Progression of Art
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".
Oil on canvas - The Art Institute of Chicago
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".
Oil on canvas - Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art, Hartford, Connecticut
Hercules Staying the Course of the River Alpheus
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".
Oil on canvas - Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid, Spain
Saint Francis Contemplating a Skull
Originally believed to be part of an altarpiece, this work, like so many of Zurbarán's religious paintings, demonstrates the artist's ability to capture the spirituality of his subjects. As the title confirms, Zurbarán's painting depicts Saint Francis wearing the brown habit typical of the Franciscian Order. Dominating the canvas, he stands with his hood-covered head, shadows obscuring his face, bent looking down at a human skull which he holds in front of him at waist level.
Zurbarán's mastery of the dramatic effects of the Baroque style is reflected in his contrast of light and dark seen here in the shadows which surround the figure and the wash of light that serves to draw the viewer's eyeline up from the skull to Francis's meditative face. Acting as a memento mori, the skull in Francis's hands is a comment on the crucifixion. Indeed, meditation on death was a favoured theme amongst Jesuits, and saints contemplating skulls was something of convention of seventeenth-century Italian and Spanish painting. According to the descriptive text that complements the painting at the Saint Louis Art Museum, "the saint's downcast gaze and shadowed face remove him from the viewer's realm, making his contemplation of the skull a compelling model of religious devotion".
The simple intensity of Zurbarán's treatment of Saint Francis had a strong influence on the Impressionist Édouard Manet. According to art historian Jonathan Brown, Manet's "anachronistic Kneeling Monk of 1865 [...] is a virtual paraphrase of Zurbarán's Saint Francis Meditating [while even] the most radical aspect of Manet's painting, its flattened, undefined space, only emphasizes Zurbarán's suppression of illusionistic depth"
Oil on canvas - Saint Louis Art Museum, Saint Louis, Missouri
Zurbarán's painting Agnus Dei features a lamb with its four legs, bound together at the hoofs, resting on a plank of wood. Set against a blank background, there is, barely visible on the left side of the canvas, a golden ring-like halo hovering above the lamb's head.
Although this is a still life, this painting incorporates the religious theme for which Zurbarán was best known. As the title reflects, and the words inscribed at the bottom of the canvas "Tanqvam Agnus In Occisione" reinforce, the lamb is a metaphor for the persecution of Jesus Christ. The animal is rich in symbolism and according to curator Almudena Ros de Barbero, "The yeanling, with its legs bound together, lies abandoned on a wooden slab that recalls Christ's cross". In rendering the lamb in this way, the artist creates a visual foreshadowing of the death that Christ will suffer through his crucifixion. The intensity of the scene, and thereby the monumentality of Christ's sacrifice is made greater by a common motif in Zurbarán's oeuvre; his amazing skill at creating a sharp contrast between light and dark present here in the black background against which the white lamb rests which might arguably even be interpreted as a representation of good (Christ) and evil (Satan and the ills of the world).
Oil on canvas - Museo de la Real Academia de Bellas Artes de San Fernando, Madrid, Spain
The Young Virgin
The Young Virgin features, in the center of the canvas, a young girl seated on the ground, hands clasped in her lap looking upward. Barely visible, surrounding her head is a semicircle of cherubic angels. A domestic scene, in Mary's lap rests a piece of fabric in which a threaded embroidery needle is resting upright, awaiting her next stitch.
This work is an important example of the many paintings Zurbarán created as private commissions. According to curator Almudena Ros de Barbero, this painting represented the first in this style for the artist: "scenes of the holy childhood of the Virgin and Jesus". Here, as in so many of his works, one finds a rich stream of symbolism including, as Ros de Barbero observed, "the jug of water, the basket with the white cloth, and the flowers at the Virgin's feet" all of which "symbolize purity, loyalty, and spiritual maturity". Furthermore, the "book of sacred writings on the table to Mary's right denotes her life of prayer, and to her left, the richly decorated vase of flowers [...] symbolizes her virtues".
The Baroque style of the period proved the perfect means by which Zarbarán could render his religious scenes. That this image amounts to more than a young girl at work - she is rather the embodiment of the most holy female in the Christian faith - is made by Zurbarán through the high drama of a soft glowing light that reflects off her face and surrounds her head in a halo-like fashion. This serves to make Mary's holiness clear as she looks upward from her domestic responsibilities towards heaven foreshadowing the future connection she will have with God and the important role she will play in the life of Christ.
Oil on canvas - The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City
In this painting Zurbarán depicts the biblical figure of Jacob as an old man with long, gray beard. Head bent and back stooped, he rests with hands clasped on his walking stick. His attire is rich in color and includes a blue shirt and red vest along with a cream colored turban with scarf that wraps around his neck and hangs down his chest. The leather sandals he wears are fitting for the pastoral background in which he stands. This painting, one of a series of thirteen works, is an epic achievement of individual life-size portraits that feature not only Jacob, but each of his twelve sons too. Once more, Zurbarán has taken his subjects directly from stories in the bible (here the Old Testament book of Genesis).
In describing the significance of these works, critic Peter Schjeldahl writes, "they constitute a terrific feat of Baroque storytelling: movies of their day. All the characters - each a distinct personality uniquely posed, costumed, and accessorized, and towering against a bright, clouded sky and a low swath of sylvan scenery - appear to be approximately as old as they are in the forty-ninth chapter of Genesis. There the dying Jacob prophesies, in gorgeous verse, the fates of the founders-to-be of the Twelve Tribes of Israel".
Standing as prime examples of his mature style, this series show clearly Zurbarán's command over the figure. In addition, however, these works highlight another of his artistic skills which is often less acknowledged, his skill at rendering nature. According to historian Jonathan Brown, "although Zurbarán painted no independent landscapes, he became the master of a type of landscape background almost from the start of his maturity." Here his command over the subject, as the finely rendered background indicates, help to place the figures more solidly within their biblical narratives.
Oil on canvas - Collection of Auckland Castle, Bishop Auckland, England