Painting in Spain’s Golden Age. Overview.

The “Golden Age” is an umbrella expression encompassing in general terms the 16th and 17th centuries in Spain. It was a period of outstanding Spanish achievements in a wide range of activities: politics, literature, art, sculpture, architecture, theological and humanistic studies, philosophy, law etc. 

It was a time when Spain’s accomplishments as Europe’s most powerful nation were matched by an astonishing flowering in poetry, prose fiction, drama and painting.

In general terms, poetry’s Golden Age began with Garcilaso de la Vega’s (1501-36) brilliant verse and peaked with Luis de Góngora and Francisco de Quevedo. Prose fiction’s Golden Age opened with Fernando de Rojas’s remarkable La Celestina (1499), followed by the anonymous Lazarillo de Tormes (1554), pastoral and Byzantyne novels, and a flurry of publications at the beginning of the 17th century, including Don Quixote (Part I 1605, Part II 1615). Drama’s Golden Age started with the plays of Gil Vicente (?1465- 1537?) and Bartolomé Torres Naharro (1485?-1520?) and gathered momentum with the fast-moving plays of Lope de Vega (1562-1635) before progressing to the more reflective works of Pedro Calderón de la Barca (1600-80).

Painting followed a similar path to the above genres, but with one difference. All the writers in the list above were Spanish, except Vicente who was born in Portugal, wrote works in Portuguese as well as Spanish, and served in the Portuguese royal court.

The point is that we can talk about Spanish poetry, Spanish prose fiction and Spanish drama, but in painting there was Spanish painting (i. e. done by Spaniards) and painting in Spain (i. e. works painted by foreigners living in Spain). It’s a significant detail.

Although there were hundreds of Spanish-born painters in Spain during the Golden Age, they were largely overlooked in the 16th century by wealthy patrons in favour of foreign-born artists, the vast majority of whom were from Flanders (now mostly southern Belgium) and Italy.

These foreign-born artists were invited to Spain, or arrived in search of commissions by the Catholic Church, royalty, nobility or rich individuals (e. g. merchants) to decorate churches, palaces, stately residences etc. The Catholic monarch, Queen Isabella of Castile (r. 1474-1504), was an early patron of foreign artists, inviting painters from Flanders to her court (e .g. Michel Sittow (1468-1526) and Juan de Flandes (?-1519).

But why were Flemish and Italian artists favoured by Spanish patrons over native painters? Firstly, Flemish and Italian painters were at the cutting edge of painting techniques. For example, Flemish painters had mastered the art of using oil which allowed endless reworking of a painting and greater and more realistic detail. Italian painters had found a new and appealing world in classical literature opening up new themes.

In addition, techniques such as linear perspective and sfumato (blending of tones and outlines) added depth and substance to their works. Thanks to these advances, Flemish and Italian painters enjoyed widespread prestige and fame. Below are two examples of Flemish and Italian influenced canvases. The first by Bartolomé Bermejo (ca1440-ca 1500), the second by Alonso Berruguete (ca 1490-1561).

Bartolomé Bermejo. Pietà with St. Jerome and Archdeacon Esplà. Flemish influence can be seen, e. g. sharp details and realistic touches (St. Jerome’s pince nez!) and portrait of Archdeacon Esplà to the right.
Alonso Berruguete. Madonna and Child with young St John. Italian influence can be seen, e. g. in shaded outlines, cherubic children and idealised Madonna.

Secondly, Spaniards travelled extensively in Europe in the 16th and 17th centuries, beginning with royalty. Charles I of Spain (V of the Holy Roman Emperor) was actually born in Flanders (in 1500) and spent more time in his European possessions than in Spain.

His son, Philip II (r. 1556-98) travelled widely in Europe with his father before settling down in Madrid in 1561. They and many others visiting Flanders (e. g. Castilian wool merchants) and/or Italy (e. g. literary figures such as the poet Garcilaso de la Vega or the painter/ sculptor Alonso de Berruguete) became trend setters whose tastes were refined by their experiences.

As a result of what they saw in Flanders and Italy, Spanish travellers  commissioned Flemish or Italian painters to work in Spain and sent paintings and engravings back to Spain. This allowed Spanish painters who did not travel abroad to become acquainted with the latest techniques.

The Catholic Church and its related monasteries, convents, and abbeys were the wealthiest institutions in the country, and were able to commission a huge supply of paintings to fill the many buildings they owned. And the defeat of Kingdom of Granada, the last remnant of Muslim al-Andalus, in 1492, and the fortuitous discovery of America in the same year, ensured that there would be endless demands for paintings in the following years.

Royalty too were significant patrons. Philip II commissioned El Escorial, the massive palace cum mausoleum (built between 1563-84), about 52 kilometres/ 32 miles north of Madrid and renovated the Real Alcázar in Madrid to store his large collection of paintings.

His grandson, Philip IV, was gifted a new pleasure palace, the Buen Retiro, by his favourite, the count-duke of Olivares in the 1630s, with predictably a high demand for art works to fill its halls. Aristocrats, eager to keep up with trends, built stately residences too, all requiring extensive decorating. Wealthy merchants did likewise.

Art, like architecture and sculpture, reflected the status and wealth of the patrons; it was also a very graphic way to demonstrate Spain’s greatness as the most powerful country in Europe.

Given the pre-eminence of Flemish and Italian masters, then, it isn’t surprising that Spanish names do not resonate internationally when we look at overviews of Spanish painting, especially in the 16th century. Artists’ livelihood depended on patronage and commissions, and native artists were at a disadvantage having to compete with skilled foreign painters, whose prestige and accomplished techniques made them the preferred choice of affluent patrons.

As a result, general surveys of Spanish Golden Age painting often begin with El Greco (1541?-1614), an ironic choice since El Greco (born Domenikos Theotokopoulos) was not Spanish but a native of Crete who arrived in Spain in 1576, after first studying for ten years in Venice and Rome.

But he is commonly conceded to be “Spanish” since his major works were produced in Spain and are seen to epitomise the mystic spirit and increased religiosity associated with the country in the second half of the 16th century.

The Martyrdom of St. Maurice and the Theban Legion. The painting that Philip II rejected.

El Greco settled in Toledo, the spiritual centre of Spain. A painting commissioned by Philip II for the Escorial, displeased the king and El Greco never received another commission from him.

Out of favour in Madrid, distant from Seville or Valencia (the major artistic centres in Spain at the time), El Greco had little direct impact on the numerous gifted Spanish-born painters who appeared in the 17th century. However, by then, the influence of Flemish and Italian painters had filtered through sufficiently that gifted native artists had a solid grounding in the latest techniques from an early age.Traffic between Flanders, Italy and Spain continued in the 17th century (although at a much reduced rate), but now there were enough talented native artists to receive commissions for important projects.

Of these, the best known are probably Francisco de Zurbarán (1598-1664) and Bartolomé Murillo (1617-1682), associated with Seville, Jusepe de Ribera (1588-1652), born in Játiva (Valencia) but who worked almost exclusively in Naples (a Spanish possession at that time), and Diego de Velázquez (1599-1660), court painter for Philip IV in Madrid and the Golden Age’s greatest painter.

Themes in Painting in the Spanish Golden Age.

Luis de Morales (ca 1509-86): Pietà (1560-70). The focus is exclusively on Mary and Christ’s body, outlined against a black background. All irrelevant material has been removed

The vast majority of paintings produced throughout the 16th and 17th centuries in Spain were religious, in response to demands both at home and in Spain’s distant colonies of Mexico and Peru.

The Catholic Church had always recognised the impact of paintings (and sculpture) to reinforce religious messages.This was especially relevant at a time when Catholicism was being challenged by the birth of Protestantism with its emphasis on simplicity and frequent rejection of painting (and sculpture) as idolatrous.

The Catholic Church’s response to the Protestant Reformation was formulated in a series of meetings held in the town of Trent in northern Italy between 1545 and 1563.

Out of the deliberations at the Council of Trent came directives that defined Catholicism’s Counter-Reformation. In art, painters were urged to encourage piety by drawing on biblical topics that would elicit compassion, particularly the Immaculate Conception, the Madonna and Child, Christ’s Passion and the Pietà (Mary cradling Christ’s lifeless body after His descent from the Cross). Saints and martyrs were also worthy subjects.

Artists were further encouraged to focus on the subject matter and eliminate unnecessary or irrelevant ornamentation. They were especially recommended to render their paintings as direct, compelling and as relevant as possible to ordinary people, engaging both their minds and their senses.

After religious topics, portraiture was the most widely practiced form of art in the Golden Age.  At first, modest portraits of devout donors appeared discreetly to one side or in side panels of religious triptychs (a painting consisting of a central panel and two side panels), attesting to their high social status and their piety.

Charles V, painted by Titian, 1548, following the Battle of Muhlberg, 1547. A public image of the imperial, triumphant, warrior king.

From there, it was a short step to individual portraits, primarily of royalty, nobility, church dignitaries and other wealthy individuals (e. g. merchants). In each case, they denoted power, wealth, status.

By the beginning of the 17th century, however, pictures of ordinary, even low-born individuals began to appear, reflecting a move towards an increased interest in realism, evidenced in paintings of every day life (e. g. Velázquez’s Old Woman Frying Eggs, 1618). (There is a similar interest in literature, in for example, the low born pícaro —e. g. Mateo Alemán’s Guzmán de Alfarache, Crevantes’s short story Rinconete y Cortadillo or Quevedo’s El Buscón— or popular romances (ballads) depicting life in the criminal underworld.)

Overlapping and complementing this interest in the ordinary was the attention paid to Still Life (Bodegones in Spanish. E.g. Zurbarán’s Still Life with Lemons and Oranges and Rose), which presented artists with new themes and technical challenges.

Velázquez. Old Woman Frying Eggs (1618).
Francisco de Zurbarán. Still Life with Lemons and Oranges and Rose.

What is not much found in Spanish painters are mythological, nude and landscape canvases. Mythology and nudity went hand in hand and many wealthy Spaniards (notably Philip II) had large collections, but almost exclusively by Italian artists. Opposition by the Catholic Church was undoubtedly a formidable deterrent to Spanish painters, as was the competition presented by Italian painters.

Landscape had long been used as a background to the main theme of a painting: e. g. in religious scenes, portraits (e. g. Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa (ca. 1503-19), or incorporated into mythological narratives. As a topic in itself it was not taken seriously, and only at the end or the 15th century did it become the subject of a painting, and this almost exclusively in northern Europe, with works by Albrecht Altdorfer (1480-1538), Albrecht Durer (1471-1528) and others.

El Greco. View of Toledo (1595-1600)

In 1600, however, a landscape painting appeared like no other before, or indeed perhaps since: El Greco’s View of Toledo (1595-1600), now in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. The first of two views of Toledo (the second is View and Plan of Toledo, 1608), it is clearly not a realistic reproduction (in fact, the cathedral and the Alcázar –top right of picture—have been reversed) but rather a landscape of the mind.

What El Greco did was transform Toledo from description to representation, offering us an unearthly rendition of the city –with a brooding, stormy sky hovering above it– as if it were about to be visited by divine presence, perhaps the omnipotent Old Testament God of Moses. 

Francisco Collantes. The Burning Bush.

In the 17th century, some painters moved nature from the background of religious paintings to dominate the scene e. g. Francisco Collantes’s The Burning Bush c. 1634). Even so, it is often a dramatic, overpowering landscape where realism is subordinate to effect.

However, there are two notable exceptions both by Velázquez: views of the Villa Medici in Rome (in the Prado Museum).  They are small impressionistic garden scenes of remarkable originality. Unsurprisingly, Velázquez was much admired by the Impressionists.

Velázquez. Villa Medici in Rome. 1630.

Brown, Jonathan Painting in Spain 1500-1700 New Haven and London 1998
Glendinning, O. N. V “The Visual Arts in Spain,” in Russell, P. E. ed. Spain. A Companion to Spanish Studies, pp. 473-542 New York 1987
Royal Academy of Arts  The Golden Age of Spanish Painting Uxbridge, England 1976

Alonso Berruguete. Madonna and Child:
Bartolomé Bermejo. Pieta:
El Greco.
Luis de Morales: Pietà:

Titian. Portrait of Charles V:
Velázquez. Old Woman Frying Eggs:
Still Life by Francisco de Zurbarán:
Collantes, Francisco. The Burning Bush
Velázquez. Garden at the Villa Medici in Rome: