Painting in Spain’s Golden Age. Background and Overview.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

His grandson, Philip IV (r. 1621-65), was gifted a new pleasure palace, the Buen Retiro, by his favourite, the count-duke of Olivares in the 1630s, with predictably a high demand for art works to fill its halls.

Aristocrats, eager to keep up with trends, built stately residences too, all requiring extensive decorating. Wealthy merchants did likewise.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Out of favour in Madrid, distant from Seville or Valencia (the major artistic centres in Spain at the time), El Greco had little direct impact on the numerous gifted Spanish-born painters who appeared in the 17th century.

However, by then, the influence of Flemish and Italian painters had filtered through sufficiently that gifted native artists had a solid grounding in the latest techniques from an early age. Traffic between Flanders, Italy and Spain continued in the 17th century (although at a reduced rate), but now there were enough talented native artists to receive commissions for important projects. And, moreover, sufficiently talented and independent to strike out on their own.

In addition, by the beginning of the 17th century, change was in the air thanks especially to the influence of the naturalistic paintings of the Italian Michelangelo Caravaggio (1573-1610) and to a general change in cultural taste away from Renaissance idealism to the Baroque world’s shifting, unreliable realism and “demythification.”

The famous Catholic Council of Trent (a series of meetings held between 1545 and 1563) had urged artists to produce works that would encourage piety and move the faithful to compassion but at the same time they were counselled to make their paintings as direct, compelling and as relevant as possible to ordinary people. One obvious way to achieve this was to bring the Bible’s message “up to date” by dressing biblical and holy figures in contemporary clothes and/or locating them in recognisable settings, e.g. Diego Velázquez’s Christ in the House of Mary and Martha 1618.

Velázquez. Christ in the House of Mary and Martha. 1618.

This move to bring the past “up to date” was a part also of a secular movement which felt the impact of classical scepticism whose basic tenet/ conviction is captured in the title Quod Nihil Scitur (Nothing is Known, 1581) by the Spanish/ Portuguese** philosopher, Francisco Sánchez (1550-1623). [**There is considerable debate regarding Sánchez’s birthplace. Supporters of the Portuguese claim regularly write the surname as Sanches.]

Velázquez. Bacchus, aka Los Borrachos/ The Drunkards.1628-29.The characters to the right could well have stepped out of a picaresque novel! They belong entirely to the real world.

Bringing the past “up to date” also suggests, of course, a reevaluation, questioning and reworking of a topic (e. g. Don Quixoteis a reworking of the medieval romances of chivalry). In Spanish Golden Age art, Velázquez (1599-1660) stands head and shoulders above his contemporaries, reworking classical myths (Bacchus or The Topers 1628-29, The Forge of Vulcan1630, Fable of Arachne 1644-48), biblical tales (Christ in the House of Martha and Mary), portraiture (investing ordinary individuals with dignity (the dwarf Francisco Lezcano1643-45), heroism (Surrender of Breda, 1634-35).

Still, Velázquez’s prodigious talent should not completely overshadow the remarkable gifts of many of his contemporaries or near contemporaries among them Francisco de Zurbarán (1598-1664) and Bartolomé Murillo (1617-1682), associated with Seville, and Jusepe de Ribera (1588-1652), born in Játiva (Valencia) but who worked almost exclusively in Naples (a Spanish possession at that time). 

Brown, Jonathan Painting in Spain 1500-1700 New Haven and London 1998

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

Alonso Berruguete. Madonna and Child:
Bartolomé Bermejo. Pieta:
El Greco.
Velázquez: Christ in the House of Mary and Martha:  National Gallery, London – online collection, Public Domain,
Velázquez: Bacchus/ Los Borrachos: Public Domain,