Southern Baroque: Italy and Spain
First Things First...
The lectures on seventeenth-century European art usually come after the classes on the Renaissance in Italy and the North. At this point in a chronological art history survey, the students will have learned about a number of key ideas and themes such as the renewed interest in Greek and Roman humanism and naturalism, the intersection of art and science during the Renaissance, the religious reform movements that reshaped European culture, and the emergent globalism that linked Europe, Africa, Asia and the Americas. These themes provide interesting contrasts and continuities with the Baroque.
This lesson can start with a brief historic overview to introduce the context of seventeenth-century art. Another way of starting class discussion is to bring up a comparison between a Renaissance work and a Baroque one, such as Leonardo da Vinci’s Last Supper and Caravaggio’s Calling of St. Matthew. To get students to think critically about this comparison, give them a sheet to list the similarities and differences. The students can work together in pairs to share their ideas and prepare for that day’s lecture and/or class discussion. Groups of students can then be called upon to volunteer their answers. Among the questions that can frame the lecture or class discussion is: “Based on these two images, how is Baroque painting distinct from that of the Renaissance?” or “How is Baroque art related to that of the Renaissance?” The opening discussion can help students review concepts and elements (i.e., chiaroscuro, gestures, etc.) they have already learned in class to help understand variants of them in the art of the Baroque (i.e., tenebrism, extreme emotion, etc.).
There are many excellent resources for learning about the art of Italy and Spain in the seventeenth century. The readings can include relevant chapters from any of the major survey textbooks such as Gardner, Janson, and Stokstad. Some of the period-specific survey texts provide useful segments for instructors who want more background on seventeenth-century art:
- Robert Neuman, Baroque and Rococo Art (Pearson, 2013).
- Anne Sutherland Harris, Seventeenth-Century Art and Architecture, 2nd ed. (Pearson, 2008).
Brief excerpts from major Italian and Spanish Baroque art treatises in Robert Enggass and Jonathan Brown’s Italian and Spanish Art, 1600-1700: Sources and Documents can be assigned to familiarize students with primary sources on major artists such as Caravaggio and Velázquez. The entire book can be accessed online here.
For a current, scholarly online research guide that contains further references, see Anne H. Muraoka’s “Baroque” in Oxford Bibliographies.
Web-based resources include the entries on the Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History maintained by Metropolitan Museum of Art and also Smarthistory. The Metropolitan Museum of Art also has open access to some of their publications. For example, Keith Christensen’s “Going for Baroque: Bringing 17th-Century Masters to the Met,” The Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin, v. 62, no. 3 (Winter 2005).
The AHTR online syllabus also offers good suggested readings.
If your academic institution’s library subscribes to Films on Demand, you might consider streaming some of the clips or full-length films available on Baroque art and architecture. Simon’s Schama’s celebrated series “The Power of Art” (2006) can be accessed in its entirety as well as segments from it on the art of Caravaggio and Bernini.
Italian Baroque Painting
- Caravaggio, The Calling of St. Matthew, Contarelli Chapel, church of San Luigi dei Francesi, Rome, 1599–1600, oil on canvas
- Artemisia Gentileschi, Judith and Her Maidservant with the Head of Holofernes. c. 1625, oil on canvas
- Annibale Carracci, Ceiling of Gallery, Palazzo Farnese, Rome, 1597–1601, fresco
Italian Baroque Sculpture
- Gianlorenzo Bernini, David, 1623, marble
- Gianlorenzo Bernini, Baldacchino. In the crossing of St. Peter’s, 1624–33, gilt bronze
Italian Baroque Architecture
- New St. Peter’s, nave and façade by Carlo Maderno, 1607–12; colonnade by Gianlorenzo Bernini, designed 1657, Rome
- Aerial view of St. Peter’s, Rome. Nave and façade by Carlo Maderno, 1607–15; colonnade by Gianlorenzo Bernini, designed 1657
Spanish Baroque Painting
- Jusepe de Ribera, St. Jerome and the Angel of Judgment, 1626, oil on canvas
- Diego Velázquez, The Water Carrier of Seville, c. 1619, oil on canvas
- Diego Velázquez, The Maids of Honor (Las Meninas), 1656, oil on canvas
- Francisco de Zurbarán, St. Serapion, 1628, oil on canvas
Quadro riportato: an Italian term that refers to a type of painted ceiling design that simulates framed easel paintings.
Tenebrism (adj. tenebrist): the use of strong chiaroscuro and artificially illuminated areas to create a dramatic contrast of light and dark in a painting.
The art of seventeenth-century Europe is traditionally referred to as Baroque. Derived from the Portuguese and Italian words barocco, meaning an irregularly shaped pearl, it is a problematic term because it is too generic in describing the complex global events and diverse artistic traditions of the era. The word was used disparagingly in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries based on the misperception that the art and architecture lacked the grace and substance of the High Renaissance art and instead was overly theatrical and superficial. The negative connotations of the word have faded and now the term can be used in a more neutral way.
The art of the seventeenth century is hard to unpack since there are multiple styles that define the period. For example, the art of Caravaggio and Bernini is full of drama, dynamism, expression and grandiloquence. In contrast, artists like Annibale Carracci created a rational, classicizing style that is based on the art of antiquity and the High Renaissance.
Major changes transformed the political and religious landscape of Europe during this period. One should first review historical circumstances that emerged in the late sixteenth century, which framed previous lectures on Mannerism, the Late Renaissance and Northern art. The Protestant Reformation ultimately reshaped Europe with the spread of Lutheranism, Calvinism, and other sects in northern Europe while southern European entities such as Italy and Spain remained fervently Catholic. The church responded with the Counter Reformation (or Catholic Reformation) as its own movement of renewal and reaffirmation. The Catholic church’s strategy centered on the three sessions of the Council of Trent (1545–63), which included a discussion on the potential of art to help their cause and instruct the laity. In sum, works of art should contain clear messages that abide by the church’s decorum, should be edifying or didactic in purpose, and also delight and persuade the viewer. Here is a link to the actual decrees to use a primary source for an assignment and/or discussion.
The church disdained Mannerist art as it contained overly intellectualizing references presented in a style marked by artifice and ambiguity. Here students can be shown a painting by Parmigianino or Pontormo to review how Mannerist painters posed their figures in contorted poses and/or made arcane literary references in their works—conventions that were all frowned upon by the Church after the Council of Trent. Michelangelo’s monumental nudes in the Sistine Chapel were covered because nudity in religious art was disallowed. The church encouraged a style of the art that was clear for the viewer to understand and therefore effective communication of its tenets. It is for this reason that religious art of this period is associated with the notion of persuasion, or, that its message should convince the laity of the church’s authority and importance.
The major political conflict that divided Europe during this period was the Thirty Years’ War (1618–48) that involved Spain, France, Sweden, Denmark, the Netherlands, Germany, Austria, Poland, the Ottoman Empire, and the Holy Roman Empire. The war was rooted largely in sectarian conflicts between Protestants and Catholics but there were also political, dynastic and nationalistic concerns and motivations. The royal dynasties of the Bourbon in France and the Habsburgs in Spain sought to increase their power and authority. The war ended with the Peace of Westphalia in 1648 that allowed for the political restructuring of Europe. The Northern Netherlands (or the United Provinces or the Dutch Republic) were autonomous and rid of Spanish domination, Sweden and France both expanded their authority, and religious freedom was granted to Protestants in the newly formed Dutch Republic.
The Baroque was an extraordinarily prolific period in European art and architecture, with a great number of prodigious artists and a complex range of styles and subjects. In one (or possibly two) lecture period(s) of an hour and half (more or less), any of the following representative examples of Italian and Spanish seventeenth-century art and architecture can be introduced and discussed.
Caravaggio, The Calling of St. Matthew, Contarelli Chapel, church of San Luigi dei Francesi, Rome, 1599–1600, oil on canvas.
Caravaggio [Michelangelo Merisi, (1571–1610)] was known for his dark and dramatic paintings, visceral religious subject matter, and volatile personality. His style has been regarded as revolutionary, groundbreaking, and highly influential. This painting is part of the decoration of a chapel that was originally commissioned by the French cardinal Mathieu Cointrel (or Matteo Contarelli in Italian) to venerate St. Matthew, who was his name-saint. The contract for a cycle of three paintings representing the life and martyrdom of St. Matthew was originally awarded to the Venetian artist, Girolamo Muziano in 1565. However, the project stalled for three decades thereafter. In fact, when Cardinal Contarelli died in 1585, he had seen none of the paintings come to fruition. In 1599, at the order of Contarelli’s heirs, Caravaggio was commissioned to decorate the chapel. Still in situ (or on site), Caravaggio’s three paintings represent The Calling of St. Matthew, The Inspiration of St. Matthew, and the Martyrdom of St. Matthew. Of the three paintings, The Calling of St. Matthew is usually singled out for its striking, realistic formulation of religious subject matter.
The subject of the Calling of St. Matthew comes from the Gospel of Matthew (9:9–13). Matthew (then known as Levi), a tax-collector, sits in his office with a group of armed men who are his cohorts. Christ (who wears a faint halo) points to Matthew and summons him to become one of his followers. The painting illustrates three major elements that are characteristic of Baroque painting: the diagonal, the dynamic, and the didactic. If we follow Caravaggio’s composition closely, the figures are placed close to the viewer in the foreground. They are seated behind a table and are clustered to the left of the composition, while Christ and his follower are placed to the right emerging from the shadows. The light source of the painting comes from the upper right corner and follows a diagonal path. It falls selectively on the figures of Christ, his follower, Matthew, and two young men at the table looking at Christ. Matthew dramatically points to himself and asks: “Who me?” Although there is a window that could be a light source, light actually comes from an unseen source in the upper right corner of the painting. Thereby, light takes on a spiritual quality with the power to illuminate both one’s eyes and soul. Those who follow Christ are proverbially in the light and those who do not dwell in darkness.
Caravaggio’s figures are modeled realistically and wear contemporary costumes to make them relatable to their audience. Christ is presented as a humble man who gently calls on Matthew and can be identified as a holy figure because, again, he has a faint halo around his head. This incorporation of non-idealized figural types is integral to the art of Caravaggio as he painted from live models in his studio. Caravaggio’s naturalism was rooted in Northern Italian pictorial tradition (here the comparison to Leonardo can be introduced or re-stated). The use of tenebrism (dramatic use of light and dark using a direct light source that creates a spot-light effect) adds to the drama and tension of the scene, making the figures and forms highly tangible. Caravaggio’s art was controversial during its time because his non-idealized religious images were seen as lacking decorum, (i.e,. the propriety and reverence demanded of religious subjects). Although his detractors claimed that his work “killed” the art of painting, his works were very influential in Europe throughout the first three decades of the seventeenth century.
Artemisia Gentileschi, Judith and Her Maidservant with the Head of Holofernes, c. 1625, oil on canvas.
Renowned as one of Caravaggio’s followers (or a caravaggista in Italian), Artemisia Gentileschi (1593–1656) was trained by her father, Orazio Gentileschi. Orazio was a friend and follower of Caravaggio and one of the most prominent painters in Rome at the time. Gentileschi painted numerous versions of different Biblical subjects such as Susanna and the Elders, Bathsheba, and Judith. Her religious themes are not only filled with violence but also bear overt erotic overtones. Her depictions of Old Testament heroines have been suggested to be autobiographical because she was raped by her teacher and father’s collaborator.
Gentileschi made numerous representations of Judith and Holofernes that re-imagine Caravaggio’s own striking representation of this violent religious subject. Her interpretation can be compared to Donatello’s celebrated Judith and Holofernes to get the students to work on a cross-media comparison and how early modern painters and sculptures transformed the subject of Judith.
The story of Judith comes from the book of Judith in the Old Testament. She was a widow who saved her people from the oppressive forces of the Assyrian general Holofernes. In order to do so, she comes up with a ruse to “seduce” Holofernes. Dressed in her finest and accompanied by her maidservant, Judith enters Holofernes’ tent, and while he is asleep, Judith beheads him.
In this canvas, Gentileschi does not show us the violent act of beheading (as she does in other paintings of hers) but the moment after. Sweeping diagonally and dramatically across the upper right corner of the painting, a blood-red curtain reveals this tense scene. Judith vigilantly stands on the lookout, tightly gripping her sword, while her servant stuffs Holofernes’ head in a sack as they both prepare to escape the tent. Like Caravaggio, Gentileschi portrays her figures realistically and uses tenebrist effects to highlight the figures of Judith and her servant in a dark tent that is illuminated by a single candle.
Gentileschi had a successful career that took her to Florence, Venice, and Naples and was the first female artist to be named to Florence’s Academia del Disegno (Academy of Design). Her commanding representations of strong women perhaps reflect her desire and determination to claim her place in an art world that was largely controlled by male artists.
Annibale Carracci, Ceiling of Gallery, Palazzo Farnese, Rome, 1597–1601, fresco.
While the art of Caravaggio and his followers like Artemisia Gentileschi was dramatic and theatrical, some Italian seventeenth-century artists, like Annibale Carracci (1560–1609), favored a more classical style of painting that was based on the study of antiquity and High Renaissance painters such as Michelangelo, Raphael, and Titian.
Carracci’s most famous and challenging project is the decoration of Palazzo Farnese Gallery, a commission by Cardinal Odoardo Farnese to celebrate his brother’s wedding. Appropriately enough, the iconographic program of the ceiling is the love of the gods. The individual scenes of the ceiling are arranged as illusionistic framed easel paintings following the curved vault of the ceiling.
Carracci undoubtedly knew Michelangelo’s frescoes in the Sistine Chapel. Here a comparison can be made between Michelangelo’s ceiling and Carracci’s in their respective treatment of space. Carracci had an extraordinary command of trompe l’oeil devices to convey a heightened sense of illusionism. For example, the simulation of easel painting for ceiling design, here set within fictive painted gold frames and fictive architecture, is called quadro riportato (roughly translated from the Italian as “framed painting”). The standing Atlas figures, painted to simulate real stone and nude figures (ignudi) are also carefully foreshortened and lit so that they appear real.
Carracci uses different gradations of chiaroscuro so that the figures inside the easel pictures are more evenly lit and legible from the ground up. The subjects are all mythological: at the center is a long horizontal panel of the Triumph of Bacchus. He borrows from both Raphael and Titian respectively and a comparison to Raphael’s Galatea or to one of Titian’s Bacchanals can also be made here.
Gianlorenzo Bernini, David, 1623, marble.
Like Caravaggio, Bernini (1598–1680) was one of the great innovators of the Baroque. His prolific career as a sculptor, architect, painter, stage-designer, and writer spanned most of the seventeenth century. His major patrons were cardinals and popes who admired his expressive interpretations of religious subjects, dramatic use of forms, and novel combinations of media.
This statue was commissioned by Cardinal Scipione Borghese, a major patron of the arts and nephew of Pope Paul V and was placed at the entrance of the Galleria Borghese. Compared to the Davids depicted by Donatello and Michelangelo, Bernini catches the figure of David in the dramatic moment in which he is about to fling the stone at Goliath. Here is a good moment to review all three statues carefully. Bernini’s David has taken off his cuirass with his feet firmly in place and bites his lip to convey his intense concentration. However, his lower body is covered with a drape to maintain a sense of decorum. Rather than showing a figure frozen in action (compare to the classical Greek sculptor Myron’s Discobolos), his stance implies a sequence of poses and energetic continuous movement. Traditionally, it has been also argued that David’s features might be based on Bernini’s own.
Gianlorenzo Bernini, Baldacchino (in the crossing of New St. Peter’s), 1624–33, gilt bronze.
As a sculptor and architect to various popes, Bernini spent most his career working at New St. Peter’s. Before Bernini worked on the piazza (or main square of St. Peter’s) that will be discussed later in this lesson, he was busy with many projects for the interior of St. Peter’s. His first commission for the interior of St. Peter’s, made between 1624 and 1633, was the baldacchino (or canopy-like structure) that marks the site where St. Peter is buried and the high altar of the church. The structure is almost 100 feet tall and also acts as a frame for the Cathedra Petri (the bronze throne of St. Peter in the apse that was also designed by Bernini). The symbolism of the Baldacchino speaks to the power of the Catholic Church and of the pope (then Urban VIII). The four spiral columns (gilded, partially fluted and covered with vines and bees) recall those on an ancient canopy that marked that same spot in old St. Peter’s, invoking the past to reinforce the current authority of the Church. At the top of the cornice of the columns stand four colossal angels and at the apex of the canopy stand four serpentine brackets that elevate the orb and the cross, symbols of the Church’s triumph. Multitudes of swarming bees covering the monument are symbols of the Barberini, the papal family. As the patron of the baldacchino, Pope Urban VIII wanted to be recognized as Christ’s representative on earth. Overall, the structure illustrates the triumph of Catholicism and the papal claim to doctrinal supremacy.
New St. Peter’s. Nave and façade by Carlo Maderno, 1607–12; colonnade by Gianlorenzo Bernini, designed 1657, Rome.
With the lingering effects of the Counter Reformation, seventeenth-century popes sought to restore the glory of Rome and reassert the power of the Church and the papacy. New St. Peter’s served as the symbolic seat of the papacy and the most important church in all of Christendom. Here one can review the history of St. Peter’s and briefly review the demolition of the early Christian basilica during the papacy of Julius II, Bramante’s and Michelangelo’s respective plans during the High Renaissance, and Michelangelo’s designs for the dome of the church.
During the seventeenth century, extensive building projects sought to reestablish the primacy of St. Peter’s and the Catholic Church. In addition, because the Church celebrated Jubilee years to draw thousands of pilgrims and visitors, a grander design would be required to suit the practical demands and the symbolic need to assert the Church’s authority.
Aerial view of New St. Peter’s, Rome. Nave and façade by Carlo Maderno, 1607–15; colonnade by Gianlorenzo Bernini, designed 1657.
Pope Paul V appointed Carlo Maderno as the architect to St. Peter’s in 1603, but his design for the façade was never fully completed. Before Maderno, Bramante and Michelangelo respectively envisioned St. Peter’s as a central-plan church. However, in the seventeenth century, the Church preferred a basilica or longitudinal plan because:
- It allowed for symbolic distinction between the clergy and laity,
- It provided ample space for processions,
- And it made reference to the plans of early Christian churches thereby, again, asserting the papacy’s authority, legitimacy, and legacy.
Maderno’s plans expanded the nave by three bays. As a result, the lengthening of the nave pushed the dome further back and ultimately broke the effect that Michelangelo had originally intended.
Gianlorenzo Bernini, one of the great artists of the Baroque, almost completely designed the New St. Peter’s. Among Bernini’s most important projects was the redesigning of Piazza San Pietro (or main plaza) in front of the church. Bernini adjusted its design to pre-existing structures: the Egyptian obelisk at the center of the piazza and the fountain designed by Carlo Maderno. Overall, this space is meant to frame a vision of the Church Triumphant. Bernini organized the fountain and obelisk along the long axis of a large oval contained by colonnades joined to St. Peter’s façade by two diverging wings. The colonnades are made up of four rows of monumental columns, which end in classical temple fronts. The curving arms of the colonnades symbolize the welcoming arms of the Roman Catholic Church, evoking the grandeur and triumph of the Church. The space was reserved for grand solemn processions from the piazza to the nave, then to the altar and finally to the high altar, connecting the exterior of the church to its interior.
Francesco Borromini, façade of San Carlo alle Quattro Fontane, Rome, c. 1665–7.
Borromini was perhaps the most innovative architect of the Italian Baroque, establishing its most well-known qualities. While Bernini’s architecture tends be more traditional and classicizing, Borromini’s architecture is full of drama and dynamism. He worked in Bernini’s studio and assisted him with the Baldacchino, later becoming his rival. He designed the small church of San Carlo of the Four Fountains (named because of the fountains in the corners of the church).
The façade of the church is divided into two levels that are composed of convex and concave shapes, giving the façade a sense of undulation. The deep recesses of the façade’s niches emphasizes its three-dimensional effects. The plan consists of a pinched oval with a long axis between the entrance and the apse that provides an innovative variation to the centrally planned church, resembling a compressed Greek cross. The side walls move in an undulating motion that reverses the flow of the façade.
The large projecting columns and molded interior spaces are capped by a deeply coffered dome that appears to float on the light entering through the windows hidden in its base. The variations on basic geometric shapes such as ovals create dynamic interior spaces that meant to inspire wonder in the viewer.
Spain emerged and established itself as a major international power in the sixteenth century. The Hapsburg monarchy built a dynasty that included Portugal, parts of Italy, the Netherlands, extensive areas of the New World, and the Philippines in Asia. During the seventieth century, Spain weakened due to prolonged periods of war and expanded military campaigns, especially during the Thirty Years’ War. Increasing taxes put a heavy burden on the population and subsequent revolts in Catalonia and Portugal destabilized the Spanish Crown’s authority. Despite Spain’s economic and political decline, the seventeenth century is paradoxically a period in which the literary and visual arts all flourished in Spain. King Philip (r. 1621–65) was a great patron of the arts and an avid collector of Italian and Northern Renaissance painting. Because it was an age of unprecedented artistic achievement, this era has been termed the Golden Age in Spain.
Spain was a staunch supporter of the Counter Reformation. The Catholic Church commissioned dramatic scenes involving the martyrdom of saints and pious presentations of the Virgin Mary to stimulate prayer and devotion.
Jusepe de Ribera, St. Jerome and the Angel of Judgment, 1626, oil on canvas.
Jusepe de Ribera (1591–1652) was a Spanish painter who emigrated from his native Valencia to Italy around 1611 or 1613. First establishing himself in Rome and thereafter permanently resettling in Naples, his art was highly influenced by that of Caravaggio in its emphasis on raw naturalism and heightened drama. He often painted violent scenes of death and martyrdom, and also prophets, saints, mythological subjects and ancient beggar-philosophers. His patrons were the Spanish viceroys who then controlled the Kingdom of Naples, the Church, and Spanish and Neapolitan aristocrats and grandees.
Here Ribera represents St. Jerome, one of the church fathers, secluded in the wilderness. The book in the foreground refers to St. Jerome’s Latin translation of the Bible (known as the Vulgate) and the rocks surrounding him symbolize instruments of self-mortification for penance. Like Caravaggio, Ribera employs tenebrism for dramatic effect and greater expressiveness. The figure of Saint Jerome himself is unidealized. His sagging flesh and long rough beard present him as an ascetic in the wilderness. His gestures are dramatic: he raises his arms in awe and surprise as the angel of judgment blows his horn and proclaims the end of days. Ribera’s striking realistic representations of saints like St. Jerome were very successful in Counter-Reformation Naples.
Diego Velázquez, The Water Carrier of Seville, c. 1619, oil on canvas.
Diego Velázquez (1599–1660) is generally considered the greatest painter of the Spanish Golden Age. He painted religious pictures and genre pictures called bodegones (scenes from everyday life) emphasizing great naturalism in his early career. When he was made the official painter to King Philip IV, painted mostly portraits. Velázquez was appointed as the official chamberlain of the palace (a position of high rank) and decorated the royal complexes with paintings and sculptures that he would purchase on behalf of the king. Ribera was originally from Seville but in his youth came to Madrid where he remained for the rest of his career.
The subject of the painting shows an older man offering a glass of water to a young man. A middle-aged man (whose figure is barely perceptible in the background) drinks from a jug. The humble figure of the water seller is rendered with great dignity and the dark background of the painting highlights the tenebrist lighting and the naturalism of the figures. Velázquez’s extraordinary observational powers of surfaces and texture can be seen in the water seller’s brown cloak and rugged, suntanned face and in his detailed description of the water jug. For example, we can see droplets forming on the vessel’s surface to suggest condensation. The contrast of light and darks and the unidealized figures placed close to the foreground enliven this everyday scene, which could also be interpreted as having moral and allegorical significance. The subject matter could refer to dignity of the lower classes, the seven acts of mercy (such as giving drink to the thirsty), or an allegory of the three ages of humankind.
Diego Velázquez, The Maids of Honor (Las Meninas), 1656, oil on canvas.
Velázquez had an extraordinary career in the court of Philip IV. He travelled to Italy twice, first in 1629 to 1631 and then in 1649 to 1651. After Velázquez returned from Rome to the Spanish court in Madrid in 1651, he painted what has been considered his greatest work: Las Meninas. The room represented in the painting is the artist’s studio in the palace of the Alcazar, which was converted into a studio after the death of the crown prince Balthasar Carlos. This painting is of such visual and narrative complexity that it precludes a definitive interpretation. One of the central questions one can raise is: what is taking place here?
One can say that it is a self-portrait of the painter in his studio standing before a large canvas. The crown princess (Infanta) Margarita appears in the foreground with her two ladies-in-waiting, her favorite dwarfs, and a large dog. One lady-in-waiting offers the princess a drink of water using ceramic and metal-ware from the New World (to briefly reference the transatlantic context of the Spanish Baroque). In the middle ground is a woman in widow’s attire (widows in seventeenth-century Spain adopted nuns’ attire) and a male attendant. In the background, a chamberlain stands and is framed by a brightly lit doorway. The artist and theorist Antonio Palomino has identified all of the figures in his eighteenth-century biography of Velázquez.
One explanation of the work could be that Velázquez is painting a portrait of the king and queen whose reflections appear in the mirror in the far wall. This suggests the presence of the king and the queen in the viewer’s space beyond the frame of the picture. Some scholars have suggested that the mirror image that Velázquez painted reflects not the physical image of the king and queen but a reflection of what he is painting on the canvas. The painting, furthermore, has been interpreted as Velázquez’s attempt to elevate the status of himself as an artist and of painting as well —given his position as the painter to the king and chamberlain to the palace. The inclusion of the king in his studio refers to a tradition of the king’s visit to the artist’s studio, such as the emperor Alexander the Great’s visit to the workshop of his court painter Apelles. Velázquez’s inclusion of himself in the company of the royal family is unprecedented.
Overall, the painting speaks to the dignity of the profession of painting. The painting originally hung in the King’s private quarters—although some visitors may have seen the painting, it was primarily intended to be viewed by the king. It also speaks to the status of the painter as the painting meant to be viewed by the most elite viewer, the king.
This painting is a visually complex image in its use of foreshortening and perspective, and in its composition. The use of mirror images, of optical images, and painted images derive from the concept of “painting within a painting.” The contrast of real spaces with the painted ones calls attention to the interpretation of different levels of reality and to the illusory nature of seeing. This relates to the use of the mirror, which has precedents in Van Eyck’s Arnolfini Portrait (at the time Van Eyck’s portrait was in the Spanish royal collection and it similarly integrates the viewer’s place into the space of the painting). In fact, Velázquez may have used a camera obscura to render the perspective of the room.
This painting had an extraordinary impact on late seventeenth-century painting. The late seventeenth-century Italian painter Luca Giordano called it the “theology of painting” and made his version it in a work called Homage to Velázquez. Both Goya and Picasso also re-interpreted Velázquez’s Las Meninas and comparison to their works can be made at this point in lecture and discussion.
Some interesting details: the paintings above the doorway and the mirror have been identified as copies of works by the Flemish master Peter Paul Rubens that represented the immortal gods of ancient mythology as the sources of art. The red cross (that was added after the painting’s completion) is the insignia of the Knighthood of the Order of the Santiago, an elite organization, which Velázquez wanted to join. Because he lacked some of the requirements of nobility, he gained entrance with great difficulty; ultimately, it required a papal dispensation.
Francisco de Zurbarán, St. Serapion, 1628, oil on canvas.
Francisco de Zurbarán (1598–1664) was one of the great painters of religious imagery in seventeenth-century Spain. He produced many simple yet powerful images of saints and their lives commissioned by monastic orders in Seville. This painting functioned as a devotional image for the funerary chapel of the Mercedarian Order. (Interesting note: the red badge worn by the saint identifies him as a member of this order). St. Serapion was a British medieval saint who participated in the Third Crusade of 1196 and was martyred as he was preaching to Muslims. There are different accounts of his martyrdom, but according to one, he was tied to a tree, tortured, and decapitated. His story is one of self-sacrifice and dedication to his order.
The style of the painting emphasizes great naturalism. The tenebrist modeling of the figure spotlights him in the middle of the composition. The figure of the saint is placed in the foreground to capture the viewer’s attention and his white robe is modeled naturalistically in light and dark to emphasize his purity. He appears as an ordinary-looking young man in three-quarters length pose with his head resting on his shoulder. The slight greenish tinges of the skin indicate he is dead. The artist does not dwell on the violent details of the narrative but presents a solemn image of the saint. His hands are tied with ropes to two small tree branches from a tree that is barely visible in the background. The light falls on a diagonal from upper left corner to dramatically illuminate him. Zurbarán’s captivating presentation of the saint as a model of humility and selflessness was meant to inspire the laity.
At the End of Class...
At the end of class, students could be asked to write a brief homework assignment that responds to class lecture and discussion. Some of the topics students can consider are: the different formal qualities of Baroque art and architecture, the plans of the interior and exterior of the redesigned St. Peter’s and the influence of the Catholic Renewal on its design, the innovations made in ceiling painting; the unification of the arts in Bernini’s work, the cult of saints and martyrs in Spanish art, and the revolutions in royal portraiture that were made by Velázquez.
In order for students to understand the relevance of Baroque art to contemporary practice, they might view examples that offer compelling reinterpretations or re-appropriations of the Baroque. Students might watch a clip from Derek Jarman’s Caravaggio (1986) or an excerpt from Bill Viola’s The Quintet of Remembrance (2000). They could also write a brief comparison between Velázquez’s Las Meninas and one of Picasso’s versions of itto get them to consider the impact of the Baroque on modern and contemporary art.
Lisandra Estevez (author) is an assistant professor at Winston-Salem State University.
Amy Raffel (editor) is a PhD candidate at the CUNY Graduate Center. She has a Master’s degree in Contemporary Art history from the Institute of Fine Arts (NYU) and has taught Introduction to Modern Art as a Graduate Teaching Fellow at Lehman College since 2010. Currently, Amy is a genome contributor for Artsy and editor and contributor of Art History Teaching Resources.