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Murillo – the biggest show for 30 years

February 1, 2019 – 11:33 am
Año Murillo

Seville celebrated the 400th anniversary of Murillo’s birth with a full programme of events, of which this is the last.

After a year of celebrations in Seville to commemorate 400 years since the birth of the Golden Age painter Bartolome Esteban Murillo, with exhibitions, films, theatre and concerts, the final event is a major exhibition at the Museo de Bellas Artes.

Murillo IV Centenario brings together an extraordinary collection of his paintings loaned from top museums all over the world: the Frick in New York, which hosted its own exhibition last year, subsequently at London’s National Gallery; the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston; the Met; the Prado; the Louvre; and the Alte Pinakothek in Munich.

The exhibition is themed in eight small rooms, which is a palatable and accessible way to approach this great baroque artist’s work. His subjects are largely religious, with many of the 55 paintings featuring either the Holy Family or saints.

Murillo IV Centenary is the most important show of the artist in over 30 years.

Murillo IV Centenary is the most important show of the artist in over 30 years.

Murillo is very much of Seville, and is deeply loved for it; he only travelled to Madrid, otherwise living in the city all his life, although he was influenced by Italian and Flemish painters. Velazquez, born in Seville, did not stay here, and is consequently held in lower popular esteem than his fellow artist.

Murillo’s Inmaculadas (images of the Virgin Mary) are familiar to all Sevillanos, as ideals of the beauty and spirituality which are part of the cult of Maria in these parts. The political-religious context is important for understanding and appreciating Murillo – these works were the Catholic church’s reposte to the Reformation in 17th-century northern Europe, which attacked Catholicism for its corruption.

Think of them as visual propaganda – the larger paintings were commissioned by churches and convents, designed to arouse the emotions of the faithful, convincing them that Catholicism was the one true religion. Copies of these works can be seen in basilicas in Central and South America, where they were used centuries ago to convert the hapless locals by colonialist rulers. Murillo was a genius at communication: his humans looked convincingly real, flesh and blood like their viewers – they are soft and approachable, both in content and style. Technically, his depiction of fabrics is superb, with all their folds and subtle tones.

Virgin and Child. National Gallery of Ancient Art, Palazzo Barberini y Galleria Corsini, Rome

Virgin and Child. National Gallery of Ancient Art, Palazzo Barberini y Galleria Corsini, Rome

The Virgin Mary is depicted as a loving mother with her plump, cute baby Jesus in such works as Virgin and Child. We see the closeness of the relationship between mother and son; her white gown signifies purity, while the blue cloak mean eternity. The lighting is exquisite, with the Mary and Jesus bathed and illuminated in a warm glow.

Murillo was an artist who wore rose-tinted glasses. When he was in his 30s, the plague struck Seville (as depicted in last year’s Spanish TV series, La Peste) and three of his 11 children died. Yet he never shows any sad or ill people in any of his paintings – even those of poor, scruffy street children in the later rooms of this exhibition look well-fed. However even the fact that he painted such scenes of social reality was in itself unusual; these were usually commissioned by Flemish merchants, rather than Spanish patrons.

The Marriage Feast at Cana. About 1669-1673 The Henry Barber Trust, The Barber Institute of Fine Arts, University of Birmingham

The Marriage Feast at Cana. About 1669-1673 The Henry Barber Trust, The Barber Institute of Fine Arts, University of Birmingham.

Two of the most impressive works are in the Storyteller room: The Marriage Feast of Cana, scene of the first miracle, with its large vessels containing the water turned into wine, and The Adoration of the Magi, where the three kings represent three ages, and three continents: old European, middle-aged Asian/Arabic, and young African. Study the faces – their interactions are drawn with extraordinary skill, each figure showing its own emotions and attitudes.

Four Figures on a Step. About 1655-1660. Kimbell Art Museum, Fort Worth, Texas

Four Figures on a Step. About 1655-1660. Kimbell Art Museum, Fort Worth, Texas.

In Genre Paintings, the work whose detail is used on the poster, of the lady wearing spectacles, is the subject of heated debate in the art world. Just who are these strange characters in Four Figures on a Step? Actors? Prostitutes? A family? What are they looking at? Why are the boy’s trousers torn? Other paintings in this section depict young boys living outside the city walls, playing together. They’re probably orphans from the plague, trying to survive as best they can.

It is hard to overstate how influential many of these paintings were on artists that followed, especially the Inmaculadas. whose iconography played a key role in the church and its religious fervour. At an exhibition last year, Murillo and his Legacy in Seville, many copies of his work could be seen.

There’s no audio guide, but a handy little booklet (in English or Spanish) explains each painting. Family activities for this exhibition, available at weekends, feature a pack of cards with details to spot in various paintings – great to absorb kids’ attention, and even better if there’s a group of them who can compete to spot the object, animal or person in question first. watch out for the statue of Murillo outside the museum, in the Plaza de Museo.

Murillo IV Centenario is at the Museo Bellas Artes until 17 March 2019. You can see the guide to the exhibition here. A guided tour, available for groups in English as well as Spanish, is highly recommended for a greater understanding of the works and their context.

Read the biography of Bartolome Esteban Murillo (1617-1682) on Andalucia.com.

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