Important Art by Francisco de Zurbarán
Most of Zurbarán's output was produced for religious organizations in Seville. Crucifixion was commissioned by the San Pablo el Real monastery. Here Christ is nailed to a cross set against a blank black background.
This work is thought to be the artist's earliest known take on a subject that would become a theme throughout his oeuvre. Indeed, according to curator Almudena Ros de Barbero, Zurbarán "executed some thirty works on this subject" though these fall into two categories: "the Christs who are still alive and taking their last breath [...] and those [Christs] who are dead".
Here, an example of the former, we see the emergence of the Baroque style for which Zurbarán would eventually become world renowned. The intensity of the moment and the agony of Christ is present, not just in his expression, but also in the way Zurbarán rendered the figure bathed in the light emanating from his pale skin and from the white linen wrapped around his waist. These features foreground him in sharp contrast to the black background against which he is placed. According to the exhibition description for this painting at the Art Institute of Chicago, Zurbarán "envisioned the crucified Christ suspended outside of time and place. Conforming to Counter-Reformation dictates, the artist depicted the event occurring not in a crowd but in isolation. Emerging from a dark background, the austere figure has been both idealized in its quiet, graceful beauty and elegant rendering and humanized by the individualized face and insistent realism".
In this highly dramatic painting, Zurbarán's canvas is filled with the figure of a young friar dressed in a white robe. His arms are extended above his head, tethered by ropes that have been tied to his wrists. His lifeless head hangs to his right resting on his shoulder. On the far right of the canvas is a small piece of paper on which the words "B Serapius" (Blessed Serapius) are written, effectively providing a record of the holy man's identity. Considered one of Zurbarán's most well-known works, Saint Serapion lionizes a religious Martyr whose demise came, according to most historians, at the hands of English pirates.
There is a quiet dignity to Saint Serapion who seems at peace with death; this despite his horrific suffering which included beatings, disembowelment and dismemberment. The way in which Serapion is rendered provides a first-class example of the style in which Zurbarán tended to approach such subjects. According to art historian Odile Delenda, "The painter never liked to make specific reference of the horrific aspects of violent death, and here conceals the martyred saint's body beneath the beautiful white habit of the order. Recalling that of a crucified Christ, the victim's head hangs over his right shoulder in a masterfully achieved expression of abandonment, acceptance, and serenity".
In choosing to avoid the more violent elements of Serapion's death, Zurbarán achieves a different, but equally compelling, scene whereby the spectator's gaze is directed, not to the horror of his injuries, but rather to the face of the friar. The drama of the scene, meanwhile, comes via the use of the sharp contrast between the dark background and the friar's white robe. This technique became something of a feature in Zurbarán's work, revealing once more the influence of Caravaggio on his work.
Zurbarán's gentler, more human approach in rendering Serapion (one of his many monk paintings) would be looked to for inspiration two centuries later. Art historian Jonathan Brown asserts that, "Zurbarán's continuing relevance to modern art is witnessed in [Paul] Cézanne's Uncle Dominick as a Monk of c. 1866 [...] which seems to synthesize the portraits of white-robed monks. It is fitting that Cézanne, whose painting is prerequisite to our appreciation of Zurbarán, should himself have acknowledged a community of artistic spirit with this great Spanish artist".
Here Zurbarán gives us a near nude Hercules standing on an outcropping of rock with left arm outstretched, resting on a walking stick. His head is turned over his right shoulder as if engaging the viewer. Dominating the background is a thunderous river. Something of a rarity in Zurbarán's career, this painting has as its subject a non-Christian theme. Part of a series of ten paintings depicting the labors of the mythological god Hercules; the theme here is of his fifth labor, one of a series of punishments he was tasked with completing in order to return to the king's good graces. In this particular labor he was forced to clean the stables of King Augeas, a complicated task as the stables held more than 1,000 cattle and had been untouched for thirty years.
Zurbarán chose to depict the moment that embodies Hercules's intellect and cunning where he decided to alter the direction of the Alpheus River so it would flow through the stables washing them out in one swift pass. Zurbarán's choice to depict this element of the labor was a wise one as he was able to demonstrate his mastery of the landscape. Art historian Odile Delenda asserts, "this canvas is one of the most noteworthy of the series on account of its magnificent river landscape. The composition, the perspectival effects, and the lighting are masterfully achieved, especially if it is taken into account that the painting was intended to hang very high and be viewed from below".
Though he did not, as a rule, benefit from royal patronage, this series of paintings was produced for the new royal palace in Madrid. Furthermore, this series provided a rare example of Zurbarán's ability to possess his works of contemporary political messages: the labors of Hercules standing as a metaphor for the unassailable power of the Spanish king. Indeed, according to Delenda, "the scene is steeped in symbolism [...] Here the filth of King Augeas's stables represents the ills that were plaguing Spain, which it fell to the country's powerful rulers to eradicate".