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Paintings Of Murillo

( Originally Published 1882 )

Dogma of the Immaculate Conception.—Paintings of the Conception in the Louvre.—Madonnas.--Boys.—Christ and St. John.

WITH the revival of Catholicism came also the revival of the desire to do conspicuous honour to the Virgin Mary. In the breasts of the Spaniards this feeling was pre-eminently strong, and Philip IV. commenced his reign by a special appeal to her protection, and made a solemn recognition of the dogma of the Immaculate Conception. This dogma, that the Blessed Virgin came into the world spotless as her offspring, arose in the fifth century, but until the beginning of the seventeenth men were allowed to exercise a free judgment concerning it. In 1617, the year of Murillo's birth, however, Pope Paul V., at the instigation of Spain, issued a bull which forbade the preaching or teaching of anything contrary to that doctrine. Upon its publication, " Seville flew into a frenzy of joy. Archbishop de Castro performed a magnificent service in the Cathedral, and amidst the thunder of the organs and the choir, the roar of all the artillery on the walls and river, and the clangour of all the bells in all the churches, swore to maintain and defend the peculiar tenet of his see." In 1854 Pope Pius IX. took the opinion of the Church General, and, in accordance with that, pronounced it to be an article of the Catholic Faith. When people asked why came this decree now so late in the history of the Church they were told that the world was not ready for it before, and that if these honours had been claimed for the Virgin prematurely she would have been worshipped as a goddess.

The Seville painters vied with each other in representing this favourite dogma. There was not a church or a convent which did not possess at least one painting or statue of the Virgin of the Immaculate Conception. But no one treated it with a sentiment more noble, a skill more perfect, or colouring more gorgeous than did Murillo. He is pre-eminently the "Painter of the Conception," of which he executed upwards of twenty representations. They belong chiefly to his vaporoso manner, the specialities of which are most purely and perfectly worked out in the tone of the aureole, which gradually deepens until it is lost in mysterious darkness. Groups of lovely cherubs sporting in the air or peeping out from behind soft clouds and drapery, sometimes bearing lilies and palm-branches, give life to the statuesque form of the Madonna as she floats upwards towards the opened heaven. Except in the colouring of the drapery and the Virgin's attitude Murillo did not adhere closely to Pacheco's rules, and often took the liberty of painting her dark instead of fair. No rules could produce that spirit of purity which breathes throughout the creations of Murillo, whose hand has stamped upon them, as far as human hand could do, that perfect nature of the Mother of God, " spotless without and innocent within."

The well-known picture in the Louvre, the most celebrated of his Conceptions, is the one which was painted in 1678 for the Church of the Venerables in Seville. It was bought by the French Government at the sale of Marshal Soult's collection in 1852, for the enormous sum of £24,612. The Virgin—in the flower of her age, with her hands meekly folded across her breast, draped in the simple blue mantle and flowing white robe which covers her feet—floats upwards towards the sky, attended by beautiful cherubim in every graceful position. The crescent moon under her foot is a symbol of her triumph over every other being who has been elevated to divine honours by man. Her expression is one of girlish simplicity and devout resignation to her heavenly calling.

Raphael has only twice painted apparitions of the Virgin and Child, the Madonna di Foligno and the Madonna di San Sisto. His treatment is very different from that of Murillo. The light about his figures is only intensified daylight, whilst in Murillo's pictures there is a reminiscence of that weird twilight which is produced by burning incense. In his paintings of the Annunciation, and whenever he wanted to depict the mysterious maternity, he exhibited the Virgin surrounded by the ordinary articles of daily use, and as she may " have lived and loved in the home of the carpenter and the little world of Nazareth." At such times she generally appears as an Andalusian peasant woman, with earnest dark eyes, sweet-looking, but not of a high class of beauty.

His Infant Christ is always a charming child full of the joy of living. Most beautiful in conception and treatment is the celebrated Child with the Lamb, in the Prado Museum, Madrid, the gem of the collection ; the face has that expression of peculiar earnestness which is often so remarkable in little children. But even this is surpassed by Los Ninos de la Concha, in which the little Jesus is holding a shell for his companion, St. John, to drink from. Murillo painted children with especial delight, and his studies from every-day life are charmingly employed in his religious paintings ; as, for instance, the cherubs in the picture of St. Bernard in the Queen of Spain's gallery, St. John with the Lamb, in our National Gallery, and the Good Shepherd, of the collection of the Baroness de Rothschild. The last two were originally companion pictures, but were unfortunately separated at the dispersion of Sir Simon Clarke's gallery, in 1840.

Murillo generally represented the boy Christ and John accompanied by a lamb, and must often have found his models in the streets of Seville, where it was, and still is, a custom to bring to market for the paschal feast lambs, which are led about by children.

Amongst his best religious compositions must be mentioned that in the Prado Museum of St. Ildefonso receiving the miraculous Chasuble from the hands of our Lady. According to the legend it was given as a reward to the Archbishop of Toledo, for having written emphatically upon her immaculateness. He was one day entering his cathedral in procession when he was astounded to see a great light about the high altar, and to find his throne occupied by the Blessed Virgin, who was surrounded by a heavenly choir. She addressed him in these words : " Come hither, most faithful servant of God, and receive the robe which I have brought from the treasury of my Son," and then put the divine gift upon his shoulders.

In the Royal Gallery of Spain is the painting of the Education of the Virgin, a subject unfamiliar to Spanish art. Roelas painted it for the Convent of Mercy, but shrank from robbing the form of Mary of the grand attire which had always been considered appropriate. In Murillo's painting, however, her only ornament is a white rose for the hair. She is kneeling by the side of S. Anna, listening attentively, and resting her book on her mother's knee. The faces are portraits, perhaps of his wife and daughter.

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