The Golden Age of Spanish ArtI



HOW shall we explain that in this period, when Spain lost command of the seas to England and of the land to France, and when all her material enterprises seemed to collapse in failure and bankruptcy, she could build the cathedral of Segovia, guide the sculpture of Hernández and Montañes, and inspire the painting of El Greco, Zurbarán, Velázquez, and Murillo? Was it because the Spanish Church was still rich, the Spanish court was still extravagant, American gold still entered Seville, and Spanish artists, nourished by faith and fees, still felt the glow of a glory not yet quite gone?

The splendor was least in architecture, for there the triumphs of the past met all the needs of piety. At Seville the Church certified its victory over the Moors by topping a Moslem minaret with a Christian belfry that perfected the grace of the Giralda (1567); and a year later Bartolomé Morel crowned the whole with a figure of La Fé (Faith), weighing a ton, yet so lightly poised that it turns with every breath of wind to survey its worshipful domain. At Valladolid Juan de Herrera, architect of the Escorial, began in 1585 the austere Cathedral of the Assumption, on so vast a scale that it is still unfurnished. On a hill dominating Segovia two centuries of architects and craftsmen began in 1522 the monumental cathedral that proudly symbolizes the dominant and immovable devotion of Spain. At Salamanca Juan Gómez de Mora designed for the Jesuits, in Palladian Doric plus dome, the immense Seminario Conciliar (1617–1755).

But even Spain was becoming secular, and palaces as well as churches were calling for art. At Aranjuez Philip II built (1575) a summer residence whose cool gardens could rescue him from the heat and solemnity of the Escorial. Philip III, as a center for his haunts, added the Palace of El Pardo, whose ornate Hall of Ambassadors is famous for its chandeliers. Philip IV and Olivares almost anticipated Versailles by building at the eastern gate of Madrid a pleasure garden, Buen Retiro (1631–33); in its court theater many plays of Lope and Calderón were staged. Stately town halls—ayuntamientos—were raised in this age at León and Astorga; and one at Toledo was designed by El Greco.

Sculpture was almost wholly ecclesiastical in form and mood. The Gothic style was modified by Italian influence and baroque ornament, but the portrait bust so popular in Italy was discountenanced in Spain with an almost Mohammedan taboo. Painters—even masters like Zurbarán and Murillo—lent their art to make sculpture impress the worshiper with the realism of crucifixions and martyrdoms; nearly all statues were in polychrome wood. Sir William Stirling-Maxwell, the erudite Scot who so loved and annaled Spanish art, thought Juan de Juni “the best sculptor of Spain.”1 Juan earned his renown by an altar in the Church of Nuestra Señora de la Antigua at Valladolid and, in another church there, the Mater Dolorosa, a statue so cherished by the people that, in the pathetic depth of their faith, they pleaded to be allowed to clothe it in costly raiment. Spain usually ranks still higher Gregorio Hernández; he too carved at Valladolid a Mater Dolorosa; with characteristic realism he painted bloodstains on her robe and set tears of glass into her face; this Sorrowful Mother, with the dead Christ lying in her lap, may be the supreme work of Spanish sculpture in this age.

The greatest of these sculptors was Juan Martínez Montañes. He was only eighteen when he and his wife came (1582) to the Monastery of Dulce Nombre de Jésus at Seville, presented to it a figure of the Virgin, and received in grateful exchange free residence there for life. He pleased the Jesuits with statues of Ignatius and Xavier, and delighted the Hieronymite monks with his St. Jerome. The cathedral of Seville still shows his Crucifix, ranked by one historian of art as “perhaps the supreme rendering of the divine Victim.”2 When Pope Paul V, responding to popular demand, made belief in the Immaculate Conception obligatory on all Catholics, Spain was especially happy since, like France, it had concentrated its piety upon the Virgin. Montañes rose to the occasion by carving his chef-d’oeuvre (now in the Seville cathedral)—the young Mother of God meditating on the mystery of her freedom from original sin; this too has been ranked among the masterpieces of the world’s sculpture,3 but the Andalusian maiden seems too calm and satisfied, though weighed down with drapery.

The picture of Spanish art, to be fair in spite of brevity, would have to enumerate and celebrate its minor glories: the gratings, screens, and gates in iron or bronze; the woodwork on many a reredos, and such choir stalls as those carved by Pedro de Mena for the cathedral of Málaga; the lamps, crosses, chalices, pyxes and tabernacles wrought in silver or gold, like the world-famous custodias of Juan de Arfe; the figurines in wood, ivory, alabaster, or bronze; the embroideries and brocades that graced altars and women; the enameled glass of Barcelona, and Talavera’s tin-glazed wares.

In painting, before Velázquez, the Church was almost the sole patron and arbiter. The somber passion of Spanish theology and piety, reflecting, perhaps, the gloomy crags and the burning heat of the terrain, allowed little humor, lightness, or elegance in treating themes, banished the nude, frowned upon portraits and landscapes, and encouraged a harsh realism that stressed the frightening rather than the comforting phases of the faith; pictures were to instill the creed and burn it into the soul with flaming imagery and monastic severity. At last the painters themselves saw visions and claimed divine inspiration. Philip II rivaled the Church as a patron of painters, but the subjects remained religious; when nobles commissioned paintings they usually obeyed the same rule; only with Velázquez and Philip IV did secularization begin. Some foreign influences entered to modify this ecclesiastical influence. Carducci and Zuccaro and some eighteen other Italians brought a softer mood into Spanish art; Anthonis Mor came from Flanders in 1572; Spanish painters visiting the Low Countries were touched by the spirit of Vandyck; and the exuberant Rubens himself, sweeping down upon Madrid in 1603, begged the native artists to look at life rather than death.

Besides the four masters who dominated Hispanic painting in this age there were many of milder fire: Alonso Sánchez Coello, who made portraits, in Flemish style, of Philip II’s Infante Don Carlos and Infanta Isabel; Coello’s pupil Juan Pantoja de la Cruz, who left us a somber Felipe II4 and a powerful St. Augustine; Francisco de Ribalta, whose tenebroso style of light surrounded by darkness appears in The Sick St. Francis Comforted by an Angel; and Francisco Pacheco, who taught Velázquez, gave him a daughter in marriage, and expounded the principles of Spanish painting in his Arte de la pintura (1649). “The chief end of art,” he wrote, “is to persuade men to piety and incline them to God.”5 In 1611 he visited El Greco in Toledo and condemned the Greek’s pictures ascrueles borrones—rough sketches.6 Let us see.

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