Murillo Period 1674-1680
( Originally Published 1882 )
Paintings for Capuchin Chapel and for the Hospitad de los Venerables.
SPECIAL artists were often employed by religious bodies—Roelas, for instance, by the Jesuits; Carducho and Zurbaran by the Carthusians. Murillo's great patrons were the Franciscans, who employed him in his first important works for their small convent in Seville. Now when his reputation was assured, and probably before he had finished the paintings for the Hospital of the Holy Charity, he received an order from another Franciscan convent known as that of the Capuchins. It was situated just outside the city walls on the spot where the Monastery of St. Leander and the Church of SS. Justa and Rufina formerly stood. The building was commenced in 1627, but the chapel was not finished until 1670. Murillo was employed upon this work from about 1674 to 1680, and during three of those years he is said to have resided in the convent without leaving it for a single day. The brotherhood possessed a larger number of his pictures than any other religious community, comprehending upwards of twenty finished works, exclusive of several smaller ones for the side altars. To save them from falling into the hands of the French, the monks sent them to Gibraltar, where they remained until the conclusion of peace in 1813. At the time of the dissolution of the convents seventeen of them were transmitted to the Seville Museum, where they now form a matchless collection of the great artist's works. The Capuchin Chapel, for which they were painted, is now a parish church. In Bermudez's time, most of these paintings still hung in the places for which they were designed. Nine of them formed the "retablo" of the high altar; one of them, a Madonna and Child, is popularly known as the Madonna of the Napkin, from an incident which occurred during Murillo's sojourn in the convent and was the origin of the picture. He had so endeared himself to one of the lay brethren, who acted as cook in the establishment, that when the time came for him to leave it, the man begged for a small picture as a memento of the painter's visit. Murillo was willing to accede to his request, but had no canvas. " Never mind," said the cook, " take this napkin," and he offered him one which happened to be lying close at hand. The artist took it, and before evening produced, to his friend's delight, a most beautiful representation of the Virgin with the Infant, so natural and full of life that the Child seems as if it would spring from its mother's arms. The colouring of this picture, of which innumerable copies and engravings have been made, was never surpassed even by Murillo himself. It is now in the Seville Museum, together .with the following, which belonged to the " retablo : " St. Rufina and Justa, painted, as usual, with La Giralda, palm-branches and pots; St. Leander and St. Bonaventure, ordinary-looking priests in white robes skilfully arranged, from among which, those of the Archbishop, peeps a child with a mitre in its hands ; the St. John the Baptist and the St. Joseph, noble and manly figures; the St. Anthony and St. Felix.
The large centre picture of The Virgin granting to St. Francis the Jubilee of the Porciuncula is in the National Museum at Madrid. The Porciuncula was a feast in honour of the Cavern of St. Francis of Assisi, in which he received the visit of the Blessed Virgin and her Child. There is a chapel in every Franciscan convent appropriated to a model of this cavern. In the painting, the saint is seen kneeling upon the floor amidst a shower, from the hands of a lovely group of cherubs, of red and white roses, blossoms from the briars with which he scourged himself. The monks exchanged this for several modern pictures ; it has passed through several hands and suffered greatly from constant repainting.
The subjects of the great pictures (in the Seville Museum) which adorned the lateral altars are the Annunciation ; the Virgin with the Head of the Saviour on her knee, wearing an inexpressible sorrow upon her face as she gazes upon that of her dead Son, that thrills the soul of the beholder; St. Anthony of Padua and the Infant Christ; The Virgin of the Conception; St. Francis of Assisi embracing the Crucified Redeemer; the Nativity; the Vision of St. Felix and St. Thomas of Villanueva.
The St. Francis is the most striking of all Marino's devotional pictures. The saint is standing with one foot upon a sphere close to the cross. His left arm is round the half-descending body of the Saviour, who hangs by one hand; he has removed the other to rest it upon his shoulder. The reverence and commiseration in the upraised eyes of St. Francis, his clinging yet tenderly supporting attitude, the loveliness of the figures attended only by two little angels holding an open book, the gloom of the surrounding sky which is relieved by the light round the hanging form—form together an affecting picture of pain, of pity, and of divine condescension. The noble fidelity to nature in the figure of the Crucified, the beauty of its modelling, and the tone of the colouring make this a creation of the highest rank. It was doubtless meant to commemorate that wonderful interview between the saint and his Master on Mount Alvernus, in which his passionate desire towards Christ was gratified by the reception of the stigmata.
In the Museum there are two paintings of St. Anthony, in one of which the Holy Child is standing, and in the other sitting, upon an open book, which the saint appears to have been studying. In the latter there is great delicacy of execution and treatment. The cold colouring of the head of St. Anthony contrasts with the warmth with which the holy visitor is painted standing out from a dark, golden-tinged background.
In the Vision of St. Felix, the saint, who was an Italian Capuchin of great sanctity, is represented receiving a visit from the Blessed Virgin just before his death. She has placed her Child in his arms, and, after returning him to his mother, he is ready to " depart in peace," for his eyes have seen salvation.
The Charity of St. Thomas of Villanueva was a favourite subject with Murillo. In the Ashburton collection is a painting, once at Seville, in which the boy, afterwards a saint, is dividing his clothes among a group of children. One of the artist's best pictures, formerly in the Louvre (when the property of Louis Philippe), represents him giving alms at a church door to an assemblage of beggars. But it was for his patrons the Capuchins that he produced his finest work in honour of their favourite saint, who was celebrated alike for the charity which he had practised from his cradle and for his patron-age of art. In this picture St. Thomas stands at the cathedral door, surrounded by a swarm of mendicants of both sexes and all ages. The most remarkable figure is that of a lame beggar, half naked, kneeling to receive his dole. In the foreground a boy is exhibiting his wealth to his mother with great delight. The benevolent and noble, but pale, face of the Archbishop bears marks of the austerities which he practises towards himself. He wears a white mitre and a black robe.
Murillo painted two Conceptions for this convent, one far surpassing the other in beauty. In one the Eternal Father is faintly visible amidst the clouds : beneath the Madonna's feet is Satan in the form of a dragon, introduced in accordance with the rule which Pacheco laid down, though he did not insist upon it, for it was a detail " which, indeed, no man ever painted with good-will." In the other picture, which is of extraordinary merit, the Virgin is depicted in the bloom of youth, with long, fair hair and large blue eyes, standing on a bank of clouds, supported by cherubs. The Spaniards call this la Perla de las Concepciones, though it is in some respects unequal to the celebrated one in the Louvre.
Besides these, he also painted a Crucifixion on a wooden cross for the altar, and two pictures of the archangel St. Michael and the Guardian Angel. The latter has hung in the cathedral at Seville since 1818, in the chapel which bears its name. It was presented to the Chapter in 1814 by the friars. The angel form is radiant with the reflected glory of the Father's face, and rejoicing in his charge of the little one." The picture is an allegory. It is no fancy of the artist that of the angel-guiding ; he believes devoutly in his own angel, and is merely giving shape to the one hand unseen that holds up each child of man along the road of life, and to the other that points him to the skies—only bringing out of the shadows that silent guardian from Heaven that attends each one on earth. " Are they not all ministering spirits sent forth to do service for the sake of them that shall inherit salvation?" In his devotional pictures we see how deeply the artist was imbued with the Catholic spirit of his time, and he manifests those feelings in a manner especially suited to the strong convictions of his countrymen.
In 1678 Murillo was again employed by his friend Don Justino Neve y Yevenes, this time upon some paintings for the Hospital de los Venerables at Seville, an asylum for aged priests. Two of the pictures were for the chapel : St. Peter weeping, a picture in the style of Ribera, and the Mgstery of the Immaculate Conception, which Bermudez considered to be the best specimen in Seville of Murillo's treatment of the subject. The third hung in the Refectory, and represented the Virgin and Child enthroned on clouds ; an angel holds a basket, out of which Jesus is distributing bread to three venerable priests. In the Cadiz Museum is a copy of this painting : the original was probably stolen by the French ; it is now in the Buda-Pesth Gallery.
In the same Refectory was also a Portrait of Nave, in which the artist represents his friend seated on a red velvet chair, and wearing a black cassock. The clear olive face is that of a scholar and a gentleman, the dark eyes full of intelligence. At his feet is a little spaniel, so true to nature that dogs have come up to it snarling and barking. The likeness was painted as a token of gratitude and esteem, and as a reminiscence to the " Venerables " of their kind benefactor. After passing through several hands, it is now the property of the Marquis of Lansdowne at Bowood.
About the same time the artist was engaged upon some work for the high altar of the conventual church of the Augustines. The subjects of these pictures are chiefly incidents in the life of the saint. Two of them are in the Seville Museum. In one the Virgin and Child appear to the Bishop of Hippo ; the other represents the Bishop alone writing. A third, which was in the Louvre (when the property of Louis Philippe), illustrates the well-known legend of St. Augustine and the little child on the seashore, who is trying to fill a hole in the sand with water, which he is carrying from the ocean in a shell.
He also painted two scenes from the life of St. Thomas of Villanueva for these friars, one of which, in the Seville Museum, has been mentioned above.