Proud Parents: A Family Snapshot from 17th Century Spain

Earlier this week Gerald Grosvenor, the 6th Duke of Westminster, died suddenly at the age of 64. One of the wealthiest people in the world, the Duke owned much of Mayfair and Belgravia, two of the best neighborhoods in London. Under the British system of taxation his son and heir, who will presumably become the 7th Duke, will be faced with an enormous bill for his inheritance, often referred to colloquially as “Death Duties”.

While I don’t pretend to understand why and how the British tax things as they do – such as having a license for a television set, which will cost you almost $200 a year for one color TV – I do know that in Britain when the wealthy and/or titled die, their heirs often have to sell off some of the art and antiques from the family home in order to pay their taxes, or give such things to the government in lieu of paying said taxes. In fact, many of the objects currently in UK museums found their way there because of this tax system.

In the case of the Grosvenors, the family has been collecting art for quite a long time, and as The Art Newspaper points out, there are some major Old Master paintings in their collection, including works by Gainsborough, Claude, and Stubbs. There is no suggestion that any of these works will be headed to the auction house or National Gallery in London any time soon. However one painting in the collection that I would like to draw your attention to is by my favorite Spanish Old Master painter, Velázquez. It is not a very well-known painting, but its subject will be familiar to anyone who has studied art history.

Prince Baltasar Carlos (1629-1646) was the only son of the Habsburg King Felipe IV of Spain and his 1st wife, Queen Elisabeth de Bourbon, the daughter of King Henry IV of France and his wife, Queen Marie de’ Medici. As such, he represented the union of some of the most important families in European history. He also represented the imperial hopes of many in his country since, although its star had begun to fade, at the time Spain was still the most powerful empire in the world.

Sadly, those hopes were dashed when the Prince caught smallpox while attending a memorial service for his late mother, and died without issue at the age of 17. Felipe IV would marry again and have more children, and one of his sons would survive to be crowned King Carlos II. However the impotence of Baltasar Carlos’ half-brother would mark the end of the Habsburg rule of Spain, which in turn accelerated the decline of the Spanish Empire.

Despite his relatively short life, Baltasar Carlos had a profound impact on the history of art, not because of his own patronage, but because of that of his father. The portraits of the Prince which the King ordered from Velázquez, in particular, have been popular for centuries now. Their compositions have influenced portrait painters and photographers right up to today. 

The skill of the artist in lending a regal, dignified quality to images of a young boy was no small feat, but he tied his artistry in perfectly with the family’s ambitions. Two famous examples of this are in The Prado, showing the Prince in hunting attire accompanied by his favorite dogs, and another of him riding a galloping pony, represent Habsburg dynastic propaganda at its finest. However there is another, more informal portrait of the prince that many are completely unaware of, since it has been in the collection of the Dukes of Westminster for the past two centuries.

The Velázquez belonging to the Grosvenors is known by various titles, but it is often referred to as “Prince Baltasar Carlos in the Riding School”. It was painted in around 1635, and shows the young Prince on horseback at the Retiro Palace in Madrid. In the background, we see his parents standing on a balcony, watching their son’s riding lesson, while in the middle ground we see his father’s Prime Minister, the Conde-Duque de Olivares, standing with other courtiers. Although the Retiro Palace itself no longer exists, those of my readers who have been to Madrid will immediately recognize not only the very Castilian architectural style of the building shown in the painting, but also the towering clouds and big skies that characterize this part of Spain.

This is not a great work by Velázquez, and there is some scholarly dispute over exactly how much of it (if any) he himself actually painted, and how much was painted by his assistants. And yet in its way, I find this is a very charming picture. It adds to the mental image that one can shape of life at that time, and further humanizes a family which we already know from the many formal images that they had painted of themselves.

The Westminster painting is a snapshot of family life at court, almost like seeing parents seated in the bleachers, watching their son come up to bat at baseball practice. It evokes those feelings of pride which all parents have, when watching their children grow and play. At the same time, the piece perfectly captures the skies that are so particular to Madrid, with the idiosyncratic, Austro-Moorish towers and rooflines that still dot the old part of the city. The combination makes it more interesting, and more unusual, than many other, more formal pieces from this period, which are so often set indoors against plain backdrops.

Whatever their tax bill, one hopes that the Grosvenors will be able to hold on to this rather unique, pleasing work of art.

The Immaculate Conception in Art: Decidedly Spanish

Today is the Feast of the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary, a Holy Day of Obligation for Catholics around the world to attend mass. For those among my readers who are either unaware or uncertain of what the term “Immaculate Conception” refers to, it does not refer to the conception of Jesus but rather of the Virgin Mary in the womb of her mother St. Anne, and the teaching that she was conceived without the stain of Original Sin. Those interested in reading more about this will find an overview of this dogma in the Catechism of the Catholic Church.

Because of the teaching power of imagery employed by both the Western and Eastern Churches, certain events and aspects of Christianity have been portrayed over the centuries in art at all levels, from high to popular. At this time of year for example, we see images of the events surrounding the Birth of Jesus in Christmas cards, Nativity scenes, ornaments, and so on, because artistic minds have taken the stories contained in St. Luke and St. Matthew’s writings and put them into a plastic form. For example, take a look at this very early depiction of the Adoration of the Magi from around 250 A.D., with the three wise men approaching the Child Jesus seated on the lap of the Virgin Mary, with (presumably) St. Joseph standing behind and the Star of Bethlehem overhead.

For Catholics however, because the Immaculate Conception deals with a theological concept, it was for many centuries difficult or impossible to represent in art. If asked to think up an image of the subject today, most Catholics who paid attention in school and attended mass regularly would think of a young woman, standing on a crescent moon, with stars around her head and perhaps some clouds and attendant angels. What most would not know is that the establishment of this iconography is largely due to the significant influence of Spanish art, and in particular to the teachings of Francisco Pacheco.

If he is remembered at all by armchair art historians today, Pacheco (1564-1644) is probably best known as the teacher and the father-in-law of the greatest of all Spanish painters, Diego Velázquez. Pacheco was not a particularly accomplished painter, it must be said. In this respect he is not unlike Giorgio Vasari, whose seminal “Lives of the Artists” has had a far greater impact on the history of Western culture than anything he happened to paint. Yet Pacheco’s writings on the portrayal of Christian themes, persons, and events have had a profound and lasting impact on our visualization of subjects such as the Immaculate Conception.

Pacheco took his inspiration for the iconography of the Immaculate Conception from the description contained in St. John’s Book of the Apocalypse, a.k.a Revelation: “A great sign appeared in the sky, a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars,” (Revelation, 12:1-2). In his highly influential treatise “The Art of Painting”, collected together and published after his death in 1649, Pacheco wrote that in images of the Immaculate Conception the artist would be best served by following certain guidelines:

Our Lady should be painted as a beautiful young girl, 12 or 13 years old, in the flower of her youth. She should be painted wearing a white tunic and a blue mantle. She is surrounded by the sun, an oval sun of white and ochre, which sweetly blends into the sky. Rays of light emanate from her head, around which is a ring of twelve stars. An imperial crown adorns her head, without, however, hiding the stars. Under her feet is the moon.

Pacheco’s instructions on this subject were followed – sometimes to the letter, sometimes with alterations – by generations of Spanish artists, including not only Pacheco himself but his son-in-law Velázquez, as well as the great Spanish Baroque painter Murillo, among others. Indeed, last year on this same Feast of the Immaculate Conception I wrote on the interesting history of the painting of the Immaculate Conception created by Murillo for the retired priests’ home in Seville, which was stolen by Napoleon’s troops. The imagery quickly spread to artists working in the Spanish colonies, naturally enough, since in Pacheco’s day his city of Seville was the primary port for goods traveling to and from the colonies in the Americas.

Over time, the depiction of the imperial crown was often eliminated by subsequent artists. This was probably due to a closer reading of the text, which notes that the Woman was crowned with stars, not wearing a crown AND being crowned with stars. In addition, Mary was usually aged to something more like a young woman in her late teens rather than a twelve-year-old. This aging strikes me as somewhat unusual, since there are a number of popular depictions of Jesus as a child in Spanish devotional art, such as the Niño de Atocha or indeed the Infant Jesus of Prague – which many Catholics probably do not realize is a Spanish statue, not a Czech one.

So it is that down to today, if you were to go to your local Catholic bookstore and ask for a prayer card depicting the Immaculate Conception, chances are you would receive something close to the image described above by Pacheco. He along with the other Spanish artists who followed his advice, and the artists around the world who subsequently followed their example, have had a profound influence on Catholics. Pacheco has helped us to grasp, albeit in a tiny and imperfect way, this great mystery of the faith through a careful consideration of both scripture and Church teaching, brought together into a visual art form.

The Immaculate Conception by Francisco Pacheco (c. 1621)
Episcopal Palace of the Archdiocese of Seville

>The Holy Cross: Thoughts on Two Images

>Because Catholics are so accustomed to seeing the cross or the crucifix in our churches and (hopefully) in our homes and on our person, sometimes we do not stop to think of the power of the image of Christ Crucified. Today is the Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross, commemorating the discovery of the True Cross by the Empress St. Helena in Jerusalem in 326 A.D. It is a good occasion to stop and reflect on the cross, and think about not only its meaning, but also where we might see it on a daily or regular basis and never consider how shocking a symbol it was in the early days of the Church.

This weekend I wrote a blog piece on my other blog, Catholic Barcelona, about the Hermitage of the Holy Cross, a very ancient chapel dating from Carolingian times, which at 12:30 pm today will hold the celebration of the mass for the first time in many years. It is one of the oldest standing structures in the city, parts of which are believed to date from at least 800-900 A.D., meaning that the local people have been reflecting on the Cross of Christ on the spot for well over 1000 years. Although the original image of the cross which was venerated at the site is long gone, there are other, equally compelling images of Christ’s suffering located in the city. These include the crucified Christ from the Battle of Lepanto, located inside Barcelona’s Cathedral dedicated to the Holy Cross, and also the Majestat Batlló, a magnificent Romanesque polychrome sculpture of Christ on the cross now in the National Museum of Catalan Art.

Throughout the Iberian Peninsula images of the crucified Christ are very prevalent. There is something in the character of the people that draws them to images of Christ’s suffering and death in ways which, artistically, differ considerably from the inhabitants of the Apennine Peninsula. Admittedly it is far too easy to make sweeping generalizations, but consideration of two different, yet in some respects related, images from Spain and Italy may be helpful in this regard.

Here in the National Gallery of Art in Washington, one can view an altarpiece of the Crucifixion dating from 1485 by Pietro Perugino, a talented and prolific, but sometimes formulaic Umbrian painter perhaps more famous as the teacher of Raphael. This is a very calm image of the suffering of Jesus on the cross: it is not a particularly bloody image, to begin with, and Christ with His thin, lithe figure seems more like an idealized young nobleman of leisure than a working man from Galilee. Similarly, the elongated and graceful accompanying figures of the Blessed Virgin, St. John, St. Jerome and St. Mary Magdalen all appear to be reflective, in keeping with the gorgeous landscape in the background. In its definite note of quiet contemplation, it draws us in to think about what we are seeing, but in a languid, almost dispassionate way.

In the Prado Museum in Madrid however, hangs probably my favorite image of Christ, a copy of which I keep on my desk. The “Christ Crucified” of Diego Velázquez, which dates from 1632, has come to be more familiarly called the “Cristo de Velázquez” or “Christ of Velázquez”, as it has reached iconic status within Spain. I remember visiting the Prado for the first time a number of years ago and being disappointed that, at least on that visit, it was hung on a somewhat out-of-the-way wall, instead of in the center of one of the many salons in the museum. I was also very surprised to realize that the background of the picture is not, as I had assumed, either black or a sort of washed charcoal gray, but rather a velvety dark green, so dark as to usually appear black in reproductions of the image.

The Jesus we see in the Christ of Velázquez has been beaten, suffered, and died. His hair is matted and soaked with blood and sweat, crushed down by the crown of thorns. Only the glow of celestial light around His head tells us that hope is not lost. Velázquez’ Jesus is graceful, but still a working man and not the almost dancer-like figure we see in Perugino’s image.

This difference, among others, has to do with several points, of course: we are, first and foremost, dealing with the work of two different artists, who worked in two different centuries, in two different locations. The Spaniard is working in the Baroque era, and the Italian in the Renaissance more than a century earlier. Aesthetics were very different indeed, between these two periods. The former is creating a minimalist image, focusing solely on Christ, while the latter is creating a sort of universe in miniature.

Moreover, the Church had changed dramatically in the time between these two images. While Perugino was painting his altarpiece, Martin Luther was only 2 years old. At the time Velázquez painted his work, the Council of Trent had already been concluded one hundred years earlier, and the Thirty Years’ War between Catholic and Protestant Europe was about halfway over. Thus while Perugino presents us with a sort of pretty tableau of a scene which might be considered bucolic but for the image at the center of it, Velázquez gives our eye nowhere to wander. Christ is front and center in both images, but in the Spanish image He is all we are supposed to be thinking about. Both are highly of their times.

This is not to disparage the wonderfully peaceful work of Perugino, by any means. Like Fra Angelico for example, Perugino creates an atmosphere of calmness and tranquility which no doubt was a great source of inspiration and contemplation for the patrons who commissioned this altarpiece. The Velázquez image is of a very different time of more widespread violence, when conditions for the Church were far more dire. He created this painting using a back-to-basics attitude prevalent among many artists of his day, inspired by the drama and minimalism of Caravaggio.

Both paintings provide us with different ways of thinking about Christ and his Holy Cross, and the one preferred by the reader, if either, is a matter of personal taste. As we remember St. Helena’s great finding and rejoicing over the True Cross today, we should also reflect that it is not the object she discovered itself which is important. Our faith as Christians does not depend upon the existence of objects. Rather, her discovery should draw us into reflection on the cross of Christ, and how perhaps we can discover how best to pick up our own cross and follow Christ as He suffers with His, in order to draw closer to Him.

Christ Crucified by Diego Velázquez (1632)
Museo del Prado, Madrid