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Murillo Period 1671-1674

( Originally Published 1882 )

Paintings for the Hospital of the Holy Charity in Seville.

MURILLO was now at the zenith of his power. In 1671 he commenced a series of paintings for the old-established brotherhood of the Holy Charity in Seville, to which he himself had been allied as lay brother since 1665. To the brethren belonged the Church of St. Jorge, which about the middle of the seventeenth century had fallen into such utter ruin and decay that the birds had used it for a roosting-place. In 1661 a member of the guild, Don Miguel Manara Vicentelo, determined to collect funds for the restoration of the hospital and church. Manara had always led a blameless life, but one day the necessity of devoting himself entirely to religion and good works came upon him with especial force. His sole fleshly lust was towards chocolate, and when he looked for some means of self-mortification there was only his favourite drink to abandon, and even that was put away. Every August he used to fill his granary with two supplies of corn, one for his family and the other for the poor. He was famous in Seville for his great benevolence, his humility, and favour with the saints. By his example he induced many of the nobility to join the brotherhood, and to give their wealth in charity, much of which passed through his hands. A. certain Don F. Gomez de Castro bequeathed his whole estate to him for distribution amongst the poor. Before the close of his life he saw the present church erected and the hospital rebuilt. The first contribution he received towards the necessary fund was fifty crowns, the life savings of a poor mendicant, who wished to give his all to the service of God. On the facade of the hospital is the following inscription : " This house will stand as long as God shall be feared in it and Jesus Christ be served in the persons of his poor. Whoever enters here must leave at the door both avarice and pride." There La Caridad still stands, and in it the good works, begun more than two hundred years ago, are carried on.

The interior of the church is one of the most beautiful in Seville, and Manara provided it with plate, candelabra, and other ornaments of fitting splendour. His personal friend Murillo was engaged to paint eleven pictures for it, which occupied him four years, and are some of his most celebrated works. Three were destined for the side altars, where they still hang, the Annunciation, the Infant Saviour, and the Infant St. John. The remaining eight, five of which were carried off by Soult, were for either side of the church ; the subjects had reference to the principal object of the institution. On the left side was doses striking the Bock, the Prodigal's Return, Abraham receiving the Three Angels, and the Charity of San Juan de Dios. On the right side the Miiracle of the Loaves and Fishes, Our Lord healing the Paralytic at the Pool of Bethesda, St. Peter released from Prison by the Angel, and St. Elizabeth of Hungary tending the Sick. The colossal pictures of Moses and the Loaves and Fishes still hang as originally placed ; they are painted with less brilliancy of colouring than was usual with Murillo, and are light and sketchy. In the first, which is familiarly and appropriately called la Sed, the great brown rock forms the central object, and divides the canvas into two unequal parts ; its shape is like the one in the wilderness of Horeb, which is pointed out to travellers as the rock of Moses. The figure of the great leader is the most prominent in the picture. He stands in front of the rock with uplifted rod, wearing upon his face a look of gratitude to Jehovah, from whom the great gift has come. Behind him is Aaron, looking on with astonishment at the miracle. The water has gushed out and has formed a little pool, around which the thirsty animals are crowding along with the men, some of whom are filling bottles, and some on their knees are taking water from the hollow of the hand. Around Moses and Aaron is a group of fifteen figures, one woman, " forgetful of her sucking child" in the agony of thirst, is drinking with averted face to avoid the little one's outstretched hand. On the other side is a smaller group of nine, and a more pleasing and natural representation of a mother. Dogs, sheep, a camel, a white mule, laden with jars and with his nose to a freshly filled iron pot, give variety to the picture. Many of the figures in the foreground are simple types of the lower classes in Seville, only not in ordinary costume. The boy on the mule and a girl near him waiting for her pitcher to be filled are said to be portraits of the artist's son and daughter. This painting is the most striking of all those which combine religious and genre characters.

The Miracle of the Loaves and Fishes is executed in the same manner as its companion picture, but does not equal it in merit. There are two distinct groups in it, each perfect in itself ; our Lord and his apostles on the one side, opposite to it the spectators. Between them on the distant hills is seen the multitude, a mass of figures—surely not one of the five thousand is missing. The lad with the loaves and fishes is of a true Sevillian type, and the best figure in the painting.

The Charity of San Juan de Dios also hangs in its original position, and these three are all that are left to the hospital. St. Juan was called "John of God," and was idolized in Granada, where he went to live after a life full of adventure. His last years he spent in nursing the sick, feeding and clothing the poor, and in other good works. In Murillo's representation of him he is bearing a sick man upon his shoulders, and appears to be failing under the weight of his burden ; he looks gratefully towards an angel who comes to relieve him. There is the light shining round the seraph, while the other figures are in shade.

The St. Elizabeth of Hungary, called " el Tinoso," in the Fernando Gallery, Madrid, is the only one of those belonging to the series carried off by Marshal Soult that was returned to Spain. Elizabeth is one of the most interesting and renowned of the mediaeval saints. A daughter of the King of Hungary, she was born early in the thirteenth century; from her childhood she was remarkable for piety and benevolence. At the early age of sixteen she was espoused to Duke Lewis of Thuringia, and then commenced the self-discipline which she exercised during the remainder of her short life of twenty-four years. She reduced herself by watching and fasting, often rising at mid-night to pray, "her husband sometimes sleeping, sometimes conniving, often begging her in compassion not to afflict herself indiscreetly, often supporting her with his hand when she prayed "—" being taught by her to pray with her." Wearing a dress of serge, she walked barefoot in processions, visited the most wretched hovels of sin and filth, taking food and clothes to the sick and needy; she founded many convents, schools, and hospices, where numbers of the miserable daily found food and shelter. She suffered great insult and persecution from her husband's relativos and the courtiers, who could not understand her humility. In 1225, during Lewis's absence came a terrible famine which lasted for nearly two years, bringing great numbers to death with hunger. Elizabeth distributed all the corn from the granaries, built a hospital, where she daily ministered to the sick, at the foot of the Wartburg, on which stood the royal residence, and sold all her jewels to procure food. Upon her husband's return great complaints were made to him of her munificence, but he only said, " Let her alone to do good and give whatever she will for God's sake, only keep Wartburg and Neuenberg in my hands." When Lewis had to join the Crusaders she followed him one day, then yet another day, dreading that parting which proved to be for ever in this world, for he received wounds from which he never re-covered. At his death, she and her children were cast out of his castles and deprived of all his possessions, while not one, of those whom she had so lovingly tended dared to offer them shelter ! The exiles took refuge in taverns or any safe hiding-place until rescued by the Abbess of Kitzingen, who delivered them up to the charge of the Bishop of Bamberg, Elizabeth's uncle. She entered the third order of St. Francis, and when she had nothing left to give in alms she took some leper into her especial care, whose loathsomeness drove every one else away; several such she received in succession. Murillo's picture shows her in one of the halls of a hospital washing the head of a leprous boy in a silver basin. She is attended by a duenna and two ladies, who apparently are not relishing the scene or their occupation, one holding a ewer, the other a tray with cups and a napkin. The details of a wretched man clothed in rags with his head bound up, sitting on the floor removing a bandage from his sore leg, are painted with revolting minuteness. Intense misery is expressed in the attitudes and faces of the crippled and diseased, who are awaiting their turn to be cured or relieved by the hands of the saintly Elizabeth.

Murillo excelled both in the selection and expression of contrasts, and this picture of el Tinoso afforded him a grand opportunity for exhibiting his power. His genius and work are in perfect accord. Seville, that "open air hospital," provided him with subjects to set off the beauty and refinement, the noble unselfishness and devotion, which he wanted to exhibit in the principal figures—rags as a foil for the velvet, disease for health, misery for luxury. Elizabeth is royally dressed, and has a long white veil surmounted by the coronet which she will not wear in church

" Because, forsooth, the crucifix within Is crowned with thorns."

By some this is considered one of the artist's finest works, but it is difficult to repress a shudder when looking at it.

When the self-sufficient Valdes condescended to ask Murillo's opinion upon one of his own paintings in which was a corpse in an advanced state of decomposition, Murillo remarked that one could not look at it without holding one's nose. If el Tinoso had been painted before this, Valdes might have found a ready retort. Of the four which are lost to Spain, Abraham receiving the Angels and the Prodigal's Return belong to the Duke of Sutherland, at Stafford House. The figure of Abraham in the first is imposing, but those of the angels are deficient in dignity and grace.

The Return of the Prodigal is the old story told in as simple language as the original. The scene is on the bread pavement, raised a step above the ground, in front of a substantial and wealthy house ; one of the high pillars of the porch and the courtyard gate are introduced. The principal figures, the father and his penitent son, are prominent in the centre. The half-naked form of the prodigal kneels upon the step with hands clasped suppliantly, half shrinking from the ready and fostering embrace of the grand old father. The features of the two men are the same, but the beseeching expression of the young face, pinched with hunger and with eyes timidly uplifted, "I have sinned," is in strong contrast with that of the old man gazing down upon his lenged-for boy with looks of sorrow, but melting with pity. There are no traces of anger, only the signs of divine compassion and sober joy. A sleek little dog in the foreground is leaping up towards the self-neglected wanderer. The servants on the right, one bringing forth the " best robes" upon a tray and another holding up the ring, have a half amused, half supercilious expression at the unsuitableness of the adornments to that shrinking figure. On the left of the picture, led in by a little boy who is dancing with delight, is the fatted calf. Even this animal, destined for the axe of the shambling figure by its side, gives a self-satisfied glance at the poor prodigal.

Mr. Tomline, of Carlton House Terrace, London, is the possessor of the Healing of the Paralytic, which contains Murillo's most able representation of our Saviour. There are five principal figures in the composition, our Lord, three apostles, and the subject of the miracle. The angel that " troubled the waters " is seen above, shining with the great glory. In the porch is a group of sick people waiting. The succession of arcades seen in perspective is probably taken from the cloisters of the Convent of Mercy in Seville, now the Museum. The colouring of this picture is as powerful as that of St. Elizabeth, and the rich brown of St. Peter's mantle is of the characteristic shade of the Sevillian school.

The last of the series, The Release of St. Peter, is in the Hermitage, St. Petersburg. The apostle, just awakened from sleep, is sitting on the floor, his countenance bright with reflected light from the angel.

Where all are beautiful it is difficult to decide which shall have the palm. Cean Bermudez, who had the advantage, which is impossible for critics in these days, of seeing them all together and in the positions for which they were intended, gives preference to the St. Elizabeth and The Prodigal's Return. By robbing the church of San Jorge (to whom the church was dedicated) of its paintings, the poor were deprived of the help received by contributions from the innumerable visitors they attracted, and their moral effect is partially destroyed. " At Seville," says Stirling, " these pictures of charity were powerful and eloquent homilies in which the piety of Miguel Manara yet spake through the pencil of his friend. In the unfamiliar halls of the stranger they are now mere works of art, specimens of Murillo, articles of costly furniture * * *" Marshal Soult carried on a regular system of plunder, sending spies before his army disguised as travellers and provided with Bermudez's "Dictionary of Art in Spain," to mark out the most valuable treasures in the churches and convents, which the monks were compelled to deliver up to the marauder ; at the same time they were forced to sign fictitious bills of sale, sometimes even under a threat of instant death. It is no thanks to Soult that a single painting of value is left in Seville. Hundreds were found rolled up at the Alcazar ready to be forwarded to France, but so hasty a retreat did the French make from the city that they left them behind.

These masterpieces of painting were finished in 1674, as is shown by a receipt (which is extant) given by Murillo for the sum of 78,115 reals. He also made some designs for the front of the church, of Faith, Hope, Charity, and the saints Iago and Jorge. These were carried out in blue glaze tiles, the gay bands of which give a bright effect to the buildings, a Moorish style of ornament common in Seville.

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