Museo de Bellas Artes, Sevilla

Having decided to escape the cold and miserable weather of Britain for a short period  I find myself in the warmth of the Algarve soaking up the sun and staring out at the blue sky and sea whilst reading about blizzard and gale-force conditions back home. Ok, that’s enough schadenfreude for one day. However, it is my location that leads me on to the next few blogs – not the Algarve but its neighbour Andalusia which I visited last week and enjoyed the delights of the beautiful city of Seville. I think I was most impressed by the city’s architecture and it is a timely reminder for me to walk more upright and look above eye level instead of concentrating on the pavement – old age can be a challenge!

Museum courtyard

I always try and visit at least one art gallery if I visit a large city so when I arrived in the Andalusian city of Seville and after settling into the hotel, I headed for Museo de Bellas Artes de Sevilla. Some art galleries/museums can be large and soulless with just a never-ending series of rooms. I particularly like ones, which are different and have had a  usage prior to becoming a museum, such as a place of residence or a religious institution, which then come with ornate decorations.

The garden of Museo Sorolla, Madrid

One of the best I have visited was the Museo Sorolla in Madrid which albeit smaller in size in comparison to the much bigger art institutions in the city and, despite featuring only the works of Joaquin Sorolla, it was a true joy to behold and one I insist you visit when in the Spanish capital. The building was originally the artist’s house and was transformed into a museum after the death of his widow, Clotilde, in 1929.   The museum was eventually opened in 1932.

Museo de Bellas Artes de Sevilla

The Museo de Bellas Artes de Sevilla was originally home to the convent of the Order of the Merced Calzada de la Asunción, founded on the site by Saint Peter Nolasco, shortly after the re-conquest of Seville by the Christians in 1248. The building itself was built in 1594, but did not become a museum until 1839, following the desamortizacion, the name given to the Spanish government’s seizure and sale of property, including from the Catholic Church, from the late 18th century to the early 20th century which resulted in the shutting down of religious monasteries and convents. The building we see today, with the galleries arranged on two floors around three quiet courtyards and a central staircase, was largely the work of Juan de Oviedo y de la Bandera.

Entrance to the Museo de Bellas Artes, Sevilla

This superb art museum has been lovingly restored and it now ranks as one of the finest in Spain. It is built around three patios, which are decorated with flowers, trees, and the distinctive Seville tile work.  Much of the paintings in the permanent collection was Religious Art. Because of Spanish unwavering obedience to the religious teachings of Rome, it was therefore not surprising that their artists were heavily involved in spreading the Christian message through their commissioned works of art. The purpose of religious art and architecture was to gain converts to the Catholic faith. Architecture in the shape of breathtaking cathedrals was, therefore, the principal form of inspiration. Inside the cathedrals and churches statuary was also inspirational and religious stories were illustrated in the form of stained glass windows, altarpieces, and works of art.

Inside, the museum’s permanent collection of Spanish art and sculpture from the medieval to the modern focuses on the work of Seville School artists, such as Bartolome Esteban Murillo, Juan de Vales Leal, and Francisco de Zurbaran.

Sagrada Cena (Holy Supper) by Alonso Vasquez (1588)

The large (308 x 402 cms) painting Sagrada Cena (Holy Supper) by the Renaissance painter Alonso Vazquez is part of the permanent collection. It was his first known work and was commissioned for the refectory of the Cartuja de Santa Maria de las Cuevas de Sevilla in 1588. The composition is based on different prints, living the naturalistic elements of the tableware and food. The Mannerist style of the work features the elongated fingers and hands and the emphatic and animated gestures of those at the table all adorned in artificially-coloured clothing.

St Francis of Assisi by Francisco Pacheco (1610)

There were a number of religious paintings by the sixteenth-century Spanish artist Francisco Pacheco including his 1610 painting St Francis Assisi.

Luis de Vargas. Alegoría de la Inmaculada Concepción (Seville Cathedral)

Works were on show by Luis de Vargas, the 16th-century painter of the late Renaissance period, who spent much of his life in Seville although he did travel to Rome where he was influenced by Mannerist styles.  Such works are characterized by the exaggeration or alteration of proportions, posture, and expression. He was not only a great painter, but was also a man of strong devotional temperament, and was known as a holy man. His greatest wish was to use his talent for the glory of God, and he had a tradition of going to confession and receive Holy Communion before painting one of his great altarpieces. One of his contemporaries said that Vargas kept a coffin in his room to remind him of the approach of death.

The Purification of the Virgin by Luis de Vargas (c.1560)

One of his paintings on view at the museum was The Purification of the Virgin. In this work we see Mary depicted inside the temple, presenting the baby Jesus to the priest, San Jose. The depiction is completed by the inclusion of three women and a young girl with two pigeons in a basket, together with some angels.    This painting records the ceremony of the Purification of the Virgin and the Presentation of the Child Jesus in the temple and festivity celebrated this event occur on February 2nd, which is forty days from the twenty-fifth of December, the date of birth of Jesus.     This forty day period harks back to the Mosaic law, which states that the woman who gave birth to a man was impure for a period of forty days, (eighty if the one born was female!).    At the end of that forty-day period, the baby had to be presented to the priest in the temple, so that he could be declared clean by means of an offering. As for the offering the mother was expected to offer the priest a one-year-old lamb. However, Mary, being from a poor family, was unable to offer a lamb, and so instead of a lamb, Mary offered the priest a pair of pigeons.

Calvario con el centurión by Lucas Cranach (1538)

The 1538 work entitled Calvario con el centurión (Calvary with the Centurion) by Lucas Cranach is also part of the museum’s permanent collection. At the heart of the depiction we see Christ on the cross, on either side of him are the in-profile portrayal of the good thief, Dismas, and the evil thief, Gestas, both of whom are also impaled on their crosses. The depiction is at the very moment that Jesus raises his head skywards and utters the words Father in your hands I commend my Spirit” and it is those very words (vater in dein hendt befil ich mein gaist) we see written in Cranach’s native tongue, at the top of the painting. Look at the amazing way Cranach has depicted the facial expressions of the three men. In the central foreground, we see the centurion atop his rearing horse. He utters the words “Truly this Man was the Son of God” and again the words in German “Warlich diser mensch ist gotes sun gewest” can be seen as if coming from his mouth. The background of this work is quite interesting. Cranach has split it in two. The upper part, which is the sky, is dark and filled with a sense of foreboding whilst the lower background is a distant view of the city of Jerusalem.

One of the two most famous Sevilla-born artists was Diego de Siva y Velázquez, who was born in the Spanish city in 1599. Some of his paintings were displayed at the Sevilla museum and I particularly liked his 162o painting, St Ildefonso Receiving The Chasuble From The Virgin.

St Ildefonso Receiving The Chasuble From The Virgin by Diego Velazquez (1620)

Saint Ildefonsus, a scholar and theologian, was born in Toledo around 607 AD. Ildefonse, against his parents’ wishes, gave up their clerical plans for him and he became a monk at the Agali monastery in Toledo and in 650 he was elected to head the order as their abbot. On December 18th 665, according to a biography on the saint in the Catholic Encyclopaedia, he experienced a vision of the Blessed Virgin when she appeared to him in person and presented him with a priestly vestment, to reward him for his zeal in honouring her and it was this event that Velázquez captured in his painting.  According to legend, Bishop Ildefonsus and the congregation were singing Marian hymns when light cascaded into the church, terrifying the congregation and causing most of them to flee. The bishop and a few of his deacons remained and they watched as Mary descended and sat on the episcopal throne. She was full of praise for Ildefonsus’ devotion to her and vested him with a special chasuble from her son’s treasury, which she instructed the bishop to wear only during Marian festivals.

The highlight of my tour around the museum was not just witnessing the permanent collection but happening to arrive during a special 400th-anniversary exhibition of one of Seville’s most famous painters.  Who was he?  I will tell you in my next blog………..

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The Fountain of Youth by Lucas Cranach the Elder

The Fountain of Youth by Lucas Cranach the Elder (1546)

Throughout time, mankind has always looked for ways to extend the longevity of life.  In modern times we have organ transplants, anti-aging creams and plastic surgery to either extend our life or if we accept the futility of that premise, then at least try and make oneself look younger.  We can now bathe in spas whose magical water quality are supposed to combat this disease or that disease and many who have bathed in these waters leave feeling cleansed and believe implicitly that the waters do heal them of their ailments and have rejuvenated them.  In past times there was always talk about the mythical Fountain of Youth in which the waters could reverse the ageing process.  Alexander the Great, who conquered most of the known world at the time, was thought to have been searching for a river that healed the ravages of age. Move forward to the 12th century and we hear of a puzzling letter sent to the Byzantine emperor Manuel I which started to circulate around Europe. It told of a magical kingdom in the East that was in danger of being overrun by infidels and barbarians. This letter was supposedly written by a king known as Prester John and talked about his kingdom which had rivers filled with gold and was the home of the Fountain of Youth.  Two centuries later, in 1513, it was recorded that the explorer, Ponce de León, was searching for the Fountain of Youth when he traveled to what is now Florida.   And so it goes on, this fascination with the mystical Fountain of Youth.

Artists have often recorded pictorially their take on this magical fountain and today I am going to take a look at one which was completed just over thirty years after Ponce de León’s voyage of discovery.  The painting, Der Jungbrunnen (The Fountain of Youth) is by the German artist Lucas Cranach the Elder which he completed in 1546.  It is about the human desire for immortality and eternal youth.  The old women in the painting crave to cast aside their worn outer shell, which is pale and wrinkled, and exchange their haggard looks by replacing their outer-self with a more acceptable younger version.

The examination

I like the mini-scene in the centre ground to the left of the pool where we see a man bent forward closely examining a naked woman.  What is that all about?  Is he an official or maybe a doctor who is examining how haggard the woman is to see if she fits the criteria for rejuvenation?  If this is the case, then for once to gain one’s admission to the pool old age and infirmity is requisite bargaining tool!

The Fountain

In many ways this simplistic depiction of the Fountain of Youth is quite amusing.  At the centre of the painting we observe a large square-shaped grey and white pool, at one end of which is the fountain.   The fountain gushes out water it has drawn from the spring below.  On the fountain there are statues of Venus and Cupid which, in some ways, is confirmation that this is more of a Fountain of Love and that maybe it is the power of love which is the rejuvenating factor.   The pool is populated by naked women.  Steps around the four sides of the pool lead down to the healing waters.  To the left of the painting we see elderly women, who have made the long and tiring journey, arriving in carts, on litters, in wheelbarrows or in one case piggy-backed on a man who can just about cope with her weight.  All want to bathe in the rejuvenating water.

Wheeled to the magical waters

The old women then alight from their transport, take off their clothes, examined and are helped into the square-shaped pool, the water of which is being topped up from the Fountain of Youth.   Once partly immersed in the magical waters the naked women begin to splash themselves with the water and frolic about, the cares of the world seemingly lifted from their shoulders.  Now that the women have regained their youthful looks they look at one another amazed by the change that has taken place.  They caress themselves or caress one another, hardly believing what they are seeing and feeling.  They comb their long flowing golden hair.  Their mood is one of triumph.  The power of the waters has worked.

In and out of the robing tent

If we now look to the right hand side of the pool we see that after having been immersed and had been revived by the recuperative powers of the waters, they step out of the pool, rejuvenated and once again young.  From the pool side, these gregarious young virgins are then directed towards a large tent in order to dress and after a short while they emerge as beautiful young ladies wearing the most exquisite clothes.  For them, the world has changed and they go off to dance or dine or find themselves a handsome young man whom they can take off to the seclusion of the bushes to……..

Although this undoubtedly is a humorous painting, I wonder whether Cranach intended to also moralize with his depiction.  On the left Cranach depicts the old women being brought to the waters by ordinary working-class types of people but note how, once rejuvenated and sumptuously dressed, the young women go off with the upper class nobility.  What happened to the poor men who almost carried their women to the pool?  Have they now been abandoned?  Another question the painting raises is why are there no men in the pool being rejuvenated?  Should we believe that in the 16th century it was only the women who sought rejuvenation?  Has nothing changed in the last five centuries?   Is the female current desire for rejuvenation by creams, potions and the surgeon’s knife any different to Cranach’s women immersing themselves in the Fountain of Youth?

One of the things I like about this painting is the number of mini-scenes taking place within the work.  Every time I look at the work, I notice something I had not seen before.  I saw this work of art when I visited the Gemäldegalerie in Berlin some time back, the same museum which houses the Netherländish Proverbs by Pieter Bruegel the Elder, another marvelous painting which is awash with mini scenes.

Lot and his Daughters by Lucas Cranach the Elder

Lot and his Daughters by Lucas Cranach the Elder (C.1530)

My Daily Art Display today starts with a passage from the Bible.  It is from the book of Genesis (19: 30-38) and tells the story of Lot and his two daughters who we see in the painting above, entitled Lot and his Daughters which was painted by the great German Renaissance painter,  Lucas Cranach the Elder around 1530.  The Bible passage sets the scene:

30 Lot and his two daughters left Zoar and settled in the mountains, for he was afraid to stay in Zoar. He and his two daughters lived in a cave. 31 One day the older daughter said to the younger, “Our father is old, and there is no man around here to give us children—as is the custom all over the earth. 32 Let’s get our father to drink wine and then sleep with him and preserve our family line through our father.”

33 That night they got their father to drink wine, and the older daughter went in and slept with him. He was not aware of it when she lay down or when she got up.

34 The next day the older daughter said to the younger, “Last night I slept with my father. Let’s get him to drink wine again tonight, and you go in and sleep with him so we can preserve our family line through our father.” 35 So they got their father to drink wine that night also, and the younger daughter went in and slept with him. Again he was not aware of it when she lay down or when she got up.

36 So both of Lot’s daughters became pregnant by their father. 37 The older daughter had a son, and she named him Moab; he is the father of the Moabites of today. 38 The younger daughter also had a son, and she named him Ben-Ammi ; he is the father of the Ammonites of today.

Not being a reader of the Bible, nor being particularly religious, I was surprised to read the passage from Genesis, as on first seeing the painting, which is housed at Compton Verney in Warwickshire, I believed it to be simply a picture of two girls, one comforting a tired-looking old man whilst the other was bringing him something to drink.

It is known that Lucas Cranach the Elder painted this Old Testament subject on  at least four occasions and many other artists have depicted this same story in their paintings.  The early part of Chapter 19 of Genesis relates the story of how God destroyed the two cities of Sodom and Gomorrah, which are shown in flames in the background of the painting.  To save the righteous people of the two cities, God sent down two angels to lead Lot, his wife Edith, his nephew Abraham and his family away from the doomed cities.  The two angels warned Lot that they should quickly escape but nobody should look back on the burning cities but as we know Lot’s wife did and was turned into a pillar of salt and we see the grey pillar of salt in the right middle-ground of the painting.

In the foreground we have Lot on one knee his arms resting on the knees of one of his daughters, who rests her hand on his head, trying to console him after the loss of his wife.  As the biblical tale tells us the daughters, Pheiné and Thamma, fearing that with the destruction of all the people of the city they will not have the chance to bear children and their father will thus never have a male heir.  With that in mind they decide that their father should make them pregnant and so on two consecutive nights they got Lot drunk and had him make love to them.  The daughters became pregnant and each had a son, Moab and Benammi.

This is really a story of two females taking decisions about their own destiny rather than leaving it to a male to decide what should happen to them and their lives.  Stories of female domination over men were very popular in the late Middle Ages and could not only be seen in paintings, but could be read about in literature, and words of songs and plays of the time.

I am a great fan of both Cranach the Elder and his son Lucas Cranach the Younger and find their paintings