Velázquez. Two Early Religious Paintings. The Immaculate Conception (c. 1619) and The Vision of St. John (c. 1619).
Religious paintings were the “bread and butter” for artists during Spain’s Golden Age thanks to the Catholic Church and its related monasteries, convents, and abbeys, which were the wealthiest institutions in the country.
Seville at the turn of the 17th century was Spain’s largest and most visibly religious city (it was also the country’s crime capital!). It was here that Diego Velázquez was born in 1599 and where he cut his artistic teeth before leaving for Madrid in 1623. So it is hardly surprising, then, that Velázquez should try his hand at religious painting in these early years. But he was undoubtedly encouraged, too, by his devout mentor and father-in-law, Francisco Pacheco, a leading figure in Seville’s cultural life and author of a treatise on art, Arte de la pintura (Art of Painting).
Religious art in Spain during its Golden Age was especially influenced by the Italian tradition of idealized representation and the Flemish love of realistic details. Inevitably there was cross fertilization and the combination –Italo-Flemish—became popular as the 16th century progressed, and nowhere more than in Seville.
However, by the beginning of the 17th century change was in the air thanks to a general shift in cultural taste away from Renaissance idealism to the Baroque world’s shifting, unreliable realism and “demythification.” In art, the impact of the naturalistic paintings of Michelangelo Caravaggio (1573-1610) was being felt despite the persistence of the Italo-Flemish tradition as seen, for example, in the paintings of Francisco Pacheco and others, e. g. Juan de Roelas (c. 1560-1625). An example from each will give us some idea of this kind of painting.
In Pacheco’s painting of the Immaculate Conception (1621), the cherubs and putti-like figures floating in heavenly clouds and the stereotyped Virgin could have been taken from a “how to” book of Renaissance Italian religious art. The lower register brings us down to earth with poet and cleric Miguel Cid contemplating the heavenly vision against a background identifiable in part as Seville (the Torre de Oro and the Giralda to the left, behind Cid’s head). These are realistic touches but the galleon “behind” the full moon (on which the virgin stands) and the walled garden and trees to the lower right add an exotic touch. The three white roses beneath the moon are symbols associated with the Virgin.
Roelas’s painting, Allegory of the Immaculate Conception (1616) is a riotous and bewildering conglomeration of humans (religious scholars, nuns, biblical figures), cherubs and angels floating on heavenly clouds and bearing announcements related to the Virgin. The heavenly vision with cherubs, angels and a conventionally painted Virgin (haloed, with golden hair and hands stretched out in welcome) show how Roelas has absorbed some of the characteristics of the Italian tradition.
However, towards the bottom of the canvas painting the detailed depiction of a sea of humans (some looking up, others reading and some in seeming conversation) is extraordinary and is probably indebted to Roelas’s Flemish background. The people are gathered around what seems to be a huge rose bush the top of which resembles a palm tree! In addition to all this, there is a picture within the painting (to the right), medallions with portraits, a prominent angel blowing a two-headed bugle while carrying a quill in its left hand. The quill is appropriate because the canvas is also loaded with scripts/ texts presumably related to the Virgin.
This is the Baroque world gone wild! This painting is not for quiet contemplation. It is full of movement, of implied sound, of endless wonder. It fulfils the Council of Trent’s call for art that evoked awe and admiration, but probably is not for everyone’s taste.
Velázquez’s Immaculate Conception (135 x 101.6 cm) and The Vision of St. John (135 x 102.2 cm) are of almost identical size (135 x 102cm). In all likelihood painted as twin works around 1619 for the Calced (shoed, not barefooted) Carmelite Monastery of El Carmen in Seville, both are now found in the National Gallery, London.
It bears keeping in mind here that the paintings were aimed at a specific audience, the Carmelite friars, which explains the several visual allusions to the Carmelite Order and its history. This is especially so in the Immaculate Conception.
Thematically, their pairing is not as haphazard as it may first appear. John’s vision, as recounted in The Book of Revelation 12.1, is that of a woman (known as the Apocalyptic Woman), described as “clothed with the sun, and the moon under her feet, and upon her head a crown of twelve stars.” St. John is seen staring in wonder at the faintly outlined vision of a woman in the upper left corner, a vision which takes more concrete form/ shape in the twin picture of the Immaculate Conception. Here the Virgin clearly stands on the moon and her head is “crowned” by twelve stars. On both sides of her, she is framed by clouds which are illuminated by the sun just visible alongside her dark blue mantle. The picture follows in many ways the description of the Virgin Mary advocated by Pacheco in his Arte de la pintura, and which he himself followed in his version of the Immaculate Conception.
[NB. Immaculate Conception does not refer to the news that Mary received from the Archangel Gabriel that she would conceive a child whose name would be Jesus; that is known as the Annunciation. Rather it refers to the conception of Mary without sin in the womb of her mother, St. Anne. What may appear confusing in paintings of the Immaculate Conception in the Renaissance is that neither Anne nor her husband, Joachim, are represented (nor, indeed, are they mentioned in the Bible) but rather Mary herself as an adult. Given its popularity, neither the Church nor contemporary viewers appeared concerned with theological accuracy.]
Both paintings complemented visually, and probably were meant to celebrate, the recent papal decree defending the mystery of the Immaculate Conception, a doctrine to which the Carmelites were particularly devoted and which was strongly supported in Seville.
The Immaculate Conception. c. 1619
The friars at El Carmen would also have appreciated further details in the iconography associated with their order. The Carmelites had long argued that their founder was the prophet Elijah who established the order when he witnessed a “little cloud” (Kings 3, 18:44) above Mt. Carmel in the Holy Land. In the Immaculate Conception, clouds are seen on both sides of the Virgin while at the bottom left of the canvas an outlined hill might represent Mt. Carmel after which the Order was named.
The representation of the Virgin obeys in many ways the description following the suggestions recommended by the Council of Trent: to capture the “likeness” of the holy figures represented, i. e. making them appear “real” in order to awaken devotion and bring them close to the viewer. In the case of the Virgin, especially, there was a delicate balance to be played in illustrating her virginal attributes while at the same time not depicting her as an object of sexual desire. Contemplation of the Virgin should, then, move the friars of El Carmen to virtue and not sinful thoughts.
Velazquez’s representation of the Virgin follows to some degree Pacheco’s description of what the Virgin should look like: a 12 or 13-year old child, have twelve stars around her head and bear an imperial crown on her golden hair. She should be clothed in a white tunic and blue mantle. She should be standing on the moon with the sun visible behind her. Velázquez’s version in the Immaculate Conception, omits the crown and the Virgin wears different coloured garments. Still, she is clearly young with virginal qualities: her gaze is directed modestly downwards thereby avoiding direct contact with the viewer and accusations of boldness, her hands are positioned as if for prayer and her body and feet are entirely covered by robes whose heavy pleats remove intimations of sexuality.
Nevertheless, despite seemingly chaste and pure, Mary has not been totally desexualized. Velázquez does not follow the stock, artificial image of the Virgin so popular in Seville and well captured, for example by his father-in-law, Pacheco, in his many versions of the Immaculate Conception. Mary’s face in Velázquez’s painting has the hallmarks of a real girl, one that the Carmelite friars might well have seen in the streets of Seville or in church. Her face is individualized. Tiffany (p. 40) has noted that “her nose is long and wide at the top; she has tiny circles beneath her eyes; and her lips are slightly pouted.”
But above all, what might have driven the friars to unchaste thoughts is her auburn hair. Hair has long had erotic connotations and Velázquez’s Mary has tresses that hang carelessly and casually over her shoulders. It was not unusual for the Virgin Mary to be painted with long hair, but it was more commonly golden and carefully arranged. Here the very looseness of Mary’s hair (as if she had just got up and not combed it), hints at hidden passion capable of arousing desire in the viewer.
The Vision of St John (or St John Writing the Apocalypse or St John at Patmos). c.1619.
Unlike the Virgin’s downward gaze in The Immaculate Conception, St John looks wide-eyed upwards to the upper left corner of the canvas at the apocalyptic vision he is experiencing. There, in his vision he sees a faintly outlined woman trailed by the devil in the guise of multiheaded dragon. Who is the woman? There are different theories: she is the Virgin Mary, the Church, Israel etc.
There is widespread agreement that the source of the vision is the Book of Revelation, Chapter 12. The Marian interpretation appears to be the most popular and seems to be the one promoted by Pacheco in his Arte… And given the popularity of Mary and her immaculate conception with the Carmelites and in Seville, it would stand to reason that the mysterious woman represented for them in John’s vision is the Virgin.
Velázquez’s shady image of the woman is clear enough to show that it corresponds in many details to those outlined in Revelation 12: 1-5. She is “clothed with the sun and the moon under her feet.” She seems to be bearing a baby in her arms, the man child mentioned in Rev. 12: 5: “And she brought forth a man child who was to rule all nations … and her child was caught up unto God and to his throne.” Behind her, the dragon is a threatening presence, ready according to Revelation 12:4 “to devour the child as soon as it was born.” The halo (rather than the 12 stars on Revelation 12:1) and the wings (identified in Revelation 12: 14 as “two wings of a great eagle”) adhere to the biblical prophesy and are absent from the description put forward by Francisco Pacheco and others.
St. John himself dominates the canvas, with his figure highlighted against a dark, sombre landscape and a tree against which he is seated. In his right hand he holds a quill as he prepares to record his apocalyptic vision. He is accompanied, to his right and just visible against the landscape, by an eagle, symbol of the Saint’s ability to soar spiritually in his contemplation of the divine.
The Saint is a robust young man whose dark brown hair, heavy eyebrows, pronounced cheekbone, moustache and thick, sensual lips differ substantially from the stock image of St. John (often of a transsexual nature). It is a very individualized face bringing the apocalyptic message daily from the biblical past to 17th-century Seville.
St. John’s face is, at the same time, highly reminiscent of the Portrait of a Young Man which Velázquez painted c. 1623-24. The identity of the young man is unknown, but was probably someone Velázquez knew (it has been suggested that it was a self-portrait). However, the Saint’s identity in The Vision of St. John is immaterial, what matters is the facial expression, especially the whites of the upward tilted eyes and half-opened mouth. St. John’s face serves only to convey the visionary experience dramatically; it would undoubtedly catch the attention of the Carmelites and awaken in them a sense of wonder and awe.
Brown, Jonathan Painting in Spain 1500-1700 Yale 1998.
Witschey, Erica ed. The Prado Masterpieces, trans. Philip Sutton, London, New York: Thames and Hudson 2016.
Lopez-Rey, Jose Velázquez. The Complete Works Cologne 1997.
Tiffany, Tanya J. Diego Velázquez’s Early Painting and the Culture of Seventeenth-century Seville Pennsylvania 2012.
Pacheco, Francisco. Immaculate Conception: https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=29829996
Immaculate Conception: Juan de las Roelas – VAHiuSeVJy6wsw at Google Cultural Institute, zoom level maximum, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=29829996
Image of The Immaculate Conception: Diego Velázquez – Desconocido, Dominio público, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=15587492
Velázquez: Vision of St. John: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Diego_Vel%C3%A1zquez_018_(John_the_Evangelist_from_Patmos).jpg
Portrait of a Young Man: https://www.wikiart.org/en/diego-velazquez/portrait-of-a-young-man-1623