The Flight into Egypt and The Nativity
Juan Sanchez, the Younger (formerly, Master of the Large Figures)
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Enjoy this series of segments highlighting Picture Books of the Past: Reading Old Master Paintings, a loan exhibition of 60+ works from the M&G collection. The exhibit has traveled to The Museum of the Bible in Washington, D. C. and the Orlando Museum of Art in Florida.
Did you ever wonder why Old Master portraits of St. John the Baptist include an elegant red drape over his traditional animal skin garment? View the video to explore this question.
Oil on canvas
While Italian Renaissance artists benefited from a mutual sharing of progressive artistic advancements, Spanish artists remained deeply provincial until the Baroque age. Jusepe de Ribera spent his career in the Spanish-controlled kingdom of Naples where he adopted the naturalism of Caravaggio. Ribera’s works, imported from Naples to Spain, brought to other Spanish artists the lighting effects of Caravaggio, the most influential Italian painter of the 17th century. In addition, viceroys brought both originals by Caravaggio and copies back to Spain. Caravaggio’s dramatically deep chiaroscuro (the effect of light and shade) and rugged realism (portraying as accurately as possible the natural world) are evident in this work by Ribera.
When looking at religious art, it is best to begin with the source of the work. In this case it is the Biblical accounts of the burial of Christ which are detailed in all four of the Gospels and reveal the cast of characters present in the painting (Matthew 27, Mark 15, Luke 23, and John 19). After His sacrificial death on the cross, Christ was hastily buried because of the imminent start of the Sabbath celebration. Joseph of Arimathea, a just man who had voted against the action of the Sanhedrin to put Christ to death; Nicodemus, another member of the Sanhedrin who had sought out Jesus by night to inquire how one could enter the kingdom of heaven; and Mary Magdalene, a wealthy follower of Christ who had seven devils cast out of her, are all mentioned as being present at the tomb. Other women are mentioned as well, but John the disciple and Mary, Christ’s mother are not mentioned in the Gospels as attending, but Ribera chooses to adhere to tradition and include them both.
So, who is who? Traditional iconography would dictate that John is the young man in the back right who is wiping away his tears. Joseph would be the older man in the forefront with the red cloak; he is, after all, a wealthy man who has donated his new tomb for the Savior. That leaves Nicodemus as the older man at the head of Christ. Because of the long, free blonde hair, Mary Magdalene is in the center with Mary the mother of Christ in the shadows.
Though Christ’s body is pallid and remarkably whole given the scourging and the crowning of His head with thorns, the open wound in His side signifies Christ’s personal cost for man’s salvation from sin, which He purchased for all. Bringing forth blood and water, the soldier’s action revealed the emptying of life that sustained Christ until the payment of man’s sin was complete. Ribera places the body on a stone surface, likely the burial table in the tomb, which has a sharply defined corner. This compositional detail reflects the words of the Apostle Peter, referencing the Psalmist David and the prophet Isaiah who characterize the coming Messiah as a “rejected” stone of “stumbling and a rock of offense” which has become the “cornerstone.” A cornerstone sets the stability of the entire building, and the reader is told that “whoever believes in him will not be put to shame” (I Peter 2:6-8). Clearly, the kingdom of God is set upon the foundation of the death of Jesus Christ.
Ironically, however, at His death and burial, no one believed He would rise again. The incredulity of the disciples when the women reported the angel’s words at the empty tomb reveals that they did not understand the teaching of Jesus that He “must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised” (Luke 9:21). But anyone who does understand that saying, including the multitude of Christ’s followers in the days following the resurrection, can be assured that he or she will not be disappointed in believing and accepting the death of the sinless Christ to pay for their own sins.
What is interesting about Ribera’s composition of the Entombment is the placement of the two women. Mary the mother of Christ is no longer the prominent woman; she is nearly hidden in the shadows while Mary Magdalene is in the foreground mourning Christ with clasped hands and downcast eyes.
Given the controversies associated with the Magdalene, it is important to focus on what the Scriptures tell about her:
Ribera’s reversal of prominence may reflect the truth that at Christ’s death, His relationship to His mother ended. As the eldest son, now unable to care for His mother any longer, He transferred Mary to John’s care. But the prominence of Mary Magdalene in the central foreground of the group of followers mirrors the tender truth of a Luke 7 parable told by Jesus about a moneylender who forgave a large and small debt of two men as an illustration about another woman only identified as “a sinner” (likely a woman of loose morals). Although Magdalene is not this woman, her life attests to the same love that the “sinner” had for her Lord. Christ explains that the unnamed woman is like the man with the greater debt. Her “sins, which are many, are forgiven—for she loved much. But he who is forgiven little, loves little.” The Magdalene had not one, but seven, devils cast out of her; there is no telling the damaging physical effects of her demon-possession. And though the demons were aware of Christ’s identity as the Messiah, they certainly would have kept their victim from realizing and accepting that truth for herself. The Magdalene of Ribera’s focus had much to be thankful for, and her dedication to the service of both the living and dead Christ reveals the depth of that love.
At the tomb early that Easter morning, Mary Magdalene and her companions were told that Christ was risen and instructed to tell the disciples. What a privilege to share that good news! But Mary was more than a messenger. Christ appeared to hundreds of His disciples in the days after His resurrection, but Mark relates, “Now when He rose early on the first day of the week, He appeared first to Mary Magdalene, from whom He had cast out seven demons” (16:9). Given her love for Christ as evidenced by her eagerness to prepare His body properly for burial, it is no accident that she is the first to see the risen Christ whom she worships immediately, clasping His nail-pierced feet—the physical manifestation of Christ’s power to defeat death, her demons, and save her eternal soul.
Ribera’s composition places the viewer within the circle of mourners around the dead Christ with nothing in the composition to separate the viewer from the body itself. Thus, we are made to react as if we were within the frame. Do we see ourselves as sinners, loving Christ dearly, but devasted at His death, demoralized by the apparent emptiness of His promises of the kingdom of God and the forgiveness of sins? Will we, like Mary Magdalene, recognize our Savior and hear Him say that He is “ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God” (John 20:17)? We will, if this Easter, we believe the Gospel accounts of the Christ whom Mary followed faithfully.
Karen Rowe Jones, M&G board member
Polychrome and giltwood
The obsessive attention to realistic detail and heightened emotion that characterized many 17th-century paintings is also evident in this dramatic polychrome sculpture. The adjective polychrome (meaning “many colored”) refers to the color on the wood which enhances the figure’s lifelikeness. Although this technique can be traced back to the Greeks and Romans, it became particularly popular during the Renaissance. Spanish sculptors who preferred wood to stone became especially adept at using the technique, often adding “gilding and brilliantly imaginative lusters.”
Jerome, the subject of this work, was born in the fourth century in the small town of Stridon (located in the Balkans today). Initially schooled by his father, he later traveled to Rome where he became proficient in Latin and Greek and excelled in oratory. His later biographical writings lament that this early success encouraged in him an overweening pride and ambition. He continued his education in Trier, a German city on the banks of the Moselle river. It was here that his Christian conscience was reawakened, and as one source notes, “his heart was entirely converted to God.” However, by his own admission his competitive nature and “rambling imagination” continued to trouble him throughout life. He lived in the desert of Chalcis for several years but eventually returned to Rome in 382 to become special secretary to Pope Damasus I. It was Damasus who assigned him the task of creating a revised Latin version of the Bible. The Vulgate, as it is known, was completed in 405. Jerome eventually retired to a monastery in Bethlehem where he died in 420.
As is typical of the era the creator of this work uses numerous attributes to identify the figure and to illustrate his story. For example, the books stacked on the rock and supporting the aged Jerome represent his writings (most notably the Vulgate but also his other letters and theological treatises). The skull resting atop two of the books signifies the transience of life or natural death; notice however, that Jerome is turning away from “death” to gaze heavenward–the source of new, eternal life. The brilliant red cloak “embroidered” with fleur de lis seems rather out of place in the wilderness setting. However, in this context it represents Jerome’s office as a cardinal. Although, the position of cardinal did not exist in the early centuries of the church, ecclesiastics of Rome, like Jerome, held the duties that later fell to cardinals.
One other imaginative story connected to Jerome and recorded in The Golden Legend occurs during his retirement in Bethlehem. According to this story, as the monks were going about their daily routine, a wounded lion suddenly appeared. All fled but Jerome. Examining the beast, he discovered and removed a thorn that was deeply embedded in its paw. In gratitude the lion became Jerome’s constant companion and protector of the monastery. This beautifully carved attribute “rounds out” the base of the sculpture.
Donnalynn Hess, M&G Director of Education
Published in 2020
Polychromed and gilt wood
Although the title Watchers and Soldiers from a Crucifixion Group seems insipid at first read, these two small polychromed and giltwood sculptures provide fascinating insights into an architectural style and installation of extreme magnitude. During the reign of Ferdinand and Isabella, the Spanish monarchs who commissioned Columbus’ 1492 voyage to the Americas, the Isabelline style of architecture was developed. Born in France and trained in Flanders, Juan Guas settled in Toledo to establish his business. He is considered one of Spain’s finest architects and one of the key originators of the Isabelline style, which combines a Flemish-Gothic influence with Mudéjar (Spanish-Muslim) ornamentation. His design influence is represented in the monumental edifices at the San Juan de los Reyes and El Paular monasteries.
M&G’s two figural groups date to the second half of the 15th century and according to William Holmes Forsyth, the late curator emeritus of medieval art at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, “They are from a retable or retablo of Spanish origin, but southern Netherlandish in inspiration.” Beatrice Gilman Proske, the former research curator of sculpture at the Hispanic Society of New York who authored the catalog for the famed outdoor sculptures of Brookgreen Gardens, noted that they are Flemish. It is not then a stretch of scholarship to assume that these two sculptures measuring 32” high by approximately 15” wide, would have commanded a prominent place flanking the carved crucifixion of Christ, a common focal point in many retables from the Low Countries of the time. The Carved Retable of the Passion of Christ, part of the collection at the National Gallery of Victoria in Melbourne, Australia, presents a prime example.
At the base of each carving’s scene amidst the jagged rock are bones resembling those from the lower torso and limbs of the human body. These skeletal remains add a sobering reminder that Roman crucifixion included the breaking of the leg bones in order to hasten the impending death. Moreover, the crucifixion of Jesus, as noted by all three synoptic Gospels, occurred on Golgotha or “the place of the skull.”
Positioned on these rocky formations, the Soldiers are each individualized by gaze and weaponry and robed in medieval armor and Moorish headdress, hinting at the Mudéjar influence. The sculptor clearly draws our attention to the only soldier gesturing and glancing upward, perhaps depicting the centurion cited in the Gospels of Matthew, Mark and John. Church history, tradition, and pseudepigrapha all ascribe the name of Longinus to this legionnaire, but Scripture allows him to remain anonymous, recording for all time only his striking statements, “Truly this was the Son of God” (Matthew 27:54) and “Certainly this was a righteous man.” (Luke 23:47)
Unlike the soldiers, the Watchers from a Crucifixion Group can be decoded from Bible references, religious iconography, and an abundance of artistic renderings of those who attended Christ’s crucifixion. The repertoire is rich as set forth in examples such as El Greco’s Crucifixion, and Jan Van Eyck’s.
At center front Mary, the mother of Jesus, robed in blue (alluding to heaven, truth, and mourning) and white (for purity and innocence) is comforted by the obviously young apostle John draped in red (for love). On either side of him stand the two Marys, clearly identified in the crucifixion passage in John’s gospel as Mary the wife of Cleophas, and Mary Magdalene (recognized by her long hair as a penitent saint). In the background, towering above the rest of the group, is most likely Joseph of Arimathea, who provided the burial tomb for Christ; he is presented as elderly and robed in the costly garments of the rich. The sculptor carved this individual with an intriguing gesture. With his right index finger raised to his temple, perhaps Joseph is recalling the Scriptures he memorized while serving as a Sanhedrin senator attesting to the deity of Jesus, the Christ.
Bonnie Merkle, Docent and M&G Databases Manager
Published in 2019
Spanish, mid 15th century
A chair, from the English chaere or Latin cathedra, is one of the most common pieces of furniture and easily identified in its simplest form by its parts—back, seat, arms and legs. The chair’s specific purpose can be discerned by more descriptive names such as recliner, wheelchair, throne, etc. Of course, the person “who takes a seat” can further outline the chair’s scope such as the Queen of England positioned in The Chair in the House of Commons to open a new session of Parliament, a ruling monarch seated on a throne to make a solemn declaration, or a bishop (such as the Pope, known as the Bishop of Rome) adopting a position in a cathedra or cathedrae apostolorum (as it occurs in early church writings) to teach with apostolic authority.
The Museum & Gallery’s furniture collection from the fourteenth to sixteenth centuries is known as the most extensive representation in America and includes several types of ecclesiastical chairs, four of which are cathedrae. Each of the four has interesting designs and carvings, but the oldest in the collection possesses by far the most intriguing and traceable features.
Gazing from the back panel of the Cathedra is a sculpted female figure representing St. Lucy, one of the most venerated female saints in martyrology and mentioned in the Catholic mass itself. She holds two objects: a palm frond, symbolic of victory in death and a platter with eyes, her most common and legendary attribute.
Just under the seat panel is a misericord. Since many of the medieval and early Renaissance ceremonial prayers were uttered in a standing position, the misericord acted as a place to “rest” or lean on during the long ceremony thereby allowing the bishop to obtain a type of “mercy.”
This Spanish Cathedra dates with certainty to the 1400s due mostly to the identifiable coat of arms of Bishop Alonso de Burgos, born in 1415 in Burgos, Spain, the capital of Old Castile. The galero or pilgrim’s hat and tassels were common elements of the crest of a bishop, with the center shield denoting a particular symbol of heritage or character, in this case a lily in the stylized form of a fleur-de-lis, which is a symbol of purity. Alonso’s influence as a bishop was widespread as he served in the central Spain dioceses of Cordoba, Cuenca, and Palencia. Ordained as a Dominican monk at an early age, Alonso so earnestly and diligently applied himself to his vocation as a Catholic clergyman that he was readily noticed and subsequently assigned as confessor by the renowned Catholic Monarchs, a collective term for Spanish King Ferdinand II and Queen Isabella I, under whose banner Columbus sailed.
Beyond being instrumental in the financing of some of the voyages of the discoverer, Bishop Alonso’s influence was exhibited in founding a center for Dominican study, the Collegio de San Gregorio, an Isabelline-style building located in the city of Valladolid. Readily visible throughout the architecture is Alonso’s heraldry.
Bonnie Merkle, M&G Docent and Database Manager
Published in 2019
Spanish, 17th century
French, 14th century
figure 1: Reliquary Head of a Monk
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While the Museum & Gallery is best known for its large collection of European Old Master paintings, the museum also contains around 2,000 objects, ranging from medieval tapestries to Renaissance furniture to ancient Egyptian artifacts. Among these diverse and unique items, two reliquaries provide an interesting look at sacred art in object form.
Reliquaries are containers that were designed to hold relics, the remains of a saint or an object closely associated with the honored individual. In their day, these relics varied from supposed fragments of the cross to the finger bones of saints. Beginning with the reign of Charlemagne, every medieval church owned some kind of a relic, and it was common practice for people to venerate relics deemed particularly significant. Literature from the medieval era, such as Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, whose characters are on a journey (a pilgrimage) to visit the shrine of St. Thomas Becket, reveals the integral role relics once filled in religious life.
figure 2: Reliquary
The first of M&G’s reliquaries is Spanish, dating from the seventeenth century (figure 2). It is made of giltwood and has a small openings in the side of it, possibly designed to allow the worshipper to glimpse the relic within. What that relic was, is unknown, and compared to M&G’s Reliquary Head of a Monk, (figure 1) this reliquary is simple in design and style.
On the subject of reliquaries, Barbara Drake Boehm, the senior curator of the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Department of Medieval Art and The Cloisters, writes that “these complex containers in the form of parts of the body, usually mimicking the relics they enshrined, are one of the most remarkable art forms created in the Middle Ages for the precious remains of saints.” It is quite likely then, that M&G’s beautiful French reliquary designed to look like a face, once held the fragments of a skull—whose skull, remains a mystery. Other reliquaries, more ornate but reminiscent in style, can be seen at the Aachen Cathedral in Germany.
As part of Roman Catholicism, the cult of relics had an interesting connection to the beginnings of the Protestant Reformation. In 1517, Martin Luther nailed the 95 Theses on the church door of Wittenberg, Germany. Frederick the Wise of Saxony, ruler of that region, had a collection of over 17,000 relics on display at the Church of Wittenberg. M&G’s painting, Wittenberg, October 31, 1517, depicts a pilgrim, pictured towards the bottom far right with a shell on the outside of his cloak, coming into Wittenberg to venerate the relics at the church.
While M&G’s reliquaries no longer house the elements for which they were once designed, they provide a unique window into historical religious practices, serving as a lasting testament of the spiritual devotion of those who once venerated them.
Katie Neal, former M&G staff member and docent
Published in 2017
Oil on canvas
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The streets of Seville are flooded with disease, poverty, and orphans. A little boy crouches underneath an awning to savor a loaf of bread while a five year old girl walks the streets with a basket of fruit to sell—scenes that could easily find their origin in a descriptive Charles Dickens’ novel.
However, seventeenth-century Spain, though bustling with exciting change, faced the hardships of political uncertainty and devastating plagues. Disease struck homes and left children destitute and alone.
One Baroque artist, Bartolomé Esteban Murillo, saw Sevillian paupers in their miserable state yet painted them in an ideal setting. Unlike his contemporary Jusepe de Ribera, who filled his works with suffering and darkness, Murillo chose to display a more peaceful tone in his religious and genre paintings. His works display an idealized image of the poor commoners who lined the streets of Spain.
Born in Seville, Murillo matured as an artist under the influence of fellow Spaniards Zurbarán and Velázquez as well as by viewing art by the Baroque greats Caravaggio, Peter Paul Rubens and Anthony Van Dyck. Although not as popular today, Murillo maintained a prosperous and successful career throughout his lifetime not only in Spain but also across Europe. At one point, the king of Spain halted export of Murillo’s work to keep these valuable treasures within his country’s borders.
M&G displays two of Murillo’s works, The Martyrdom of St. Andrew and The Heavenly Shepherd, both of which offer a somewhat gentle view of their subjects. The Heavenly Shepherd synthesizes the artist’s study of Sevillian street urchins with the time period’s focus on religious art. A similar version of this painting called The Good Shepherd resides in Madrid’s Prado Museum.
In The Heavenly Shepherd, Murillo provokes the viewer with Christ’s arresting gaze to consider the innocent, yet sober young Shepherd, and he subtly references symbols related to the life of Christ:
By comparison, Murillo’s work seems like a precursor to Philippe de Champaigne’s The Christ of Derision. Rather than an endearing shepherd boy in a pastoral scene, Christ is portrayed as a physically abused, yet determined man. The foreshadowed death in the Murillo painting is about to unfold in the narrative of Champaigne’s portrait. Together both paintings in their own way point to the dark scenes of Christ’s life just prior to Easter morning’s triumph.
The Heavenly Shepherd stands as only one of many creations by Murillo, who remained a coveted artist until his own death—a result of a tragic fall from a painting scaffold. Murillo left behind an artistic legacy that portrayed Biblical characters and the Sevillian paupers in a fresh, tender manner.
Jessi Hargett, Secondary Education Coordinator
Published in 2017
Oil on canvas
Spanish, c. 1590-1654
Click on the links throughout the article to view additional artists’ works and reference material.
Francisco came from a family of painters; his father was an illuminator and engraver, and his son also became a painter. He first studied with his father, Juan de Herrera Aguilar, who taught him in the Mannerist style of painting typical in late sixteenth century Seville.
His first known work is not a painting, but an engraved frontispiece for the Constituciones del Arzobispado de Sevilla (Seville, 1609). A year later, Herrera established a studio and may have been the first master of the well-known Diego Velázquez. However, a contemporary Spanish biographer, Palomino, wrote that Herrera had a terrible temper and difficulty keeping students. Nonetheless, throughout his career Herrera gained many commissions from various monasteries and convents in his hometown of Seville.
Herrera’s most significant contribution to Spanish painting is the freedom in his “modeling of forms with bold brushstrokes of solid pigment.” This mature style is evident in the present painting. “On December 30, 1627, Herrera signed a contract with the Procurator of the Franciscan College of St. Bonaventure at Seville to paint six canvases depicting scenes from the life of St. Bonaventure.” According to the contract, Herrera was to “begin work January 1, 1628, and to complete one painting every month and a half, for the sum of 900 reales for each composition. If the painter did not meet these terms, the father procurator was free to give the commission to another artist.” Herrera seems to have completed no more than four paintings including the current work along with St. Bonaventure as a Child Healed by St. Francis (Louvre, Paris), St. Bonaventure Received into the Franciscan Order (Prado, Madrid), and St. Bonaventure Receiving Communion from an Angel (Louvre, Paris).
It is not known why Herrera did not complete the commission. It could have been that he simply had too many commissions at one time. Besides the four works for St. Bonaventure, he was to complete the main altar and decorations for the Franciscan Monastery of Santa Ines, a Last Judgment for the Church of San Bernardo in Seville among others. The fact that Zurbarán had just arrived in town may have also played a role in the procurator’s decision to give the remainder of the commission to him instead of Herrera.
John M. Nolan, Curator
Published in 2014
Oil on canvas, Signed and dated middle left: Jusepe de Ribera español/ F.1638
Spanish, active in Naples, 1591-1652
Ribera was born in Javita, Spain and presumably apprenticed in his homeland until he sailed for Naples, Italy in 1607, where he first observed the works of Caravaggio and developed an early affinity for the master’s style. Caravaggio’s art was a continual influence throughout Ribera’s career, but a trip to Rome provided exposure to the classical style of the Carracci and Guido Reni. Ribera’s impressive list of collectors includes Cosimo II, the Viceroys of Naples, and King Philip IV. He always considered himself a Spaniard (hence, the identification in the present signature) and greatly influenced the art of his homeland although he lived in Italy most of his life and made a considerable impact on Italian Baroque artists.
The present Ecce Homo is a devotional picture boldly presenting Christ after his torture and mockery by the Roman soldiers. Ribera painted the work in 1638 at the height of his popularity, and it illustrates his ability to combine a strong spiritual image with poignant realism. Christ gazes at the viewer with a confidence amidst the mockery, knowing that the crown of thorns and reed-scepter are emblems of a heavenly power unrealized by mankind. The empty background, isolation from the jeering crowd, and the engaging look of Christ’s eyes all contribute to create an arrestingly moving portrait of the highest order.
“El Greco to Goya” is the earliest known exhibition in which this painting participated—a 1963 show held at the John Herron Museum of Art in Indianapolis, IN and at the Museum of Art, Rhode Island School of Design in Providence, Rhode Island. Additionally, the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth, TX hosted an exhibit in 1983 including M&G’s Ribera. Two of the foremost American scholars on Spanish paintings, Craig Felton and William Jordan, produced a corresponding exhibition catalog in which M&G’s painting is referred to as “unquestionably the finest” of Ribera’s known works of this subject.
John M. Nolan, Curator
Published in 2014