Birthdays / French / Look Back: Art History / Painting

Happy 414th birthday, Francisco de Zurbaran!

Born: 7 November, 1598 in Fuente de Cantos

Died: 27 August, 1664

Movement: Spanish Baroque

Patrons: Philip IV of Spain, Diego Velazquez

Francisco de Zurbarán, Spanish, 1598-1664, Oil on canvas, 24-1/2 x 43-1/8 in. (62.2 x 109.5 cm), The Norton Simon Foundation

Where is his birthday party? In Seville near Alcazar, the royal palace.

Gift idea? How about a bowl of oranges, three lemons, a glass of water and a rose? Beware though — these objects are probably more to Zurbaran and his friends than a refreshing snack. In deeply Catholic Counter Reformation Spain – where the artist lived – oranges and lemons were understood as representing the “fruits of paradise,” water was associated with the Catholic sacrament of Baptism, and the rose with the Virgin Mary.

Compliment his… popularity at the court of Philip IV, who, legend has it, once grasped his hand and called him “king of painters, and painter of kings.”

But don’t mention … Barolome Esteban Murillo. During the 1640’s, Murillo’s sweeter style gained popularity over Zurbaran’s starker ascetic style, effectively ending the latter’s career.

Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art / Art Resource, NY

If you were asked to paint a picture that you knew hundreds of people would look at again and again what would your approach be? Would you fill it up with lots of stuff, an eye spy in oil? Or would you make something pared down and simple?

In this image of St Serapion, Zurbaran has used simplicity and emotion to make a clear but engaging image of a difficult subject.

St Serapion was a thirteenth century Franciscan martyr. His job was ransoming Christian prisoners from the Moors. Eventually he was captured and had his throat cut, face mutilated and was left to die. And let’s face it, who wants to see that?

But Zurbaran’s interpretation of the saint’s death is striking without being gruesome. Framed by a dark, uncertain background, the man in his white robes provides a strong, almost glowing focal point. Deep folds of white cloth give the painting a sense of texture and even movement. They counteract the stillness of the man’s head and his limp hands. In fact, the mass of deeply painted cloth appears strong and powerful, a solid mass in the indeterminate world of the painting.

By positioning Serapion at the centre of the composition, starting just above the knee and presenting the saint’s body so it fills the frame, Zurbaran gives the viewer something to really focus on and meditate from. Originally, the painting was commissioned by the members of a Franciscan monastery to hang in the room where they laid out the dead monks before burial.

Imagine using this image as a subject of contemplation before the burial of a man you’d lived and worked with for most of your life. It’s somber and sad, but the mass of the figure speaks to a kind of strength beyond the body of the man. This image seems to me one that would be at once suitable supernatural and suitable familiar to inspire prayers for the afterlife.

What do you think of this? What questions would you ask about it? Would you find contemplating death around it comforting or disquieting?

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