go into a tapas bar today, and have essentially the same meal set out before you.

Melendez

The Spanish bodegón picture has several artistic relatives, particularly in Flemish and Dutch painting, as well as in Southern Italian painting. This is not a surprise, since these areas were, for many years, part of the Spanish Empire. However an often overlooked ancestor of all of these paintings comes from Ancient Rome.

Fresco painting in the early Roman Empire is usually divided into four periods, or styles, which sometimes overlap one another. The 3rd style often depicted a single object or a group of objects against a black or flat-colored background, often on a small scale, so that the effect was one of a painting hanging on a wall. The 4th style was more concerned with a return to a type of realism that had been present in the earlier, 2nd style, but still had characteristics of creating the illusion of small paintings. Here are three examples from a house in the city of Herculaneum, showing peaches, a metal roasting pan with garlic and figs, and so on.

Herculaneu

What separates Spanish still life painters from their ancient and contemporary fellow artists however, is their ability to turn a beautiful work of art into something even more profound than what one would imagine possible from a still life painting. Francisco de Zurbarán (1598-1664) is best known as a painter of religious subjects, such as his 13 life-sized paintings of Jacob and his 12 sons, which are currently visiting the Meadows Museum in Dallas, and will later be heading to The Frick in New York. [N.B. And oh yes, I do plan to go to New York in January to see them – more anon.] However he also produced some lovely bodegón paintings, such as this one, which my reader might also see at The Prado.

Yet without question, the greatest bodegón ever painted by Zurbarán was one which is also in The Prado. Unlike the many still life images of foods and kitchen objects, I specifically told my reader to seek this one out. While it bears all the hallmarks of a Spanish still life painting – the stark setting, the detailed observation of the object, the black background, the borderline surrealism – if you’re a Christian, you’ll realize that it represents something much more than a tour de force of painterly skill.

agnus

Simply titled, “Agnus Dei”, this picture was painted sometime between 1635-1640. It shows an unblemished, male lamb, its feet bound, resting on a slab and ready to be sacrificed. It does not struggle, but patiently awaits its fate. It represents, in paint, the sacrifice of Christ’s death on the Cross, and also the hymn sung by Catholics the world over during the Mass, before receiving Holy Communion: “Agnus Dei, qui tollis peccata mundi, miserere nobis” (Lamb of God, Who takes away the sins of the world, have mercy on us).

While the “Angus Dei” is in a class by itself, fortunately for my American readers, many museums around the U.S. have Spanish bodegón paintings that are worth seeking out, even if you can’t make it to see the best in The Prado. I think you’ll find yourself not only mesmerized by the incredible skill involved in creating these pictures, but you’ll also come to appreciate how there is symbolism to be read into all of them. Though none are as overtly spiritual as the “Agnus Dei”, all of them do give us an excuse to pause, to reflect, and to think, particularly on the gift of life that we have been given, and what we ought to be doing with it.

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4 thoughts on “Beauty In The Banal: Spanish Still Life Painting

  1. I LOVE that Agnus Dei, and got a postcard of it when I last saw it at the Prado. So amazing. Also, yes, jamon serrano is SO MUCH better than prosciutto. (LOL)

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