Author Archives: Gethin

Bilbao’s Guggenheim Museum: Not Just A Building.

Bilbao’s Guggenheim Museum: Not Just A Building: An Experience.

Introduction. How the Bilbao Guggenheim came to be.
If ever the fortunes/ public image of a city can be said to have changed dramatically for the better thanks to one building, it would be hard to find a better example than the impact of the spectacular Guggenheim Museum on the Basque city of Bilbao (Bilbo in Basque). In a short time, it has become for Bilbao what, for example, the opera house became for Sydney, Australia: an immediately identifiable structure suggesting vision, taste and boldness. It has also given rise to the controversial term “Bilbao” or “Guggenheim” effect, a narrative whereby the construction of a building is seen as responsible for the transformation of a city from (relative) cultural obscurity to world-wide fame. [Some Basque nationalists even objected to the construction of the Museum, seeing it as nothing more than a piece of American imperialism and an insult to Basque culture. Indeed, a Basque policeman was killed when he foiled a grenade attack on the Museum by separatists less than a week before it opened. The Guardian Newspaper. See under Sources for website.]

The construction of the Guggenheim forms part of a wide and ongoing cleanup and transformation of a city whose history was long dominated by fishing, heavy industry (iron, steel, chemicals, shipbuilding), and commercial pursuits (banking, Stock Exchange and trading). Although not the capital of Euskadi i. e., the Basque Country (the capital is Vitoria-Gasteiz.), the city was the economic hub of the region and a major contributor to the Spanish economy. But it was largely a gritty, dour, colourless city that suffered badly in comparison with its glitzy Basque neighbour, San Sebastian, long a favorite summer resort of the Spanish aristocracy and the wealthy.

However, at the end of the 20th century Bilbao suffered a severe economic decline, a decline that, nevertheless, gave the city authorities –with the support of the Basque government– the opportunity to clean and modernise the city.

Besides the Guggenheim, there is also a state-of-the-art rapid transit system, an ultra-modern airport terminal, and a massive new super port, Bilbao’s impressive maritime gateway to the world and entry point for cruise ships attracted by the Guggenheim. In the centre of the city, the sleek 165-metre (541-foot) Iberdrola tower dominates the skyline. Opened in 2012, it is the headquarters of a multinational utilities company,

Green spaces have sprouted where smokestacks from grimy factories spewing pollutants from smelters and furnaces once dominated the skyline, and the River Nervión has been cleaned and its banks become prime development land.

The Guggenheim as Work of Art.
The stunning Guggenheim Museum –designed by Toronto-born, Los Angeles-based architect, Frank Gehry– opened in October 1997, and rightly takes pride of place in the renovation of the city. The building –a stunning art complex administered by the prestigious Guggenheim Foundation– has been acclaimed as one of the greatest architectural masterpieces of the 20th century.

Prado Museum. Madrid,

A walk around the Guggenheim is an eye-opening experience and a must-do before entering the building. Traditional ideas of what an art museum should look like –e. g. classical structures, such as the Prado Museum in Madrid, the original Tate Gallery, London or the Louvre, Paris– are constantly challenged if not shattered by the irregular changing perspectives, which seem to defy structural logic. But then, the Guggenheim is not simply a museum, it is itself an avant-garde work of art.

Edged by a park and canal on one side and by the river Nervión on the other, its dynamic impact is immediate and changes according to where you view it from. From the park side, where the entrance is located, the museum rises above the trees in an imaginative combination of different shapes at odd angles.

The Guggenheim from the Salve bridge.

The dynamism of the odd angles and shapes is enhanced by the different construction materials visible: glass, cream-coloured limestone, and titanium cladding. 

However, look at the building from the Puente de la Salve bridge (officially the Puente Príncipes de España) spanning the Nervión river, and it transforms into a ship with its sleek, shimmering titanium siding conjuring images of sails riding the river. What could be more apt to capture Bilbao’s historical shipping connection tradition?

Five must-see Exterior Art Works before entering the Museum.
The stunning and unconventional exterior undoubtedly impresses, but walking around the building also brings visitors face to face with a disparate variety of art works or sculptures that are in many ways as surprising and unconventional as the building itself. They are an integral part of the experience.

What are a gigantic dog, an enormous spider, a tower of metallic balls and a bouquet of huge multicoloured tulips doing in this place? And perhaps even more unconventional, a “piece” of art created out of fog! Yes, fog! Known simply as Fog Sculpture #08025, its form varies according to weather conditions and the time when it gets activated. In other words, you may see it or you may not! And should you happen to see it more than once, it will never be the same.

The dog and the tulips are the works of the American artist, Jeff Koons. You can’t miss the dog. It’s seated directly in your path to the entrance.

Guggenheim Museum. Puppy.

Fondly known as Puppy, it is an enormous, floral sculpture of a lovable West Highland terrier towering just over 12 metres (40 feet). The fur is made up of multi-coloured pansies and other vivid flowers, embedded in soil and supported on a steel frame, and fed by an internal irrigation system.

Guggenheim. Tulips.

Koon’s Tulips are located at the rear of the building. Made of stainless steel, the seven blown-up, coloured, flowers measure 5 metres (16.5 feet) across and 2 metres (6.5 feet) tall. The gleaming, flawless surfaces and various colours add a bit of dashing bravado against the grey of the tiles on which they stand and against the background regardless of whether it is the glass, titanium cladding and cream-coloured limestone of the museum or the apartment blocks and tree-covered hill across the river (as in the photo above).

Guggenheim Museum. Maman.

The spider (9 metres/30 feet x 10 metres/33 feet) is the work of the French-American sculptress, Louise Bourgeois. One of a series of spider sculptures, Maman (Mother) –as Bourgeois called it—is a warm tribute to her mother who died when Bourgeois was 21 and whom she recalled fondly as protective and caring. But why a spider? For many people the spider evokes fear (arachnophobia), but in Bourgeois’s case it turns out that her mother was a weaver and the spider has long been the archetypal image of the weaver. Furthermore, in Bourgeois’s view, spiders rid the world of mosquitos (which spread disease) and so are helpful and protective “just like my mother.”

Tall Tree and the Eye. Note the mist from Fog Sculpture.

The tower of metallic balls, called Tall Tree and the Eye (2009), is the work of the prolific British-Indian sculptor, Anish Kapoor. The title is an immediate challenge. It is not difficult to see the relationship between name and image in Puppy and Tulips, and even Maman can be understood in the terms outlined by Bourgeois. But the Tall Tree… does not look anything like a tree. It is a 15-metre (45 feet) tall structure made of 76 stainless steel spheres clinging together irregularly in a way that seems to defy gravity. Seated on an island of sandstone blocks, the spheres reflect and distort all views around them, each ball offering — like an all-seeing eye in constant motion– a different perspective. What we see via the spheres is ambiguity, and ephemerality and a delicate balancing act that suggests instability (despite the permanence suggested by the steel which the spheres are made of)… nothing is fixed, everything depends on the standpoint of the viewer, possibly the Eye. What’s to say that we can’t call a tower of stainless-steel spheres a “tree!

If Kapoor’s Tall Tree… suggests ephemerality and instability, what are we to make of Fog Sculpture #08025, a work that defies our usual and traditional understanding of sculpture. Created by the Japanese artist, Fujiko Nakaya, Fog Sculpture… was installed in 1998 and has no fixed form. Created out of pulverised water, it is activated for about 8-9 minutes every hour between 10.00 am. and 8.00/ 9.00 pm.

Guggenheim. Walkway between Maman and Tall Tree…

It emerges under the walkway between Maman and Tall Tree… and wafts its way over the shallow lagoon, occasionally obscuring the Tall Tree… and parts of the main building. It can even embrace viewers on the walkway as it swirls uncontrollably over the area. As it withdraws, the fog sometimes looks sea foam hitting the shore; other times, it slides silently back under the walkway.

Fog Sculpture #08025

Fog Sculpture #08025 is in effect, a self-creating phenomenon since once it is released, the creator loses control of the form it will eventually take. It is common place to say that works of art/literature etc. take on a life of their own independent of their creators, but Fog Sculpture…, transitory by nature, is perhaps the most extreme and maybe the most original example of art as defying any restriction or limitations that words or formal structures (e. g. a picture frame or the material that a sculpture is made of) impose on traditional forms.

The Guggenheim Inside.
Inside, from the moment you descend the entrance steps, pass through the lobby and enter the atrium, the Guggenheim is as unconventional as the outside.

Guggenheim. Atrium.
Guggenheim. Atrium.

There is the same lack of logical order and a deconstruction of accepted structural designs. Soaring upwards, there are large, leaning windows, steel girders, tilted cream-coloured stone pillars, white walls, suspended walkways, and paths that lead off in all directions. It is not a labyrinth, but it is a challenge, even with a brochure, to find the individual galleries. There are three levels reached by glass-enclosed elevators (lifts); the suspended walkways that link the galleries might not be to the taste of those with no head for height!

Of the 19 galleries, nine are unconventionally shaped, the rest classically rectangular in shape. Moving from gallery/room to the other is in itself an adventure since doors are not always in predictable spots. It is possible to be so easily absorbed by the structure that its art collections might be easily forgotten.

And there is nothing conventional about these art works inside. Appropriately, the Guggenheim specialises in modern and contemporary art, and its holdings are complemented by exhibitions including works drawn from other Guggenheim collections.

Kiefer. Blackened sunflowers.

On a first visit, it might be wise to limit viewing since the galleries themselves are unusually designed and the avant-garde works they contain require constant reconsideration against our more traditional perspectives on art.It is easy to be moved by e. g. Anselm Kiefer’s war imagery and blackened sunflowers, and struck by Andy Warhol’s One Hundred and Fifty Multicoloured Marilyns (silkscreen images of Marilyn Monroe). The former are a touching evocation of the senseless destruction and desolation caused by war; the latter demonstrate the endless permutations potentially contained in an image. By comparison, Mark Rothko’s large-scale Untitled is cold and could be more aptly called “Unfinished.”

There is much more (for another page?), but everything about the Guggenheim –the building itself, its contents and its immediate surroundings— is a constant questioning about the nature and limitations of Art. Gehry has overthrown accepted norms in architecture, and Koons, Kapoor, Bourgeois and Nakaya engage us in a dialogue on the role of their works in the context in which they have been placed. Together, these works, both outside and inside the Guggenheim, issue an ongoing challenge. What, if any, are the limits of art?

Stich, Sidra art-Sites Spain: contemporaray art and architecture. San Francisco: art-Sites 2001 1st Edition.
Image of Prado Museum:
Image of Tall Tree and the Eye from Global Stainless Artworks, New Zealand: Click Stainless Steel Spheres to access image.
Image of Fog Sculpture:
Image of Anselm Kiefer’s Sunflowers:
The best way to appreciate Fog Sculpture #08025 is through videos. Google, for example: guggenheim bilbao fog sculpture.
For a succinct background to the building of the Museum (and an excellent photo of the old, industrial Bilbao), see

Bartolomé Esteban Murillo 1617-82. A Brief Comparison with Velázquez and Zurbarán.

Bartolomé Esteban Murillo 1617-82. A Brief Comparison with Velázquez and Zurbarán.
Murillo’s art is indelibly linked to Seville, the city where he lived and died and which was, with Madrid, the primary centre of artistic activity in the country. Predictably, Murillo’s paintings are often compared with those of contemporaries associated with the city, whether born there or nearby: most notably Diego de Velázquez (1599-1660) and Francisco de Zurbarán (1598-1664).

Velázquez was born in Seville and cut his artistic teeth in the city, before moving permanently to Madrid in 1623.

Zurbarán hailed from Extremadura but moved to Seville in 1629 at the invitation of the city council. He was recognised as Seville’s premier artist for approximately twenty years from the mid 1630s. In 1658, he relocated permanently to Madrid, by which time his standing in Seville was being challenged by younger painters, among them Murillo, Francisco de Herrera the Younger (1622-85) and Juan de Valdés Leal (1622-90).

Velázquez is undoubtedly the star, a realist whose paintings challenged accepted norms by portraying in his greatest works an unstable, unpredictable, multi levelled and illusory world. His palette extends widely from religious topics, genre paintings (daily street life, kitchen, and tavern scenes), and portraits –which ranged from street vendors, royalty, nobility, court jesters and dwarfs– and classical mythology. Inserted in many of the canvases dealing with daily life are exquisite examples of still-life, which was increasingly popular in Spain at the beginning of the 17th century.

Zurbarán is known almost exclusively for his religious works portraying saints, martyrs, monks, with some others of Christ, the Virgin, Holy Family etc., His paintings are marked by simplicity, restraint, dignity, discipline, and austerity, very much attuned to ascetic contemplation and spiritual meditation.

Interestingly, he also painted a surprising number of young female saints and martyred virgins many of whom are dressed in elegant, colourful garments.

Some exceptional still-life paintings, ten mythological works dealing only with the labours of Hercules, a few portraits and two historical canvases provide some variety to Zurbarán’s oeuvre.

Murillo: Compared with Velázquez’s realism and Zurbarán’s sobriety, Murillo’s art appears overall more lyrical, delicate, passionate, and youthful. His fame rests mainly on his religious output with his paintings involving the Virgin (her birth, as mother, and above all her immaculate conception) being especially striking and popular. Predictably, perhaps, since Seville was the city that most passionately promoted the argument that Mary was immaculately conceived.  

Still, there is also another side to Murillo’s work that surprises: his genre paintings, which although few –some twenty— are as popular as his devotional paintings. These genre canvases depict marginalized figures, e. g. beggars, street sellers, engaged in daily activities –e. g. delousing, eating grapes, playing dice– which normally would not be subjects for serious artists. Like Velázquez, Murillo also introduces fine still-life details into these works.

Some half dozen portraits complete Murillo’s output. The most notable are his self-portrait (1670-73), his painting of Nicolas Omazur 1672 (Omazur was an avid collector of Murillo’s paintings), and a touching portrait of his friend and benefactor, Justino de Neve, 1665.

Velázquez left Seville for Madrid, in 1623, and –except for two trips to Italy– remained in the capital for the rest of his life. He soon became the Spanish court’s most eminent artist and enjoyed the friendship of the king, Philip IV, who in 1562 promoted him to the prestigious and highly coveted post of Chamberlain of the Royal Palace.

Like Velázquez, Zurbarán too felt the attraction of Madrid, visiting the city briefly by invitation in 1634 and settling there permanently in 1658. He was allegedly hailed by the king, Philip IV, as “painter to the king, king of painters” (artstory) after his contribution in 1634 to the Hall of Realms at the Buen Retiro pleasure palace being constructed for Philip in Madrid. His greatest paintings, however, were those carried out for monasteries and convents in Seville or towns close by.

Murillo: Unlike Velázquez, Murillo never entertained ambitions to be a court painter nor –unlike Zurbarán—was he called to contribute to Madrid’s art world. He did visit the city for a few months in 1658, possibly at the invitation of Velázquez. There, he almost certainly saw the royal collection which included works by such prestigious artists as Titian, Rubens, and Van Dyck.

Both Velázquez and Zurbarán died in Madrid; Murillo died in Seville following an accident while painting in Cádiz.

Brown, Jonathan Painting in Spain 1500-1700 Yale 1998.
Moffitt, John F. Spanish Painting Studio Vista Publishers 1973
Witschey, Erica ed. The Prado Masterpieces, trans. Philip Sutton, London, New York: Thames and Hudson 2016.

Bartolomé Murillo 1617-1682. His Life and Art in Seville.

Bartolomé Esteban Murillo 1617-82.
Of all the painters of Spain’s Golden Age (approx. 1500-1700), Bartolomé Esteban Murillo is the one most closely associated with Seville, Spain’s largest and most dynamic city for much of that period, and gateway to the Americas (commonly known as Las Indias).

Murillo was born in Seville in December 1617 and lived there his entire life except for a few months in 1658 when he visited Madrid. Together with his contemporaries Diego de Velázquez (1598-1660) —also from Seville– and Francisco de Zurbarán (1598-1664) –born about 114 kilometres/71 miles north of Seville—Murillo ranks as one of the most celebrated of the many artists who flowered in Spain in the 17th century. 

Murillo’s Early Years.
What we know of Murillo’s early life is sketchy and largely indebted to the painter and art critic, Antonio Palomino (1655-1726). The youngest of 14 children, Murillo was born in Seville to a prosperous middle-class family in December 1617.

By the time he was 11, he had lost both parents and was taken in by an older sister, Ana, and her husband. He apparently showed a gift for painting at an early age, and when he was about 12 was apprenticed to a local artist, Juan del Castillo, a family relative on his mother’s side.

Having completed his apprenticeship by the time he was 15, Murillo made plans in 1633 to go to the Americas where he had family connections. His plans were never realised, and nothing in his work indicates that he had made the trip nor is there any comment by contemporaries or acquaintances to that effect. Furthermore, we know that towards the end of the 1630s he was working in Seville.

By this time, the artistic world of Seville was dominated by Zurbarán, with Velázquez having already established himself in Madrid by 1623. Zurbarán’s star shone between roughly 1635 and 1650 with works marked by simplicity, restraint, dignity, discipline, and austerity. They were more attuned to ascetic contemplation than sentimental emotions/feelings which is what Murillo brought to his works and which helped him replace Zurbarán as the painter of choice in the 1650s.

Murillo. The Angels’ Kitchen 1646.

Although Murillo had probably already begun to make a name for himself from around 1640, his first major commission came in 1645, the same year that he married Beatriz Cabrera de Villalobos who was to bear him several children.

The commission was for a series of paintings for one of the cloisters of the Monastery of San Francisco el Grande in Seville. Each canvas was intended to portray events/ miracles from the lives of famous Franciscans, the best known of which is The Angels’ Kitchen 1646, now in the Louvre in Paris.

Around the same time, Murillo also painted some genre paintings drawn from everyday life. These works depicted marginalized figures, e. g. beggars, street sellers, engaged in daily activities which normally would not be subjects for serious artists. However, thanks to the influence of Dutch and Flemish artists and of the Italian Michelangelo Caravaggio (1573-1610), such paintings became increasingly popular. 

Murillo never lost his interest in life on the street, but his output was limited to about twenty paintings possibly because commissions for this type of painting were not as forthcoming as for religious topics. Such commissions came largely from Flemish or Dutch merchants whose cultural background was rich in paintings of every day life.

Ironically, given Murillo’s devout nature and large numbers of religious canvases, these genre paintings proved to be as popular and appealing to the public as his devotional works. His early street life paintings include The Young Beggar (aka. Boy Delousing Himself) and Boys Eating Grapes, both c. 1645; his later renditions include Old Woman and Young Boy (c. 1670) and Young Boys Playing Dice, c. 1665-75).

Murillo’s success led to further devotional commissions. Around 1650, he painted for example The Adoration of the Shepherds, The Virgin of the Rosary, and the intimate, domestic scene of The Holy Family with a Bird.

Murillo. The Holy Family with a Bird. c. 1650.
Murillo. The Virgin of the Rosary. 1650-55.

By now his patrons also including members of Seville’s merchant class. He was helped here by a fortuitous circumstance: the marriage in July 1644 of the daughter of his sister Ana and her husband to José de Vieitia Linaje. Vieitia was a member of the Brotherhood of the True Cross (Hermandad de la Vera Cruz) which had a chapel in San Francisco el Grande. Importantly, many members of the Brotherhood were wealthy foreign merchants. 

Seville’s “Best Painter.
By the early 1650s, Murillo’s status as artist was evidently increasing if the statement made by Archdeacon of Carmona and Canon of Seville, Juan de Federigui, is anything to go by. In May 1655, Federigui requested the artist paint portraits of St. Isidore and St. Leander for the cathedral sacristy. The Archdeacon justified his selection of Murillo praising him as “the best painter that there is today in Seville” (Brown 204a), a comment that probably ruffled Zurbarán and other rivals.

To Madrid and Back, 1658.
In May 1658, Murillo left for Madrid where Velázquez was the leading court painter. [It was in the same year that Zurbarán too left Seville, returning to the capital for the second time, this time permanently.] We do not know the circumstances that prompted the move, but Madrid was by now the place to be for artists and the king, Philip IV, was a major patron of the arts. Furthermore, there was the attraction of the royal collection –to which Murillo would have had access thanks to Velázquez– which included works by such prestigious names as Titian, Rubens, and Van Dyck.

Return to Seville, 1658-80.
Nevertheless, Murillo did not stay long in Madrid since by early December 1658 he is known to be back in Seville. He quickly re-established his status as Seville’s preeminent artist and in 1660 helped found Seville’s Real Academia de Bellas Artes, together with his fellow artists Francisco de Herrera the Younger (1622-85) and Juan de Valdés Leal (1622-90). Murillo served as its first president, a title he shared with Herrera the Younger.

The Crowning Years 1658-1682.

Murillo. Birth of the Virgin, 1660.

In 1660, Murillo painted the Birth of the Virgin for the altar of the Chapel of the Immaculate Conception in the Cathedral. In its soft, gentle, and subdued colouration of the birth scene and its freer sfumato technique (blending of tones and outlines), it is Murillo’s first work to reflect the influence of Italian painters he undoubtedly saw on his Madrid trip. 

Several commissions followed in the early 1660s, the most important of which was for the church of Santa María la Blanca, a synagogue converted into a church. Instrumental in helping him secure the commission in 1662 was Justino de Neve (c. 1625-85), a canon of the Cathedral and son of a Flemish merchant who had settled in Seville. Neve would become a good friend and important patron of Murillo.

Murillo. St. Francis embracing the Crucified Christ. c.1668-69.

Another major commission –of 18 paintings– came in 1665 for the main altar and side altars of the Convent of the Capuchin Fathers (an austere branch of the Franciscan Order) in Seville. Murillo worked quickly, completing twelve by the end of 1666 when the departure of the head of the monastery and lack of interest by his two successors saw the assignment halted. Murillo returned to the project in 1668, at which time he painted the moving canvas portraying Christ gently putting his right arm around the shoulder of the kneeling St. Francis (St. Francis Embracing the Crucified Christ c. 1670).

Murillo. Return of the prodigal Son. 1667-70.

Further commissions came Murillo’s way including one for the newly built Hospital de la Caridad (located near the Plaza de Toros) and intended to care for the aged and infirm. The Brotherhood of Charity (Hermandad de la Caridad), which had admitted Murillo to its ranks in 1665, commissioned eight works which Murillo concluded between 1667 and 1672. Appropriately –given the Charity’s role– Murillo’s paintings portray saintly or religious figures demonstrating kindness/love/forgiveness/ generosity: e. g. The Return of the Prodigal Son, Feeding of the Five Thousand, St. Catherine of Hungary Curing the Sick

Murillo. Immaculate Conception of the Venerables. c. 1678.

Towards the end of the 1670s, Murillo received a commission from Justino de Neve, for a painting for his private oratory/ chapel. It turned out to be Murillo’s most celebrated rendition of a widely discussed topic, especially in Seville: whether the Virgin Mary had been conceived without sin. Disputes between Franciscans and Dominicans and their respective supporters were fierce/heated and leading artists in Seville all contributed their versions of the theme. A declaration by Pope Alexander VII in 1661 came out on the side of the Franciscans and the majority of Sevillanos: Mary was free from original sin. Fireworks, bullfights and other festivities were organised to celebrate the decision.

Murillo painted about two dozen versions of the immaculate conception but the one he did for Neve is widely recognised not only as his best, but as one of the most iconic of all representations of the theme. Known as the Immaculate Conception of the Venerables, it was donated by Neve to the Hospital de Venerables, a charitable institution established by him in 1676 as a residence for retired priests. [This painting is sometimes referred to as the Soult Madonna, after the French marshal who appropriated it during the Napoleon’s invasion of Spain in the Peninsular War 1808-14. After Soult’s death, it was auctioned and bought by the Musée du Louvre for the highest price ever paid for a work of art at the time. It finally returned to Spain in 1941 and was installed in the Prado Museum –where it remains to this day– following an arrangement between the French Vichy government and the Franco dictatorship.]

Murillo’s Death, 1680.
By 1680, Seville’s monopoly on trade with the Americas began to weaken. Larger transatlantic vessels found it increasingly difficult to navigate the Guadalquivir, and most Atlantic ships were now loading and unloading at Cádiz.

Merchants followed suit, one of whom was the Genoese-born Giovanni Bielato (?-1681). Although little is known about him, he is recorded as being active in Cádiz in 1662. Whether he knew Murillo is unclear, but he evidently liked his paintings. Shortly before he died in Genoa in 1681 he donated a collection of seven of Murillo’s works to that city’s Capuchin Order.

Murillo. Mystic Marriage of St. Catherine. 1682.

Why mention Cádiz and Bielato? Well, Bielato also left a bequest to the Capuchins of Cádiz who “used the money to commission an altarpiece by Murillo for their church” (Brown 227b). And Cádiz? It was while he was working in Cádiz on the painting, the Mystic Marriage of St. Catherine, that Murillo fell from the scaffolding supporting him and suffered internal injuries from which he died a few months later. The altarpiece was completed by his pupil, Francisco Meneses Osorio.

Murillo was buried in the Church of Santa Cruz in Seville but his remains were sadly lost when the church was torn down by the French during the Peninsular War (1808-14). [The present Church of Santa Cruz was formerly known as the Clérigos del Espíritu Santo (Convent of the Holy Spirit of the Clergy Minor), a 17th-18th century building.]

Brown, Jonathan Painting in Spain 1500-1700 Yale 1998.
Moffitt, John F. Spanish Painting Studio Vista Publishers 1973
Witschey, Erica ed. The Prado Masterpieces, trans. Philip Sutton, London, New York: Thames and Hudson 2016.
Palomino,Antonio on Murillo: pp. 420-24.
The Angels’ Kitchen:
The Beggar Boy, Boys Eating Grapes, Old Woman and Young Boy, Young Boys Playing Dice: Wikipedia
The Virgin of the Rosary:
The Holy Family with a Bird:
Birth of the Virgin:
St, Francis Embracing the Crucified Christ:
Return of the Prodigal Son:
Immaculate Conception of the Venerables:
Mystic Marriage of St. Catherine:

Spain. Climate Change, Drought, Heatwaves and Solutions.

Spain. Climate Change, Drought, Heatwaves and Solutions.

Climate of Spain.
As a country whose peninsula land mass stretches from the Pyrenees mountains in the north to within 15 kilometres (9 miles) of the coast of Morocco in the south, Spain enjoys a climate that is both European and Mediterranean.

Spain. Map of Autonomous Communities and Provinces.

Along the north coast from Galicia to the Basque Lands, the topography/terrain is characterised by wooded mountains and hills, and luxuriant green –frequently steep– valleys. Often called Green Spain, this northern strip receives cool winds off the Atlantic and the Bay of Biscay which ensure warm –not generally hot– summers and mild winters. Clouds and rainfall form a regular pattern, with snow on the upper heights of the Picos de Europa mountains in the winter.

Below the Pyrenees, the weather tends to be drier and the landscape less verdant/ lush, but melting snow from the mountains allow for green stretches as the terrain approaches the wide valley of the River Ebro. Away from the Atlantic breezes and influenced more by Mediterranean winds, the summers can be hot, and the winters fairly cold with winds blowing down from the Pyrenees.

Inland Spain is made up of the Meseta, a high central plateau ranging from 400 to 1000 metres (approx. 1312 feet to approx. 3300 ft.) in height and making up about 40% of the country’s land mass. Largely treeless and windblown, the Meseta is blistering hot in the summer and freezing in the winter. The little rain it receives falls mainly in the winter, which explains the large spring cereal crops in Castile-Leon –the northern half of the plateau– and the extensive vineyards in Castile-La Mancha– the southern half.

Southern Spain is largely Andalucía, the most populous autonomous region of Spain and second only to Castilla-León in area/size. Separated from Castilla-La Mancha by the Sierra Morena mountain range, Andalucía boasts the warmest average temperature in the country. Still, there can be wide differences ranging from the cooler mountainous terrain of the Sierra Nevada to the hot Guadalquivir River valley and the desert-like stretches in the province of Almería to the east. Temperatures regularly reach 40+C (104F) at the height of summer along the Guadalquivir while the Tabernas desert in Almería –famous as the location for several movies, including spaghetti westerns as well as Lawrence of Arabia— can reach similar temperatures.

Heatwaves. However, like many other European countries, Spain has experienced extreme heatwaves in the last few years, reflecting the climate change afflicting much of the globe. What is now happening is that the high summer temperatures (40+C) normally associated with Andalucía, Castilla-La Mancha, Extremadura and parts of Castilla-León in late July and into August now start in June. May of this year (2022), for example, was the hottest on record for Spain (and France).

Not only are the heatwaves beginning earlier but they are also more frequent and also more widespread. This, together with reduced rainfall, has led to drought conditions which virtually all climatologists and environmentalists attribute to global warming. In Spain, the latest warning touches on the Tagus –not only Spain’s longest river but also the major source of water for much of the centre of the country— which is in danger of drying up (Guardian July 4/22).

And with drought comes a marked increase in the number of outbreaks of fires.  A recent outbreak in the Zamora province of Castilla-León –where the temperature reached an unprecedented 40C (104F)– destroyed approximately 30,000 hectares (74,000 thousand acres) of woodland seriously threatening a wide array of wildlife, including the endangered wolf population of the area.

Two further serious possible consequences of the heatwaves are the effects they may have on agriculture and tourism, both major sources of revenue for the country.

The depleted Alto Lindoso dam on the Spanish Portuguese border reveals the drowned Spanish village of Aceredo. The drop in water level can be easily gauged from the clear line where the trees end.

Agriculture: Spain ranks as the world’s biggest producer of olives, and is a major exporter of fruit, vegetables, wines and cheese especially for the northern European market. As demands for these products increase so too does the need of water for irrigation. In the past, Spain invested heavily in dam construction but with the lack of rain many dams are now well below the levels necessary to sustain its water distribution infrastructure and current long-range predictions for rainfall are not encouraging. As a result, desertification, once a relatively minor concern, is growing steadily having increased from roughly 6% of the land between 1960-1990 to 12% between 2000-2020 (Euronews).

August 29, 2022. An article on the BBC (British Broadcasting Company) web site gives a very graphic description of the devastating impact of prolonged drought on olive production in the Province of Jaen (Andalusia), Spain’s most prolific olive-producing region. See

Tourism: Spain has long been a hugely popular destination for tourists, registering a record-breaking 84 million international visitors in 2019. However, the impact of the Covid pandemic was disastrous with numbers collapsing dramatically in 2020 to about 19 million. The coastal areas, where the sea and sea breezes offer some relief from the relentless sunshine, remain popular but ­–given water shortage and wild fires— inland tourism has been much affected.

The growing frequency of fires and increasing droughts makes it difficult to predict the direction Spain (and other European countries and indeed worldwide) will take in the coming years. Much depends on the political will of politicians and –assuming that they are willing to undertake the challenge– the choices they make.

Solutions? Simply put, there are no easy solutions, but there is one common-sense step that residents in hot summer areas such as Andalucía, Castilla-La Mancha and Extremadura have long adopted: the famous siesta. Often misinterpreted as a sign of laziness by northern Europeans in the past, the siesta is now recognized as an efficient adaptation to the climate conditions. Spaniards from these regions get up at the crack of dawn then take a prolonged lunch followed by rest, or perhaps a nap or a game of cards or dominos, during the mid-afternoon heat, before returning to work in the evening. This is especially the case in rural Spain, in villages or small towns where the rhythms of the past are still followed.

Common sense work practices are complemented by buildings adapted to the conditions in these heat-affected areas. Houses have traditionally been constructed with thick walls and small windows to keep the indoors cool.

A corner in Capileira, a village in the Alpujarras, south of Granada. Andalucía.

Whitewash on the walls –to reflect the heat away from the house– and adjustable wooden shutters or slats over the windows further help to maintain a steady, comfortable temperature indoors. In many houses, in Andalucía especially, there is a small patio the walls of which are commonly festooned with flowers or support climbing plants. In the middle, there may be a fountain the tinkling sound of which complements the fragrance of the flowers.

The advent of air conditioning has altered the pattern of life to some degree, albeit mainly in larger urban centres –e. g. Madrid, Barcelona, Seville, Córdoba, Granada. Here, the demands of tourism have helped to persuade many large stores and/or shopping centres (malls) to remain open during the afternoon hours, but even so there is still a marked reduction in tourist activities and general movement. This is a good time to step into a restaurant or bar, or relax in a shady patio.

Air conditioning is still largely limited to commercial and public buildings or to the homes of the wealthy in Spain. It has been suggested by a government official in Spain that commercial centres and air-conditioned urban public spaces –e. g. libraries, transport— become “climate refuges” i. e. cooling shelters for “vulnerable people like the elderly, pregnant women or those with respiratory problems” (Euronews.)

A problem, which the numbers and widespread distribution of wildfires have highlighted, is the lack of early detection and control of such fires. Much of this is attributed to rural depopulation as people, especially the young, flock to the cities leaving rural villages deserted or inhabited only by the elderly.

España vacía (“Emptied out Spain”) has become a major political issue since an estimated 43% of Spain’s municipalities are at risk of dying out leaving the surrounding land abandoned to scrub which, under drought conditions, quickly becomes tinder dry and susceptible to rapidly spreading fires.

However, efforts to tempt the young back require much investment in day-to-day amenities found readily in the cities: e. g. schools, medical facilities, reliable electrical service and fast internet connections, investment/loans to help set up small businesses, rapid transport connections (e. g. good roads, trains) to the towns. Until these are guaranteed, there is little likelihood that movement to the cities will be reversed. 

For an excellent and evocative description of some abandoned villages, see The text is accompanied by beautiful photos and personal reflections by the author (Kim). The post concludes with observations on the possibility of purchasing an abandoned village and the problems facing potential buyers.

Map of Autonomous Communities and Provinces:
Various articles on weather conditions in Spain from The Guardian Newspaper and other sources:
March 22, 2023: A dramatic headline in AP News confirms the water problems facing Spain, this time Catalonia (Catalyuna): “Drought in Spain’s northeast empties reservoirs.” The author of the text warns that “Drought in Spain’s northeast reached “exceptional” levels last month [February 2023], menacing access to drinking water for 6 million people in the Barcelona metropolitan area.” To read more, go to
April 4, 2023. For another article, with a couple of dramatic photos, see the BBC:
July 11, 2023.
The article begins with a description of the bravery and tragic death of Angel Martín following his attempt to save his village, Tábara (in the autonomous community of Castilla-León), from wildfires raging nearby. The article then expands to a very well presented description of the general state of the country faced with the prospect of ever increasing wildfires unless it adapts quickly to the changes caused by climate change.
For the latest on water problems in Catalonia/Catalyuna, see:


Zurbarán. Christ on the Cross. Temptation of St. Jerome.

Zurbarán. Christ on the Cross 1627. Temptation of St. Jerome 1657.
Although from an agricultural village in Extremadura and of modest means, Zurbarán overcame his provincial background and social inferiority to become the leading painter in Seville, Spain’s most vibrant and wealthiest city for much of the 17th century and –with the capital, Madrid— the country’s artistic heart. This despite a series of floods, a virulent bubonic plague in 1649 that reduced Sevillle’s population from about 120,000 to 60,000, and social unrest that led to an uprising three years later!

Zurburán first set up his workshop in Llerena and lived there from 1617 to 1629 when he moved to Seville. Except for a brief stay in Madrid in 1634-35, he remained in Seville from 1629 to 1658, when he returned to Madrid. With his fame much diminished by then, he died in the capital six years later. [For a fuller biography, click here.]

Generally speaking, Zurbarán’s paintings can be divided into three groups:

  1. Religious paintings. These constitute the vast majority of Zurbarán’s work. Most are paintings of monks and male saints, but there is a surprising number of canvases depicting pious virgins or martyred female saints.
  2. Still life paintings. These are few in number, although still life objects (fruits, flowers, kitchen objects) are often incorporated into his religious canvases as symbols identifying holy figures. But where Zurbarán excels is in those works where still life objects are the exclusive focus of a painting. In this, Zurbarán reflects the increasing interest in  still life in the late 16th-early 17th centuries.
  3. Ten mythological paintings and one battle scene. The former are entitled the Labours of Hercules and the latter is known as the Defence of Cádiz. This small group –painted in 1634– was commissioned for the decoration of the Hall of Realms (Salón de Reinos) in the Buen Retiro pleasure palace being constructed in Madrid for the king, Philip IV.

Religious Paintings.
Apart from those works destined for the American colonial market, Zurbarán’s religious paintings were commissioned mainly by religious/ monastic orders/communities primarily in Seville and other towns in western Andalusia (Marchena, Arcos de la Frontera, Jerez de la Frontera) or Extremadura (Llerena, Guadalupe). There were also some painted for private sponsors whose presence might be indicated on the lowest register of the painting (usually a corner) and looking upward at the crucified Christ.

In this post, we’ll look at two works by Zurbarán, Christ on the Cross (1627) –one of the most popular topics in religious art for both Renaissance and Baroque painters and the Temptation of St. Jerome (1640). The first established Zurbarán’s credentials as a significant artist in Seville, and the second is one of his best-known paintings portraying saints.

Zurbarán. Christ on the Cross. 1627,

It was Zurbarán’s first known representation of Christ on the Cross –painted in 1627, before he moved to Seville —that gained him entry into the lucrative, competitive Sevillian market. Commissioned by the Dominican Monastery of San Pablo el Real, it had an immediate impact and became the template for numerous subsequent depictions of the Crucified Christ by Zurbarán.

The 1627 painting shows Christ dramatically hanging  on a roughly hewn cross with his nailed feet resting on a small wooden ledge attached to the vertical beam of the cross. Against a very dark background, a strong shaft of light from Christ’s left picks up anatomical details of His torso, arms and legs and the creases/folds of His loincloth.

From the serene, realistic face resting on His right shoulder and from His closed eyes, it seems clear that Christ has died and is beyond pain. But what gives the painting its particular poignancy is the imbalance of the arms thanks to the kilter of the body following the weight of Christ’s head that sags to the right. Christ’s right arm is elongated and curves gradually down to the torso while His left –with its pronounced shoulder muscle–  stretches at an awkward angle up from the torso as the weight of the head pulls at it in the opposite direction. This is quite unlike the majority of crucifixion paintings in which the arms are evenly balanced and frequently form a triangle with the horizontal piece to which Christ’s hands are nailed. 

The starkly outlined/illuminated image of Christ against the completely dark background shows the influence of tenebrism, first fully developed by the Italian master, Michelangelo Caravaggio (1573-1610).  The influence of Caravaggio can also be seen in the hard outline of the body and the angle of light from the right of the canvas which underlines the sinews and muscles of Christ’s body. 

At the same time, the painting fulfills part of the tenets advocated by the Catholic Church in its response to Protestantism as drawn up by the Council of Trent, 1545-63. The Council called for painters to encourage piety and move the faithful to compassion. This could be done either by dynamic activity with multiple figures or, as in this case, by focusing on the subject matter and eliminating external distractions or irrelevant ornamentation, so that worshippers could meditate exclusively on the profound significance of Christ’s sacrifice.

Velázquez: Christ Crucified 1632.

Zurbarán’s Christ on the Cross invites comparison with the same thematic painting –Christ Crucified, 1632– by his more famous, fellow Sevillian artist and acquaintance, Diego de Velázquez (whose nomination for knighthood in the prestigious Order of Santiago in 1658 was supported by Zurbarán). The basic format is similar with the notable use of the dark background that highlights the figure of Christ. However, in Zurbarán’s version, Christ is more dramatically illuminated and the body –with its prominent rib cage, sinewy arms and sagging head— conveys a more anguished portrayal of the dead Saviour.  The bowed legs capture brilliantly the dead weight of the body with only the outstretched arms preventing the knees knuckling under the burden. Finally, the roughly hewn cross suggests that it was hastily put together, reflecting perhaps the desire of the Romans and Jewish leaders to get the crucifixion over as speedily as possible. Our tastes differ, but in this case an argument can be made that Zurbarán has surpassed his more famous contemporary in evoking both the poignancy and anguish of that moment after Christ’s death.

Saints. Although the 1627 Christ on the Cross helped establish Zurbarán’s credentials in the competitive Sevillian market, he is best known for his depiction of saints and monks. Saints were often painted according to the sufferings or temptations they were known to face; monks were more likely to be painted with the role they played in their order in mind.

The Temptation of St. Jerome (1640), one of the several paintings Zurbarán did for the Hieronymite (Jeronomite) Monastery of Guadalupe in Extremadura.

Zurbarán. Temptation of St. Jerome. 1640.

As a young man, St. Jerome (c. 342/47-420) enjoyed a boisterous life studying Latin literature and indulging in sexual pursuits; both activities left him feeling very guilty following his conversion to Christianity. After rising to the position of cardinal within the church, he retired to a cave to meditate and do penance. In the Temptation…, Jerome’s religious celibacy is tested by the appearance of a group of six elegantly dressed young ladies.

The painting is divided into two contrasting halves. To the left, a thin/ scrawny St. Jerome –highlighted against the yawning darkness of the cave behind him– turns away dramatically from the smartly dressed ladies to the right.  Everything about the Saint’s posture –the long, sinewy arms, gaunt upper body and the head directed away from the ladies— betrays the tension of a troubled individual struggling with temptation/ his feelings.

The ladies, for their part, are armed with musical instruments and dressed according to the fashion of Zurbarán’s time. This chronological anachronism of a 4th-5th century saint together with ladies in 17th century dress is not likely to be accidental. It reflects Zurbarán’s practice in his portrayal of female saints or virgins, although in this case the ladies represent the attractions of carnal temptation (more like courtesans) than saints or virgins.

Between St, Jerome and the ladies, and also highlighted against the background, is a skull surrounded by books, visible reminders of the vanity of earthly life (the skull) and the salvation offered by the books, sources of meditation and knowledge. Together, these objects –mini exercises in still life– are what stand between the troubled saint and temptation.

In general, the Temptation of St. Jerome responds to the Church’s call to meditate and reflect on the temptations of earthly life and their transitory nature. Dramatically, the Saint looks directly out at the faithful (or us) drawing them/us into the picture at the same time that his arms point in the direction of the ladies, the source of his distress.  

Valdés Leal. Temptation of St. Jerome. 1657.

The Caravaggesque technique of vivid illumination against a dark background as seen here is viewed as part of the Baroque love of dramatic contrast. This stylistic technique is combined with another artifice much favoured by the Baroque: the deceptiveness of appearance. It was common in paintings of the temptations of St. Jerome to depict the ladies clearly as erotic figures as for example Juan de Valdés Leal’s version, painted in 1657. Valdés Leal makes no effort to conceal the eroticism of the dancing, extravagantly dressed and elaborately coiffured women. By contrast, the ladies in Zurbarán’s version seem more like demure maidens: their dresses are elegant but simple and their hair unpretentious. Only the Saint’s posture points to the deceptiveness of their apparent innocence. They are not what they appear to be –demure young ladies—but a dangerous source of temptation leading to man’s downfall. The contemporary clothes, in this context, can be seen as a message for the monks of Guadalupe: the wiles of women are as dangerous to them in the 17th century as they were to St. Jerome. 

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. 500-502 New York 1987.
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Zurbaran Exhibition 1987:
Witschey, Erica ed. The Prado Masterpieces, trans. Philip Sutton, London, New York: Thames and Hudson 2016.For interesting comments on the Temptation of St. Jerome, see

Zurbarán 1598-1664. Brief Biography and Review of his Art.

Zurbaran’s Life 1598-1664.
When asked to name some great Spanish painters, Francisco de Zurbarán may not come immediately to mind to the casual art lover. Nevertheless, he figures prominently in that celebrated group of Spanish Golden Age artists who flowered in the 17th century, including Diego de Velázquez (1598-1660), Jusepe de Ribera (1590-1652), and Bartolomé Murillo (1617-82). Lesser-known contemporaries usually include Alonso Cano (1610-67), Juan Valdés Leal (1622-90) and Francisco de Herrera the Younger (1627-85).

Born in Fuente de Cantos, Extremadura, an agricultural village about 114 kilometres (71 miles) north of Seville, Zurbarán was sent to Seville by his father in 1614 to serve an apprenticeship which lasted 3 years, after which he settled and set up a workshop in Llerena, 124 kilometres (77 miles) north of Seville and 30 kilometres (18 miles) east of Fuente de Cantos.

It is possible that Zurbarán left Seville with its lucrative market because it was difficult for an unknown artist of very modest background and with no connections to break into an artistic milieu controlled by a closed circle of guilds and family ties. In addition, his mentor in Seville, Pedro Díaz de Villanueva, was a minor artist and does not appear to have been influential. 

Zurbarán lived in Llerena from 1617 to 1629. Shortly after arriving there, he married María Páez who was 9 years older than him. She died in 1623 or 1624, following the birth of their third child. In 1625, he married Beatriz de Morales, a wealthy widow from a prominent local family.

Zurbarán, St, Gregory. 1626.

While living in Llerena, Zurbarán evidently kept in touch with events in Seville because in January 1626 he signed his first commission in the city (for the Dominican monastery of San Pablo). But he was still a largely unknown provincial painter and the amount offered for the twenty-one paintings stipulated in the contract was very small compared to what established artists in Seville could command.

Why then accept a small fee and a token advance? It probably had much to do with his improved financial (and social) status following his second marriage. In other words, his family wealth was subsiding his work while at the same time allowing him to gain entry into the most financially rewarding market for art in the country, especially for religious works.

Although few of these commissions have survived, they clearly fulfilled the demanding requirements stipulated by his monastic patrons since in 1629 Zurbarán was invited to relocate to Seville. The invitation was extended by the city council which, in the words of their spokesman, declared that “the city should attempt [to persuade] Francisco Zurbarán to remain here to live” (Brown 135b).

The invitation did not go unchallenged by the painters’ guild in Seville which in May 1630 demanded that Zurbarán pass an exam required of all painters practicing in the city. Zurbarán appealed to the city council. The outcome remains unknown but the fact that he was working on a painting in June 1630 suggests that the appeal was successful.

Zurbarán. Hercules fighting the Hydra 1634.

By 1634, Zurbarán’s prestige was sufficiently established for him to receive an invitation –in all likelihood instigated by Diego de Velázquez, whom Zurbarán had known in Seville– to contribute a number of paintings for the Hall of Realms at the Buen Retiro pleasure palace being constructed for the king, Philip IV, in Madrid. Zurbarán’s contribution consisted of ten mythological paintings on the Labours of Hercules and a battle scene, the Defence of Cádiz, which formed part of a series that included Velázquez’s famous Surrender of Breda.

However, no further commissions appear to have been forthcoming at Court despite the king’s favourable view of him. By 1635 Zurbarán was back in Seville where he remained until 1658.

Between 1635 and 1640, Zurbarán completed numerous commissions for various monastic orders from Seville, Llerena, Marchena, Arcos de la Frontera, Jerez de la Frontera and from as far away as Guadalupe.

By the late 1630s, he also found a new market in the American colonies. The demand was high and most of the paintings were in fact executed by Zurbarán’s assistants. Furthermore, they were not usually commissioned but painted on speculation and handed over to the captain of the ship carrying them who sought buyers. It was a risky business but evidently worked since Zurbarán continued the practice for some sixteen years, 1640-1656.

By the 1650s, Zurbarán star was beginning to fade as younger artists –offering different visions– competed for commissions and Zurbarán’s austere, ascetic style became largely irrelevant to be replaced a more sentimental piety best represented by the man who supplanted him as Seville’s main painter, Bartolomé Murillo (1617-82).

At the same time, a more theatrical, energetic style emerged with another Sevillian artist, Juan Valdés Leal (1622-90): e. g. compare the more sculptural rendition by Zurbarán of the Temptation of St. Jerome (1640) with Valdés Leal’s theatrical version (1657). A glance at Valdés Leal’s Miracle of St. Ildephonsus, 1661, –a canvas overflowing with riotous, frenetic activity— further shows how far Zurbarán was removed from this energetic style. 

Herrera. The Triumph of St. Hermenegild. 1654.

Yet another challenge came from Francisco de Herrera the Younger (1627-85). Also born in Seville, Herrera left the city in his early youth over disputes with his father and did not return until 1655, by which time he had been exposed to the latest artistic fashion in Italy and Madrid. One work, The Triumph of St. Hermenegild, 1654, immediately established, with its emotional appeal, his credentials in his native city.

Zurbarán’s fading star in the face of such challenges may well have prompted him to head back to Madrid in 1658 which had by now replaced Seville as the “place to be” for artists. But there was also another more prosaic factor: financial problems from the decline in commissions in Seville, and in 1656 and 1657 the destruction of the fleets from the New World by the English, which ruined many in Seville, including Zurbarán.

This time, although he did receive some minor commissions, the reception in Madrid was not as effusive as it had been in 1634; Zurbarán’s artistic temperament was too set in its ways to allow him to adapt to the new style successfully.

His last years were a struggle and his health declined but whether he died in poverty, as some claim, in uncertain; what is clear, however, is that by now his fame as artist had declined. 

Brief Review of Zurbarán’s Art.
Zurbarán is known almost exclusively for his religious works portraying saints, monks, martyrs, with some others of Christ, the Virgin, Holy Family etc., commissioned mainly by monastic orders in Seville and nearby towns. In general, these paintings are marked by simplicity, restraint, dignity, discipline and austerity more attuned to ascetic contemplation than sentimental emotions/feelings evidenced in much of the art of the period.

Complementing the sobriety of his style is the practice of tenebrism, a style of painting whereby figures are dramatically illuminated against a dark background by a shaft of light. This device owes much to the influence of the Italian master Michelangelo da Caravaggio (1573-1610), so much so that Zurbarán was frequently referred to the Spanish Caravaggio.

However, an interesting exception to the simplicity and austerity evident in the male saints etc. is the surprising number of young female saints and martyred virgins many of whom were dressed in elegant, colourful garments. In these paintings, the clothes are what catch the attention and we require symbols –associated with the saints/virgins– to identify the works as religious in intent.

It was not that Zurbarán was unfamiliar with the prevailing trends in Seville especially of, for example, Italian-inspired images of the Virgin surrounded by clouds with angels, cherubs, doves and putti. But this type of painting seemed to suit his personality less than the sober presentation of monks and saints, the portrayal of whom was governed furthermore by the requirements stipulated by the monastic orders that commissioned them. A painting of the Immaculate Conception (1632, one of several that Zurbarán did) and The Annunciation (1637) show this more florid type:

Other kinds of paintings by Zurbarán are few.  His most accomplished are his “Still Lifes,” a genre that had become increasingly popular and which found in Zurbarán one of its best practitioners. Notable are Still Life with Lemons and Oranges and Rose (1633), Agnus Dei ( of which there are several versions), and Still Life with Vessels (c. 1650).

Zurbarán Still-life with Lemons, Oranges and Rose. 1633.

As for the rest, we are left with 10 mythological paintings entitled The Labours of Hercules for Philip IV’s Hall of Realms in the newly-built Buen Retiro Palace in Madrid, a historical piece, The Defence of Cádiz, (both done in 1634 during a brief stay in Madrid), and some isolated pieces: Portrait of a Boy (the Duke of Medinaceli)?, Funeral ?, Portrait of Dr. Juan Martínez de Serrano ?, and Battle between Christians and Muslims at El Sotillo 1637-39.


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. 500-502 New York 1987.
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Zurbaran Exhibition 1987:
Witschey, Erica ed. The Prado Masterpieces, trans. Philip Sutton, London, New York: Thames and Hudson 2016.
Image of St. Francis in Meditation by Zurbarán:
Image of St. Apollonia by Zurbarán:
Image of Father Juan de Carrión by Zurbarán:,_145.png
Image of The Immaculate Conception by Zurbarán:
Image of The Annunciation by Zurbarán:,_por_Francisco_de_Zurbar%C3%A1n.jpg
Image of Still Life with Oranges, Lemons and Rose by Zurbarán:,_Oranges_and_a_Rose
Image of St. Gregory by Zurbarán:
Image of Hercules fighting the Hydra: Francisco de Zurbarán – Galería online, Museo del Prado., Public Domain,
Image of The Temptations of St. Jerome by Zurbarán:
Image of The Temptations of St. Jerome by Juan Valdés Leal:
Image of Miracle of St. Ildephonsus by Valdés Leal:,_Miracle_of_St_Ildefonsus_01.jpg
Image of St. Hermenegild by Francisco de Herrera:


Camino de Santiago. Decline and Rebirth.

Camino de Santiago. Decline in the 14th-15th Centuries.
Pilgrimages to Santiago de Compostela boomed from the 11th to the mid-14th century, with the Camino francés (French Road/Way) being especially popular.

Camino frances.

However, political, social and religious events from roughly the second half of the 14th century combined to push Santiago, and pilgrimages in general, increasingly into the background. Between 1347 and 1351, for example, Europe was devastated by the Black Death with a mortality rate estimated at over 20 million, or over one third of Europe’s population. It is not difficult to imagine the effect felt by survivors at all levels of society. 

The Church was particularly exposed when the death or flight of large numbers of the clergy left it unable to fulfil its pastoral duty, which in turn undermined the faith of believers. Public order broke down and large numbers of people, out of fear or despair, resorted to violence targeting especially the Jews. Others took to self-flagellation in the hope of appeasing God with their displays of devotion.

This undermining of confidence in the Church spilled over into an increasing scrutiny of its privileges, perceived corruption and immorality. Amongst the criticisms were those that later became fundamental arguments in the appearance of Protestantism: e. g. sales of indulgencies, lack of scriptural justification for the existence of the papacy, disapproval of celibacy and prayers to saints, and the condemnation of pilgrimages. These unorthodox/ heretical views were held, for example, by the English theologian, John Wycliffe (c. 1330-1385) and his followers, known as Lollards. A Lollard manifesto, the Twelve Conclusions, written in 1395, contained a clear condemnation of pilgrimages and associated practices. Conclusion 8 affirms that “the practices of pilgrimage and the veneration of relics at best are ineffectual for spiritual merit and at worst approach idolatry in their worship of created objects.

Similar devaluations of pilgrimages by Catholic priests continued in the 15th century, but clearly the very continuation of the attacks only confirms that people still continued the practice.

Sculpture of Santiago Matamoros in the Mosque, Córdoba. Note horse’s hoof trampling a Moor,

In Spain, however, the Church was not subject, during the 15th century, to such critical scrutiny of its scriptural legitimacy as in Northern Europe. There, the Church was actively involved with the push to rid the Peninsula of its religious rival, Islam. St. James had long been popularly linked to the efforts to remove the Moors (as the Muslims in al-Andalus were commonly called). Christians claimed that he had appeared –mounted on a white horse– in various battles and helped them against their Muslim adversaries. This had earned him the title of Santiago Matamoros (St. James Moorkiller). It was to St. James’s shrine that the famous Catholic Monarchs, Fernando and Isabella, went to pray for help in 1486 when preparing for the final push to rid their kingdom of the last vestiges of Islam. 

Where the decrease of pilgrims heading for Santiago was most sharply felt was in the reduction of their number from north of the Pyrenees. Not only did the Black Death, accusations of corruption etc. and attacks on the value of pilgrimages undermine the purpose of the practice, a recurrent conflict between England and France (aka as the Hundred Year War) 1337-1453 also discouraged travel from those countries.

The 16th Century.
The popularity of Santiago de Compostela decreased even more in the 16th century with the impact of humanism and the birth of Protestantism and its break from the Catholic fold in northern Europe. The influential Catholic humanist Desiderius Erasmus (1466-1536) mocked pilgrims returning from their journeys loaded down with useless tin and lead images.  

With the birth of Protestantism came emphasis on simplicity, a personal relationship with God (i. e. eliminating priests as mediators/intercessors), and in extreme cases, a rejection of painting (and sculpture) as idolatrous. Martin Luther, a pivotal figure in the birth of Protestantism, had himself undertaken a pilgrimage to Rome as a young monk in 1511 before his famous break with Catholic Church in 1517. He had become increasingly disillusioned with pilgrimages which he condemned as “unnecessary” and “dangerous.” For Luther and others, a pilgrimage became an inner journey into faith and not a physical requirement, an ‘internal’ pilgrimage as opposed to its physical practice.

The end of the 16th century witnessed attacks by Turkish pirates and Sir Francis Drake on the coast of Galicia. Threats to destroy the cathedral and the Saint’s remains led the archbishop, Juan de Sanclemente (1587-1602), to remove the remains. Their exact location remained unknown until 1879, but the absence of the Saint’s relics removed the principal reason and main attraction for the pilgrims’ journey.

17th to 20th Centuries.
In the 17th century, St. James’s position as Spain’s patron saint was challenged by the canonization of St. Teresa of Avila in 1622 and by a petition by the Carmelite monks that she be elevated to co-patron with St. James. [Pope Urban VIII did indeed proclaim Sta. Teresa co-patron in 1627, but reaction was so furious that two years later the proclamation was withdrawn].

The Enlightenment of the 18th century cast a skeptical eye on what in many quarters was viewed as religious superstition, while in the 19th century, wars, political upheavals and Spain’s reputation as a backward, poverty racked, robber-ridden country did nothing to persuade pilgrims to head for out-of-the-way Compostela.

The decline continued well into the 20th century which witnessed two European wars (1914-18; 1939-45), and in Spain itself a vicious Civil War (1936-39), two dictatorships (1923-30; 1939-75), and a volatile and deeply divided Republic (1931-36). These political convulsions wedded to the general poverty of the country were hardly favorable for pilgrimages.

It is hardly surprising, then, that over the centuries, large chunks of the original Camino francés disappeared, overrun by growth in the forests and mountain slopes or simply fading away through lack of use in the large stretches of open land in Castile-Leon.

The Return of Pilgrims.
It wasn’t until the 1980s that interest in the Camino was revived despite the fact that Spain had become well known as a major destination for thousands of visitors from northern Europe from the early 1960s. A revitalized post Second World war economy, low-priced package tours and cheap accommodation enticed these modern “pilgrims” for whom all caminos led to Spain’s sun-filled beaches. For these, sun, sand and sangria satisfied their needs, while those pilgrims heading for Santiago de Compostela in search of spiritual needs were very few and far between. According to the web page Galicia Guide, fewer than 10 pilgrims were registered in Santiago in the early 1970s (  By 1985, the number had climbed to 690. From there it jumped to 4,918 in 1990, and to a staggering 347,578 in 2019 .

But why has the Camino francés (and its sister routes) become so popular since the 1980s? Is the pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela the result of a “new spiritual age” as argued by John Brierley, author of a popular guide of the Camino francés, or is it really an offshoot of the tourist industry? 

Father Elías Valiña Sampedro (1929-89).
Whether the camino fulfills some innate spiritual need or not, its existence and popularity nowadays owe an enormous debt to one particular individual: Father Elías Valiña Sampedro (1929-89), a parish priest of the small, frequently windswept and mist covered Galician village of O Cebreiro from 1959 until his death. 1959 was the year that Father Valiña graduated in Canonical Law from the Pontifical University of Comillas. 

View of O Cebreiro.

As part of his studies for the priesthood at the Universidad Pontificia in Salamanca, he wrote a history of the road which he defended in 1965 and had published in Madrid in 1971. This was followed in 1982 by El Camino de Santiago. Guía del peregrino, translated as The Pilgrim’s Guide to the Camino de Santiago in 1992. It is the first modern, comprehensive travel guide to the Camino francés and considered by some to be the modern equivalent of Picaud’s 12th century guide Liber Sancti Jacobi: The Book of St. James. Like its famous predecessor, Father Elias’s book describes churches and monuments, discusses legends and miracles associated with the road, and covers food and accommodation. Numerous maps help the pilgrims along their way and are a testament to the time Father Valiña himself spent travelling and mapping out the Camino.

One of the most distinctive features of the Camino that travellers nowadays benefit from are the signature yellow arrows marking the direction to Compostela.

Arrow pointing to Santiago in O Cebreiro. Above, a stylised scallop shell, a symbol closely associated with the pilgrimage to Santiago.

These were painted in 1984 by Father Valiña and numerous helpers  A well-known anecdote relates that when he began painting the arrows in the Pyrenees, near the French-Spanish border, he was stopped by the Guardia Civil (National Spanish rural police force) who feared they were intended to help Basque ETA terrorists then very active in the area. When asked what he was doing, he is said to have replied that he was preparing for a major invasion from France. True or not, what followed has been, in a way, a modern invasion.

Father Valiña’s efforts (which also included conferences and lectures) were rewarded by international recognition of the pilgrimage route: the historic centre of Santiago was placed on UNESCO’s World Heritage Site in 1985; in 1987, the European Union declared the Camino francés Europe’s first Cultural Itinerary, an honour which was followed by its selection to UNESCO’s World Heritage Site in 1993. In 1989, Pope John Paul II became the first pope to visit Santiago de Compostela, a visit perhaps long overdue given the importance the city and its related caminos played in perpetuating the Catholic faith in the Peninsula.

Nowadays, the Camino de Santiago and its various sister routes figure amongst the most widely travelled Christian pilgrim roads, having recovered to some degree the preeminence they enjoyed in the Middle Ages.

Nevertheless, for many people, the Camino has now become a victim of its own popularity. There is frequent dissension between pilgrims for whom the journey is spiritually inspired and who walk the whole distant, and those who have been referred to as “pseudo-pilgrims” or “pilgrim wannabes.” The latter often walk the last 100 kilometres (to qualify for the much desired compostela, the certificate showing proof of having completed the camino!) and are identified by not carrying knapsacks/ backpacks or walking sticks/staffs, considered essentials by most walkers. Or there are other travellers who go high end and look on the Camino more as a tourist experience. These avoid the modest pilgrim accommodation in albergues (hostels) or refugios, stay the night in hotels, and travel lightly having arranged to have their luggage transported between hotels.

For those interested, there is an excellent and perceptive discussion by Alison T Smith on the tensions arising from the different expectations related to the Camino. The first three pages are those most relevant to the Camino, but the whole article is worth reading:

Covid 19, of course, has had an effect, and any pilgrim contemplating travelling to Compostela now should be aware of restrictions and requirements which can change according to circumstances. There are web pages that address the problems: Google something like Santiago de Compostela Covid 19. 

Barton, Simon A History of Spain Basingstoke, Hampshire: Macmillan 2nd ed. 2009
Gitlitz, David M. and Davidson, Linda Kay The Pilgrimage Road to Santiago: The Complete Cultural Handbook New York: St. Martin’s Press 2000.
Jacobs, Michael The Road to Santiago de Compostela, London: Penguin Books 1991
Nooteboom, Cees Roads to Santiago: Detours and Riddles in the Lands and History of Spain. Trans. from the Dutch by Ina Rilke.  Orlando, Florida 1997.
Reilly, Bernard in Medieval Iberia: An Encyclopedia, ed. E. Michael Gerli New York, London 2003.
Tate, Brian and Marcus The Pilgrim Road to Santiago Oxford: Phaidon 1987 Very good web page
Map of the Camino francés: 

Camino de Santiago. Birth, Rise and Popularity. 9th to 14th Centuries.

The Camino de Santiago. Birth and Popularity.
The Camino de Santiago is a term that refers almost exclusively to a specific route that was the most popular from medieval days to now: the Camino francés: the French Road. Although there were in fact several caminos, none had the impact or influence of the Camino francés. Most pilgrims joined four main roads the starting points of which were Paris/Tours, Vezelay, Le Puy and Arles. All of these roads converged at Puente la Reina, in Navarra, just south of the Pyrenees. It was here where the Camino francés proper began.

The following is a brief history of that Camino’s birth and rise in the Middle Ages from the 9th to the 14th century. 

Camino francés.

Introduction. The Story behind the Camino.
The story of the Camino de Santiago starts with the discovery of the tomb of St. James the Greater, one of Jesus Christ’s closest disciples, who supposedly travelled to Spain to spread the Christian gospel. He is said to have reached Galicia, had little success at evangelization and subsequently returned to the Holy Land. There he was beheaded in 40AD/CE, after which his body was transferred miraculously in a stone boat –having no rudder, oars, sails or even sailors– through the Mediterranean and up the west coast of the Iberian Peninsula before landing at Iria Flavia (now merged with the town of Padron), Galicia. His body was believed to have been buried in the area following further miraculous events.

St. James’s body remained hidden until it was discovered sometime between 818 and 842. The discovery was verified by Theodomir, Bishop of Iria Flavia (c. 818-847), and the news relayed to Alfonso II, King of Asturias (r. 791-842) who quickly left the Asturian capital, Oviedo, for the site and ordered a small church built there. The route of approximately 320-kilometres from Oviedo to Santiago followed by Alfonso is generally recognised as the oldest or “original” road: the Camino Primitivo, and the king often identified as the first pilgrim.

So began the veneration of St. James and with that the initial step towards recognising Santiago de Compostela as a pilgrimage destination.

The Early Years: 9th and 10th centuries.
We know little about pilgrim activity in the 9th century, although given the importance attached to the discovery of St. James’s tomb by Bishop Theodomir and King Alfonso, it is likely that local pilgrims soon visited the place, to be followed later by others from farther away as its fame grew.

Certainly, by the mid-10th century, the reputation of Santiago had expanded beyond the Pyrenees and into France. Indeed, the first documented pilgrim was a Frenchman, Bishop Godescalc of Le Puy, who made the journey in 951. He was followed ten years later by the deposed Archbishop of Rheims, Hugues de Vermandois, who died returning from the pilgrimage.

Church dignitaries such as these would have been accompanied by servants, attendants, and guards to protect them from cutthroats or the dangers arising from the frequent raids (razzias) by the Moors. For example, in 997, the marauding Moorish vizier and de facto ruler of al-Andalus, al-Mansur, sacked León and Zamora in 988 and nine years later laid the town of Santiago to waste and destroyed the church, leaving only St. James’s tomb intact.

11th and 12th Centuries.
With city and church destroyed, the pilgrimage suffered a brief suspension, before rebuilding was begun around 1000 by Bishop Pedro de Mezonzo. However, this church was not sufficiently large to accommodate the increasing numbers of pilgrims and a new, larger building was initiated by Bishop Diego Peláez (?-?, Bishop of Iria Flavia 1071/5?-1088; 1090-94) in 1075. Architecturally significant, it formed the basis of what was to become the largest Romanesque church in Spain and Europe’s second most important pilgrim destination.

Nevertheless, Peláez’s contribution was overshadowed by that of his successor, Diego Gelmírez (1060-1140), who not only built more grandiose additions to the church, but also inspired the construction of the archbishop’s palace as well as the churches of Santa Susana, San Fructuoso and San Benito. Politically active and astute, it was the dynamic Gelmírez who got Compostela elevated to an archbishopric and himself named its first archbishop in 1120.

The elevation to cathedral and enlargement of Compostela’s church in the 12th century were measurements not only of religious clout but also of political muscle. At the same time that religious and political (i. e. royalty and nobility) figures paid homage to St. James/ Santiago, they competed with each other for influence and power and called upon the Saint to intercede on their behalf.

Mid-12th century. The First “Travel Guide”:  The Book of St. James: Liber Sancti Jacobi.
By now, the fame Santiago was such and pilgrims numerous enough that a compilation of material centering on the cult of St. James appeared in the mid-12th century. Written in Latin and entitled Liber Sancti Jacobi (Book of St. James), it is also frequently known as the Codex Calixtinus after Pope Calixtus II (1119-24), friend of Archbishop Gelmírez, and supposed author of the manuscript. However, the attribution is clearly false, since Calixtus died well before the manuscript was compiled: between 1139 and 1165.

The Liber is made up of five books, each with a different focus. The first three deal with matters relating to St. James: sermons and hymns celebrating the Saint’s feast days (Bk. 1), an anthology of the miracles attributed to him (Bk. 2), a collection of tales related to the Saint’s life, including the miraculous journey of his body to Galicia and the discovery of his tomb (Bk. 3). Book 4 switches to the tales and exploits of the eight-century emperor Charlemagne and his famous knight, Roland, in their battles against the Moors in Spain following Charlemagne’s vision of the Saint (Bk. 4).

However, for the modern reader and pilgrim it is Book 5 that is of most interest and is considered the earliest known guide book of the pilgrimage route. Commonly attributed to Aymery Picaud, a monk from Poitiers, it recommends shrines and monuments that pilgrims should visit (a town’s importance and economy were greatly increased by the holy relics they could claim to be found in them), and encourages them with the promise of miracles that could be expected from the visit: “here help is given to the sick, the blind recover their sight, the tongues of the dumb are untied, hearing is granted to the deaf, the lame are made able to walk, the possessed are delivered and, what is more, the prayers of the faithful are answered, their wishes are granted, the fetters of sin are cast off, heaven opens to those who knock, consolation is given to the afflicted, and hosts of foreign people from all parts of the world make their way here to bring the Lord their gifts and their praise” (Barton 57).

Still, the promise of miracles and importance of viewing relics is tempered by very much down to earth advice on what dangers pilgrims might expect on the road itself. For example, they are cautioned against cutthroats, swindlers (including fellow pilgrims), unscrupulous inn-keepers, questionable food, bad water etc.

Indeed, the journey can sound quite harrowing if Picaud’s opinion of the Navarrese is anything to go by: “For one sou and a half, a man of Navarre will stab a Frenchman to death. The people of Navarre are full of malice, swarthy of complexion, ugly of appearance, depraved, perverse, despicable, disloyal, corrupt, lechers, drunkards and past masters of all forms of violence, wild, savage, treacherous, deceitful, blasphemous and foul-mannered, cruel and quarrelsome, incapable of honourable behaviour. All vices come easily to them” (Nooteboom 322-23).

Picaud notes amongst the vices he attacks that in the households of the Gascons of southwest France servants and master and mistress all sleep shamelessly together on a piece of dirty straw.  Basques and Navarrese not only attack the pilgrims heading to Santiago but they also mount them like asses and kill them.  Furthermore, the Navarrese: when they warm themselves, they expose their intimate parts, the husband to wife and wife to husband. In addition, the Navarrese fornicate incestuously with their animalsIn comparison, the Castilians get off lightly, with Picaud merely noting that they are bad and depraved (

As for food in general, Picaud seems to contradict himself. Individual towns are praised for their foods. Estella has good bread and excellent wine, and so too meat and fish; Carrión is a prosperous and excellent town, abundant in bread, wine, meat and all kinds of produce; León abounds in all kinds of riches (bienes). And Castile is a land full of treasures of silver and gold, rich in clothing material (paños) and sturdy horses. On the other hand, he cautions pilgrims that if by chance you eat fish called commonly barbel (a kind of catfish) in Spain and Galicia, you can be sure that you’ll soon be dead or sick …  both fish and beef or pork in Spain and Galicia make foreigners sick (

The French Presence.
Of course, there is more than a whiff of nationalism on Picaud’s part and there is little doubt that the guide was aimed primarily at French pilgrims  who, from the simple fact of geographical proximity, made up the majority of travellers. 

It is no coincidence, then, that of the several roads heading for Compostela, the most famous and most travelled is the one commonly called the Camino francés. This is not simply because of the number of French pilgrims who travelled along it but also because of the many who settled permanently on the route. Merchants, artisans, innkeepers, masons (builders) etc., drawn by the commercial prospects from the droves heading to Compostela and encouraged by royal support, set up shops, hostels, inns and other amenities along the route.

French Religious Contribution.
Major players, too, in popularizing the cult of St. James were French religious orders, especially the Benedictines from the 11th century, and from the mid-12th their spiritual offshoot the Cistercians. The Benedictines (aka Cluniacs after Cluny, the location of their mother church in eastern France) were more prominent establishing a network of important monasteries and hostels along the north and were vital partners in the creation of an infrastructure of roads, bridges, and passable roads. 

In addition, many bishops in influential Spanish dioceses were from Cluny. The best known is Bernard who became archbishop of Toledo (from 1086 to 1125) immediately after it was retaken by the Christians in 1085.  But Cluny also provided bishops for Segovia, Palencia, Sigüenza, Zamora and Salamanca.

Adding weight (literally!?) to French presence/influence along the Camino are the many Romanesque and Gothic churches dotting the route that were built by French masons or inspired by French architecture. The most impressive are the Romanesque cathedral of Santiago and basilica of San Isidoro, León, and the great Gothic cathedrals of Burgos (1222) and León (1258), both replacing earlier Romanesque structures. 

Predictably, as Compostela’s fame grew and pilgrimages to Jerusalem became more dangerous in the 12th century with the holy city a battleground between Christian Crusaders and Muslims, St. James’s tomb became an even more attractive alternative for pilgrims from other parts of Europe. The four main starting points were identified in the Liber Sancti Jacobi as Tours, Vezelay, Le Puy and Arles. All of these roads converged at Puente la Reina, in Navarra, just south of the Pyrenees. It was here where the Camino francés proper began (see map at the beginning of this post).

The Camino thrived for centuries and only began to lose popularity in the mid 14th century when a pandemic (the Black Death) swept through Europe and recurrent conflict between England and France (aka as the Hundred Year War) 1337-1453 discouraged travel from those countries. Still, pilgrimages did stutter along internally during the 15th century, the high point probably being the visit of the Catholic Monarchs, Fernando and Isabella, to St. James’s shrine in 1486 to pray for the Saint’s aid in the final push to rid their kingdom of the last vestiges of Islam.

But the growing interest in humanism and the disruptive effects of Protestantism throughout much of Europe in the 16th century ensured that Santiago would fade into the background. It sank into obscurity from the 17th century, only to recover in spectacular fashion towards the end of the 20th century. But that is another story.

Barton, Simon A History of Spain Basingstoke, Hampshire, 2nd ed. 2009
Gitlitz, David M. and Davidson, Linda Kay The Pilgrimage Road to Santiago: The Complete Cultural Handbook New York 2000.
Jacobs, Michael The Road to Santiago de Compostela, London 1991
Nooteboom, Cees Roads to Santiago: Detours and Riddles in the Lands and History of Spain. Trans. from the Dutch by Ina Rilke.  Orlando, Florida 1997.
Reilly, Bernard in Medieval Iberia: An Encyclopedia, ed. E. Michael Gerli *********
Tate, Brian and Marcus The Pilgrim Road to Santiago Oxford 1987 Very good, exhaustive web page
Map of the Camino francés: 




Camino de Santiago. Why Santiago de Compostela? Why St. James?

Camino de Santiago. Why Santiago de Compostela? Why St. James?
That the obscure, medieval settlement of Santiago de Compostela should become the third most important destination for Christian pilgrims in the Middle Ages (after Jerusalem and Rome) is a mystery. Pilgrims headed there to pray at the resting place of the apostle St. James the Greater –one of Christ’s closest disciples (he was one of three disciples present at Christ’s transfiguration –Mark 9: 2-13, Matthew 17: 1-13, Luke 9: 28-36), the first Christian to suffer a martyr’s death and the only one whose martyrdom is mentioned in the New Testament (Acts 12: 2)

The Location.
Where exactly is Santiago de Compostela? It’s located in Galicia in the isolated north west of the Iberian Peninsula, an area that has always lent itself to mystery and fantasy. Often bathed in mists and rain, it is hilly and tree covered and edged by a wild, stormy coastline.
Early on, it was populated by Celts, worshippers of nature and believers in mystery, magic and witchcraft (including lycanthropy, the transformation of humans into werewolves). And as sun worshippers, the Celts would have noted, on this stretch of the turbulent Atlantic coast, the death of the sun followed by impenetrable darkness. The sight would have inspired considerable awe and wonder and prompted rituals to ensure the return of the sun. It seemed like the end of the world, a menacing concept the Romans captured in the words finis terrae (“the end of the earth”) from which we get the Galician location: (Cabo/Cape Finisterre, Cabo Fisterra in Galician). However, geography and climate alone are surely not sufficient in creating such an important and influential Christian pilgrim destination. We’ll return to this under Significance, below.

Cabo/ Cape Finisterre.

Why St. James/ Santiago?
As fertile ground for rituals, it was certainly not impossible for the cult of a saint to take root in Galicia. The question is … why St. James? How did the veneration of his bones get established so far from the scene of his martyrdom in distant Jerusalem? There is, in fact, no evidence that St. James ever visited Roman Hispania and the description of the miraculous transfer of his remains to Galicia after his execution is pure fantasy.

Tradition has it that his relics were transported by two disciples, guided by an angel, in a crewless and rudderless stone boat through the Mediterranean and up the Atlantic coast to Iria Flavia (now part of the town of Padrón) on the Galician shores. All this apparently in a week! 

The source of this legend, with its several variants***, is lost in the mists of time and we hear nothing about the location of St. James’s relics until approximately 818-840/2 when his tomb was miraculously discovered by a shepherd (or hermit ) named Pelayo who was led there by twinkling stars.

[***One variant has it that St. James was buried in Mérida (Extremadura), a town he had supposedly visited before arriving in Galicia as part of his evangelical work. How his remains ended up in Mérida is a mystery, but it is speculated that they would have been transferred to Santiago for safe keeping following the arrival of the Moors in 711.]

The discovery was conveyed to a certain Theodomir, Bishop of Iria Flavia (818-847). Another version attributes the discovery to Bishop Theodomir who was guided there by a star. In both instances, Theodomir then reported the finding to Alfonso II, King of Asturias (r. 791-842) who quickly visited the site and had a small church built there. Alfonso’s actions gave royal approval thereby to Theodomir’s claim for the legitimacy of the Saint’s tomb.

But on what was Theodomir’s claim based? There was nothing concrete, although the famous Asturian theologian and monk, Beatus of Liébana (c. 738-c.800) had confirmed in his widely disseminated Commentary on the Book of Revelation (c. 776) that Santiago had converted Spain to Christianity. [Liébana was then located in the Kingdom of Asturias, but now it is geographically situated in neighbouring Cantabria].

Significantly, Beatus’s assertion came some 65 years after one of the most momentous events in Spanish history: the invasion of the Peninsula in 711 by Muslim forces (made up of Berber soldiers under Arab leadership) from North Africa.

At the time of their arrival, the Peninsula was controlled by the Visigoths who, in 589, had declared Christianity the official faith of their kingdom. Political turbulence and civil war among the Visigoths in 710 allowed the Muslims (or Moors, the general term for the newcomers regardless of ethnic origins) to slip across the Straits of Gibraltar in 711. 

Between 711 and 720, the Moors conquered all of Iberia/Hispania, including Galicia. A significant exception, however, was a narrow strip along the mountainous north coast, roughly modern Asturias and Cantabria.  It was from here that armed resistance against the Moors started.

The first successful Christian resistance to the Moors is usually identified as the Battle of Covadonga, fought in a remote valley of the Cantabrian Mountain area of Asturias, sometime between 718 and 725. Amongst those Christians were fugitives from al-Andalus (as the Moors called the land they occupied) who carried with them their Christian Visigothic heritage. It was a heritage that played increasing importance in the reconquest of those lands lost to the Moors as successive kings laid claim to be heirs to the Visigothic tradition and linked their reigns to the dreamed-of return to the unity of the Peninsula under the Visigoths.

Precipitous mountains, steep valleys and a wet climate were sufficient disincentives to the Moors and allowed the kingdom of Asturias to entrench itself safely in the rugged terrain by around 810, when Alfonso II made Oviedo his capital. Nevertheless, regular raids from the Moors were a constant reminder of the “Other” and of the loss of territory to an alien culture.

The claim that the tomb discovered between 818 and 840/2 was that of St. James would, then, have resonated in both the religious and political circles and would have had special impact being found so near at hand. It meant that Christians could now call on the Apostle for divine assistance to counter the Moorish use of relics of the prophet Muhammad that they carried into battle. And Asturias could be seen at the vanguard of the Christian fight against the Moors. In other words, both worlds would benefit and be inspired by having a powerful figurehead to lead them in their struggles with the Moors.

But again, going back to the same nagging question … how do we know they were the bones of the Saint martyred in Jerusalem? We still don’t, but two factors may help to account for the popular belief that they were those of St. James. First, the tradition that St. James had preached the gospel of Christ in Spain, a “fact” confirmed by respected authorities such as Beatus of Liébana. Second, the active involvement of Bishop Theodimir and Alfonso II in propagating the news of the discovery and verifying the bones as those of James. [In the 1940s an ancient Roman burial site was found beneath Santiago cathedral, which Bishop Theodomir could have used to his (or the Church’s) advantage in making his claim that St. James’s bones rested there. Furthermore, the burial site contained a decapitated skeleton, a detail which coincides with the legend of the transportation of St. James’s remains to Spain. Also found there was the tomb of Bishop Theodimir, the man who verified the presence of St. James’s remains! 

Incidentally, the traditional understanding of “Compostela” is that it derives from the Latin “campus stellae” or “field of stars.”  It’s a poetic image but the word may in fact stem from “campus stelae” a “field of (grave)stones” or simply be a diminutive of the Latin “compostum” meaning “little cemetery.”] 

The cult of St. James, then, stems primarily from the words and actions of two authoritative and influential individuals, one ecclesiastical/ religious, the other royalty/ secular: Bishop Theodimir and King Alfonso II of Asturias. As a theologian, Theodimir would have a good knowledge of the lives of saints and of James’s supposed evangelization of Iberia/Hispania. Furthermore, he would have recognized the advantages for him and the Church of authenticating the bones found in Santiago as those of St. James, one of Christ’s “beloved” disciples. 

For Alonso, aligning himself with such a discovery would not only add status/ prestige to Asturias, but also help confirm Asturian sovereignty over Galicia, which had been retaken from the Moors by Alfonso I in the 740s. This is a significant detail because Galicia was at this time the first and only part of the Peninsula that Christians had reconquered from Muslim control. Although Alfonso I continued south, crossing the Duero and reaching as far Salamanca, Avila and Segovia, he did not retain those lands. He withdrew north, leaving a large area of the Duero basin relatively depopulated. Still, the reconquest of Galicia was an example of what could be achieved given the right incentives and determination.

So now, importantly for both the Church and Asturias, the relics of St. James could be harnessed to counter the ongoing and threatening presence of a common enemy: Muslim al-Andalus.

Post Note.
In the case of Bishop Theodomir, there may have been added purpose in confirming that the discovered bones were those of St. James. Theodomir would undoubtedly be very aware of the thriving devotion in Galicia to another martyr, the 4th-century Bishop of Avila, Priscillian (c. 340-385/6) who was beheaded by the Church for heresy. Priscillian was born in Spain, but his birthplace is disputed, some arguing for Roman Baetica (modern Andalusia and southern Extremadura), others for Galicia.

A committed ascetic, Priscillian advocated the reform of the church which brought him into conflict over ecclesiastical control with the more numerous non-reformists of the established hierarchy, a conflict which eventually led to his execution. Furthermore, he espoused ideas that drew on more esoteric sources, principally Gnosticism and Manicheanism, whose belief in the existence of two kingdoms (light and darkness or good and evil), challenged the established Christian narrative. His execution was viewed by his followers as martyrdom and martyrs merited devotion.

Our interest here is not in Priscillianism but in the fact that it flourished in Galicia and that for Bishop Theodomir, it must have represented a challenge to the orthodoxy of Catholic dogma. What better way, then, to counteract Priscillianism than to trump a 4th-century “heretic martyr” by an authentic martyr who was not only Christianity’s first martyr but also one of Christ’s closest disciples!

History shows us that the cause of St. James prevailed thanks to the symbiotic relationship between Church and State (Asturias, which in 910 morphed into León after the capital moved south from Oviedo to the city of León). It wasn’t long before St. James was co-opted by the State as an active, military defender of Christianity against Islam, appearing miraculously on horseback in battles. Not only did he earn the title of Santiago Matamoros (Moor Killer), but he was also riding forward to become Spain’s*** national saint. (***Catalan separatists might object to this broad characterisation and remind readers that Catalonia-Catalunya has its own national saint, St. George- Sant Jordi).

Brierley, John A Pilgrim’s Guide to the Camino de Santiago, Forres, Scotland: Camino Guides 9th ed. 2013.

Davies, Bethan and Cole, Ben Walking the Camino de Santiago Vancouver: Pili Pala Press 3rd ed. Updated by Daphne Hnatiuk 2009.
Gitlitz, David M and Davidson Linda Kay The Pilgrimage Road to Santiago: The Complete Cultural Handbook, New York: St. Martin’s Griffin 2000.
Jacobs, Michael The Road to Santiago de Compostela, London: Penguin 1992
Huxham, Trevor
Lomax, Derek W. La Reconquista Barcelona: Editorial Critica 1984
Nickell, Joe The Mystery Chronicles: More Real-Life X-Files, Chptr 13, Lexington 2004).
Tate, Brian and Marcus The Pilgrim Route to Santiago Oxford: Phaidon 1987
Webster, Jason Violencia. A New History of Spain: Past, Present and the Future of the West London: Constable 2019.
Image of Cabo/ Cape Finisterre by Deenstel:

For a very interesting discussion on the importance of witchcraft in Galician culture, see The text is accompanied by excellent photos that evoke brilliantly the mystery and magic of the Galician countryside.

Góngora. Brief Biography of a Gambler, Rebel, Poet.

Luis de Góngora y Argote. Brief Biography.
Luis de Góngora y Argote (1561-1627) was one of the most prominent/ outstanding poets of Spain’s Golden Age, a period of remarkable literary achievements in prose fiction, drama and verse. In poetry, Góngora has traditionally been seen as the culmination of a rich trajectory beginning with Garcilaso de la Vega (1501-36) and progressing via figures such as Fray Luis de León (1527-91), San Juan de la Cruz (1542-91) and Fernando de Herrera (c. 1534-97), to name a few.

Portrait of Góngora by Diego de Velázquez

During his day, Góngora was rivalled only by the poet-dramatist Lope de Vega (1562-1635) and the multi-talented Francisco de Quevedo (1580-1645). The former held a lukewarm and grudging admiration for Góngora but the latter was a bitter critic and implacable enemy.

Born in Córdoba to a noble family, Góngora was known as an aficionado of card playing and bullfighting from his early years. At the age of 15, he attended the University of Salamanca for four years with apparently little enthusiasm, and returning to Córdoba without a degree. Soon after his return, he accepted a Church office as prebendary, a post an uncle of his renounced in his favour. Although not a priest, as prebendary Góngora could be expected to officiate and serve in the church, for which he received a stipend (a fixed sum paid periodically for services). However, his religious vocation and dedication were clearly wanting to judge from the criticisms directed at him by the Bishop of the Cathedral: he was accused of absenteeism, of talking during prayers, of going to bullfights and of associating with actors and writing frivolous verse. He received a small fine as punishment. 

Nevertheless, his rebellious/ irreligious behaviour did not preclude him travelling widely on business for the cathedral. Significant were trips in 1602 to Valladolid (when it was the temporary capital of Spain, 1601-06) and in 1609 to Madrid (once again the permanent capital).

He continued to live in Córdoba until 1617 when thanks to the Duke of Lerma he was named to a royal chaplaincy in the court of King Philip III in Madrid, a position that required him to be ordained a priest. By now, he had already established himself as a poet of note and his visits to the centres of power allowed him rub shoulders with both literary, social and political heavyweights, including the Count of Villamediana, the Count of Lemos and the powerful and influential Duke of Lerma, the king’s favourite.

He spent most of the last ten years of his life in Madrid where, despite the favours of his protectors –first Lerma and, following Lerma’s fall, the Count-Duke of Olivares— Góngora found himself in financial difficulties. Most galling for Góngora was the purchase of the house in which he lived by his arch enemy, Quevedo, for the sole purpose of evicting him from it.

In 1627, following a serious illness, Góngora returned to Córdoba where he died on May 23 of the same year.

For a long time, Góngora ’s poetry was divided into two parts, his early poetry being viewed as “easy” and his later considered “difficult.” The former was identified as being inspired by popular or folk poetry associated with traditional, native verse forms such as letrillas, romances and romancillos. His later verse is the kind that made him most famous and earned him enemies and supporters. Its complex, highly ornate style and esoteric/ obscure allusions has given rise to the term gongorismo and is best represented by his two most celebrated works: La fábula de Polifemo y Galatea (“The Tale of Polyphemus and Galatea”) and Soledades (“Solitudes”), both completed in 1613.

Gaylord, Mary Malcolm “The Making of Baroque Poetry” in The Cambridge History of Spanish Literature, ed. Gies, David T Cambridge 2009, pp. 222-37.
Rivers, Elias ed  Renaissance and Baroque Poetry of Spain Prospect Heights Illinois 1988 (With English prose translations of the poems.)
Robbins, Jeremy The Challenges of Uncertainty: An Introduction to Seventeenth-Century Spanish Literature New York 1998.
Walters, D. Gareth  The Cambridge Introduction to Spanish Poetry Cambridge 2002.
Wardropper, Bruce   Spanish Poetry of the Golden Age  New York 1971