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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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: https://www.metmuseum.org/art/metpublications/Zurbaran
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 https://www.artehistoria.com/en/artwork/temptation-saint-jerome.