Zurbaran (at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art through December 13) is a puzzle. I can’t remember when I’ve seen a retrospective in which the gap between media blah and a few superb peaks was so yawning. Maybe it’s got to do with the style of ecclesiastical patronage.
When the Dominican monks of the monastery of San Pablo El Real in Seville gave him a commission on January 17, 1626, they were very, very specific; 21 pictures for 4,000s reales (below scale, as the good fathers dickered with an aspiring out-of-towner who hadn’t quite made it yet).
They wanted 14 scenes from the life of their patron Saint Dominic, four of the Fathers of the Church, and one each of Saints Bonaventure, Thomas and (heh, he was the boss) Dominic. The splendid catalog (paperback, $35) makes clear at another point that the padres wrote into their contracts that they had the right to refuse any painting if it didn’t meet their muses.
There are other anomalies noted. Because Napoleon’s generals helped themselves to many of his paintings and because there was a secularization of many monasteries in Spain in the early 19th Century, this exhibition is literally the first time that many of the paintings have been seen ensemble. (One critic suggests that they would have been hard to admire in those poorly lit Baroque alcoves.) In any case, it establishes that Lord Elgin was not the only cultivated European hanging in “cultural exchange” in those good old days.
One of Zurbaran’s major patrons, the Mercedarians, were an order established to ransom Christian hostages who had been captured by the Moors and taken to North Africa. They tried to buy back the faithful with money they had raised begging. Failing that, they offered themselves in exchange—a hardy bunch.
One of the paintings that pleases me most is of the Mercedarian Saint (Peter) Serapion, a Britisher who fought the Moor with Alfonso IX of Castile in the 13th Century. The monks placed this painting in the Sala de Profundis, where monks’ corpses were on final view before burial.
They played a hardheaded holy theology, and it seemed to me the best paintings were the ones that embodied this stark vision, such as “Saint Francis with a Skull” and “Saint Francis Standing in Meditation.” They are minimalist in tone—dark monochrome backgrounds, with the subject often deeply in shadow, not infrequently with skull in hand.
This “memento mori” stuff is repugnant to me intellectually, but it has tremendous force emotionally. Life stripped down to bare essentials, as in gazing with joy on a death that could transfigure a soul.
On the other hand, when Zurbaran is doing the historical paintings or, especially, the church furniture paintings he (or his atelier) did by the hundreds under short deadlines for shipment to Latin America, they remind me of all the mediocre church paintings I suffered in my Catholic youth, piety’s purple prose.
Reprinted from Welcomat: Hazard-at-Large, December 2, 1987