Saturday, August 4, 2012

A Procession of Virgin Martyrs -Francisco de Zurbaràn

Francisco de Zurbaràn, Saint Rufina, 1635
Francisco de Zurbaràn, Saint Rufina, 1635

There are two full length, life size female portraits in the Hispanic Society's collection in New York hanging amongst their Spanish Golden Age masterworks section. The two portraits appear almost as pendants painted using the same color palette, with both figures composed in a similar pose looking up towards the same point outside the picture frame.   These two figures are actually, Saint Lucy, ca. 1630  and Saint Rufina, ca. 1635, by Francisco de Zurbaràn.  

Renowned for his monastic commissions, (I wrote in depth about this in an earlier post) the most popular works from Zurbaràn's oeuvre were his series of female saints.  Also known as the virgin martyrs, each one comes with a very interesting legend attached to their name. Saint Lucy’s name Lucia, means light in Latin and it is supposed to herald the Light of the World, which is why she is appealed to against disorders of the eye and carries her eyes as her attributes.  There are also embellished versions of her story where she rips out her eyes to send them to her suitor.  Saint Rufina, who was martyred in Seville in the 3rd century, was a potter who refused to sell her wares to be used for a pagan celebration and as a result was executed for being a Christian.
Zurbaràn’s workshop was supposed to have produced these fascinating beauties in groups of a dozen or more, in large quantities, but unfortunately, none of them has reached our generation intact as a series. The female saints’ charming representations of delicate, ethereal beauties, garbed in luxurious attire, discreetly carrying their attributes may explain their popularity with 19th century collectors.  Dispersed throughout the major museums in the world, today we are left to contemplate these works that were created as part of a whole decorating project intended for a specific audience with a specific goal, just as beautiful paintings on museum walls.

All of the female saints share the same majestic stature, porcelain-like complexion, delicate features, and discreet halos in the glowing aura surrounding their heads declaring their saintly, idealized beauty.  There are a lot of ambiguities surrounding these Christian beauties in regards to attribution as well as the interpretation of their poses which adds to their allure.  After having studied all but one of them, Martin S. Soria affirms most were made by workshop assistants, and in fact the Saint Rufina from the Hispanic Society is one of the rare dozen or so to be produced by the master himself. In his 1948 article "Some Flemish Sources of Baroque Painting in Spain." Martin S. Soria states:
“The interpretation of these Saints poses another problem.  Angulo remarked that they appear to walk in a procession or across a stage, like the figure of a performing clock.  Emilio Orozco Diaz, who has thrown so much light on the essence of the Baroque in Spain, speculates that these saints refer to the transitory quality of life, to the quickly fading glories of this world. He believes that the pictures symbolize the great capacity and subconscious disposition of the Spaniard towards the transcendental...”
Diego Rodriguez de Silva y Velazquez, Portrait of a Lady, 1633
(Gemaldegalerie, Berlin)

The other fascinating factor in these portraits that Martin Soria sheds some light on is the dating and the style of their costumes. It is easy to refer to them as contemporary but there doesn’t seem to be any other contemporary examples of this type of attire.  If we are to believe Velazquez’s portraits, the ladies at the Spanish court were wearing immense, stiff skirts, big collars and predominantly black or dark colors. Zurbaràn was known to utilize Northern prints for his compositions and according to Soria such dresses do occur in many sixteenth century paintings and prints of Western Europe.  

The paintings of virgin martyrs were used for a number of ways either installed in altarpieces or hung as a series on the walls of the nave or even as private devotional pieces.  In trying to reconstruct the tableau these portraits must have presented in their original location, we can look to the series of eight standing monks and two angels Zurbaràn painted for the Carthusian Monastery of Jerez de la Frontera, one of his two major commissions in 1638-40, at the pinnacle of his career. Although these portraits also have been removed from their original location, Jonathan Brown aids in conjuring the effect they must have had on the monks that traversed those halls:
“The paintings, now in the museum  in Cadiz, depict martyrs, theologians, bishops and abbots who are united by a deep faith that has, however, different facets….In their original setting, the ensemble was still more impressive because of the way it conformed to the architecture.  The corridor where the pictures were hung curved behind the altarpiece and led to a room, the sagrario, on the central axis of the church... Zurbaràn adjusted the profile of each figure according to its location in the passageway. A monk entering the corridor first saw a saint in full face.  As he continued the next one was turned one-quarter turned toward the entrance of sagrario. The last two had revolved one-quarter turn more and so appeared in profile. In this way, the progression of movement in the pictures mirrored the changing position of the viewer as he entered and then walked through the hallway, and a bridge was created across the fictive and real world that unified time and space.”
 After researching Zurbaran’s female saints and reading the above excerpt I have been obsessed with trying to imagine what they must have looked like in their original space.  It must have been quite dramatic and I hope to recreate it here to see if the poetry can be captured on a minute virtual environment…

Francisco de Zurbaran, Saint Casilda, 1630
(Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum)
Francisco de Zurbana, Saint Isabelle of Portugal,
1635 (Museo del Prado)

Francisco de Zurbaran, Saint Apollonia,(Musee du Louvre)


Baticle, Jeannine, Jonathan Brown and Alfonso E. Perez Sanchez.  Zurbarán : The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, September 22-December 13, 1987 : Galeries Nationales Du Grand Palais, Paris, January 14-April 11, 1988. New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1987.

Brown, Jonathan. Francisco De Zurbarán. New York: H.N. Abrams, 1974.

Brown, Jonathan. "The Art of Immediacy: Seville 1625-1640." Painting in Spain: 1500-1700. New Haven: Yale UP, 1998. 133.

Soria, Martin S. "Some Flemish Sources of Baroque Painting in Spain." The Art Bulletin 30.4 (1948): 249-59. JSTOR. Web. 


  1. Wow, Sedef, this is great! You really get a sense for these paintings as a group -- it must have been quite striking! They do seem like a procession. I wonder what the original intent was -- educational/instructional?

  2. Well Karen,

    If we were to make an educated guess, we can say to inspire devotion and exemplify and ideal to emulate?

    Since one of the edicts of the Council of Trent in regards to art issued at the last session in 1563 defining the characterization and function of art was to instruct the faithful, be a reminder and set a virtuous examples for the faithful, and to inspire piety... But what I am wondering is "who" the intended audience was...

  3. Yes, exactly -- that's a fascinating question. Wish I had more time to look into it!


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