Rounds of the Prado: The Place of Painting
Each morning, for the past few months, I have left my house and followed the same route to the Prado. In a bag slung over my shoulder, I keep a pen, a pencil, and two notebooks for the work ahead. Nothing else. The large notebook is to take notes in the museum library, in the Casón del Buen Retiro, beneath the tempestuous vault by Luca Giordano. I have always been deeply inclined to the study of the things I like. On days when I don’t go to the library, I walk a little farther and spend the morning in the exhibit rooms of the Villanueva building. In that case I use a smaller notebook that allows me to take notes while looking at the paintings, preferably in pencil, sitting on a bench and holding the notebook on my knees. I want to open my eyes as wide as possible to look at the paintings, and I want to learn from books as much as I can about them. The two activities are complementary. The more you know, the more and the better you see. An ornithologist can spot and identify more birds in the woods; a naturalist can see a wealth of plant species whose existence the uninitiated will never even suspect. Our sight can be trained, just like our memory or like the hand of a draughtsman. Looking is not the passive record of what stands before our eyes: we examine and reconstruct it in our visual cortex and then in our conscious mind, creating associations to other images or even, if we remember earlier encounters, to the very image that stands before us. The act of looking is a palimpsest. We find in it the traces of all we have seen before and all we have learned from those who faced the painting in the past, our forerunners through the years and the generations all the way back to the very first gaze, the painter’s, when the work was first completed.
Each morning I walk diagonally across the Retiro, down the same paths through the trees and the same avenues flanked by statues and French-style garden hedges. Approaching the museum requires a certain discipline, just as the act of looking will require it later. In our world, every image in existence is endowed with absolute ubiquity. Any one of them can be accessed instantly by merely glancing at a screen. But a painting is not its reproduction. A painting occupies a particular place in the world, and no other. To approach it consciously is thus to prepare ourselves already for its utter singularity.
For many years I pursued a kind of education by looking at paintings in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. But my education took place partly in advance, as I followed the path that led me there. Since I lived on the Upper West Side, I had to cross Central Park at a slant to reach the museum. I have seen the park on snowy mornings when it seemed as blank and white as an arctic landscape. As soon as the weather became warm enough, I would cross the park on a bicycle that I chained to a lamppost at the foot of the museum steps. Physical exercise and the sense of silent speed enlivened my spirits in advance. It was not just my lungs, but my eyes too, that seemed to grow wider as they took in the magnificent spectacle of nature and the backdrop of buildings rising in silhouette over the trees against a distant sky. A nearly identical route took me to another of my favorite museums, the Frick Collection, just ten blocks south. At the Frick, as at the Met, one finds many works that should have been in the Prado, were it not for the absurdities and calamities of Spanish history. In the same room with several Rembrandts, I have looked many times at the sumptuous, unspeakably sad portrait of Philip IV painted by Velázquez in Fraga, amidst the Catalan Revolt, with that vague attempt at a martial air that expresses above all a sense of defeat. I now know that Velázquez painted it in just three days, in a makeshift studio set up in a rural house that was nearly in ruins. Velázquez, who painted very quickly, demanded nonetheless that his models sit motionless for long periods of time. A jester had to be brought in to distract the king while he sat for the portrait.
As memorable as a museum itself can be the path that takes us there. On a dark, wet morning in September, shortly before daybreak, I crossed Amsterdam by bicycle on the way to the Rijksmuseum. It had rained all night, and the sky was beginning to clear in the early light. I had to be at the museum at seven o’clock to be interviewed for a television show. When I arrived, I went over to a side door and rang the doorbell. A uniformed guard led me down empty hallways to one of the Rembrandt rooms. The crew had set up its cameras and lights and gone off to have breakfast. I remained alone for I don’t know how long in a deep, absolute silence, surrounded by Rembrandt’s pictures: his solemn burghers; his gloomy, ancient Jews; a series of successive self-portraits that seemed to fix their gaze on me all the more intently because no one else was there.
I cannot recall having ever looked at a painting the way I did that morning at that picture of a man and a woman embracing in a mutual rapture of love and desire, a rapture that is at the same time a religious feeling since they embrace before the eyes of God and in fulfillment of a sacred law. During the long minutes I remained alone, the purity of the surrounding silence acted on the sense of sight like a prodigious magnifying glass. It brought to mind a saying of Juan Ramón Jiménez: “Con ruido no veo.” “When it’s noisy, I can’t see.” The syndics of the Drapers’ Guild seemed to stare at me, as I stood before them, with a kind of anonymous surprise, as if I had just stumbled into their meeting, a ghost from a distant future suddenly made visible in the bright empty space of the room. You are met by a similar gaze when you arrive before anyone else at the room that holds Las Meninas. The same expression of bewilderment, recognition, and surprise shines in the faces of Velázquez’s courtly characters as in those of Rembrandt’s burghers: as if the picture were taking place at the very moment we fix our eyes on it.
Even before arriving at the museum, I am already within its realm. The Prado belongs so completely to the topography and the history of Madrid that its presence radiates beyond its walls. The same copses, canals, and man-made ponds I skirt during my walk were once the stage of feasts and theatrical displays performed for the very kings who collected or commissioned some of the best paintings now in the museum. The park and the city I traverse are palimpsests as well. Many of these paintings once hung in the palace of the Buen Retiro, built by the Count-Duke of Olivares to flatter a young Philip IV, or else in a series of chapels scattered among the trees to evoke the dwellings of the holy hermits of the first centuries of Christendom. The Buen Retiro furnished a commodious imitation of nature for the entertainment of king and court. Velázquez painted his St. Anthony the Abbot and St. Paul the First Hermit for one of the chapels in the park. Those who went there to pray or rest must have imagined they were emulating, without the least discomfort, the solitude of the early saints who fled the world. The place of that particular painting was that hermit’s chapel, and no other. To remove a painting from the place for which it was specifically intended is to deprive it partly of its meaning. Three magnificent portraits in hunting dress now displayed in the same room as Las Meninas—one of Philip IV, one of the Cardinal-Infante Ferdinand, and one of Crown Prince Balthasar Charles—were painted for the Torre de la Parada, a hunting lodge and pleasure ground belonging to the royal family on the road to the palace of El Pardo. Returning from the hunt with his rifle and a big dog at his side, the king must have gazed, as into a mirror, at the painting on the wall where he appeared too in hunting dress. The bluish hills in the background were the same landscape he would have seen by stepping out into the fields.
Nothing remains of the Torre de la Parada, or of the chapel of St. Paul in the Buen Retiro, or of most of the palace itself. Things that seem whole and immutable are only the remnants of a much larger vanishing. The Buen Retiro is gone, and so is the old Alcázar, nearly destroyed by fire in 1734 and now a ghostly shade at the site of the present Royal Palace. The museum, too, as we enter its solid fabric and its bright, ordered rooms, suggests a sense of permanence, of consummate preservation: we should think of it, rather, as a warehouse filled with the wreckage and debris of a great flood, treasures that have many times been nearly lost. What we see is not a full or even a sufficient catalog of the legacy of the past. It is only a fragment, an intimation, an archeological chart delineating above all the extent of all that vanished: lost, stolen, sold for a pittance. Over five hundred paintings were destroyed when the Alcázar burned in 1734, among them dozens of works by Titian, and Velázquez’s Expulsion of the Moors. In 1604 there was another catastrophic fire in the palace of El Pardo; in 1671 a section of the Escorial burned down. The Torre de la Parada, which held, along with the three Velázquez portraits in hunting dress, several populous mythological paintings by Rubens and his workshop, was sacked and set on fire by Austrian troops in 1710, during the War of the Spanish Succession.
The fires need not even have been accidental. In 1762, Charles III ordered his court painter, Anton Raphael Mengs, to burn all of the so-called “lascivious paintings” in the royal collections. Titian’s “poems in paint” might have ended up in the fire, along with Rubens’ buttery nymphs or the naked goddesses of Carracci, Guido Reni, Francesco Albani. We think that all paintings are made for public display, but the lascivious paintings were kept for over a century in a dark warehouse in the Casa de Rebeque. Mengs was able to save them by recourse to an argument that was both moral and aesthetic. They could be useful, he suggested, for teaching students at the new Academy of Fine Arts, allowing them to gain knowledge of the female nude without risking exposure to even more tempting models of flesh and blood. This meant the paintings remained invisible even when they went to the Academy. They were kept in yet another secluded warehouse. One can imagine the sinful sense of mystery experienced by the very few who were allowed into that place (including Goya, who was a student himself before he became a teacher at the Academy). When they were brought to the Prado in 1819, the paintings were safe from the fire but did not become entirely visible. The female nude in the arts was a peril and a privilege for the gaze of powerful men. Goya’s Clothed Maja and Nude Maja hung in the secret study of the all-powerful Manuel Godoy. Until 1838, the lascivious paintings were closely kept in a “reserved room” from which members of the general public, let alone women, were strictly barred.
It is difficult to connect these tales of secrecy and fire with a building designed in the pure classical style of the enlightenment; a building whose spaces seem conceived for quiet contemplation and for a kind of understated clarity, especially in the large central gallery, which seems awash in that muted northern light that is so much favored by painters. A few aerial bombs of the kind Franco’s planes dropped on the working-class neighborhoods of Madrid would have sufficed to obliterate all that beauty.
In the circuit of my daily walk, the museum is linked with the Royal Botanical Gardens and with the domed pavilion of the Observatory, both of which might belong in one of those landscapes that appear in the background of paintings by Poussin. They are like a little stage-set citadel of knowledge and delight, of all that’s best in the teachings of humanism, with its trust in the light of reason and the capacity of human beings to be gradually perfected. A powerful imprint remains in the museum of its original purpose as a Cabinet of Natural History. Art and science, the earthly and the heavenly, botany and astronomy, along with the neat, evolutionary discourse of the history of art: everything seems to gather into a simple harmony devoid of turmoil or drama, free of the unpleasant geometrical rigor of what is overly planned—as if it had merely been brought together by the gradual labor of the passing centuries. The environs of the museum are appealing not because of their monumentality, but because they seem like the architectural model of a different city, even of a possible country that, while never quite managing to come into existence, did not just remain a failed daydream, given that it left behind this legacy that is at once archeological and real, present, filled with people and life, preserved with full scientific competence, as if the enlightened effort that conceived it had been accomplished despite everything, and history had been less tragic, more hopeful, more fortunate than we recall.
Sometimes I go into the museum right away; on other days I choose instead to wander nearby. The magnificent trees of the Paseo del Prado seem to contravene the Spanish curse of drought and barrenness. The Botanical Gardens are a living museum of the world of plants with all its treasures; of insects, too, the worms that aerate the soil, the bacteria that render it fertile, the birds that build nests in the trees and scatter their seeds, the cats whose feline, prowling stealth seems to turn a modest myrtle hedge into a patch of jungle. The short walk from the Botanical Gardens to the Prado is an adventure for the senses. And the museum, too, contains the great zoological and botanical variety of nature. On the edges of paintings, on far backgrounds that often go unnoticed, one finds perfectly identifiable species of trees, plants, and flowers, as well as scattered populations of animals depicted as precisely as in a natural history and thus capable of being classified with full Linnaean rigor by an attentive eye. In The Garden of Earthly Delights, Bosch managed to smuggle into Paradise a Canary Islands dragon tree. If the eye of a draughtsman or a painter can be very useful when observing nature, the eye of a naturalist can be just as helpful when looking at paintings in a museum. The two were once kindred practices. Painters began to acquire anatomical knowledge long before physicians. Galileo was able to see and draw the craters of the Moon because he had learned from Leonardo’s chiaroscuro.
Situated side by side, the gardens and the museum reveal more clearly their common origin, the fact that they belong to the same enlightened project of instruction and classification. The unruly growth of nature is subjected to the order and rigor of orthogonal lines and taxonomical labels. A sequoia from the sierras of California may stand next to a Tibetan pine tree or an araucaria from Tierra del Fuego. In gathering plant species from the ends of the Earth and from the most diverse climates, the Botanical Gardens allow us to see them at the cost of removing them from the ecosystems to which they belong. But that is also what a museum does. Against a neutral backdrop, in a light that never changes and that is almost always too bright, the painting becomes intelligible to its viewer at the cost of being severed from a different ecosystem—cultural, liturgical, symbolic, topographical—to which it was originally attached as closely as a lonely specimen in the Botanical Gardens to the forest and the landscape to which it belonged. In order to incorporate it as a special or even an entirely unique work in the history of art, the museum severs the bonds that rooted a painting to the original space for which it was destined, depriving it of any attribute beyond its pure form and its status as an aesthetic object, a work of art.
It is not that museums come into existence because there are works of art that need to be preserved and put on display. It is works of art, rather, that come into existence because there are museums to make them such by receiving them into their rooms. The naturalists of the Enlightenment took plants from the Pacific islands or the slopes of the Himalaya and transported them to the metropolis, turning them into objects of study and contemplation by placing them in botanical gardens. They thus made sure to incorporate them into the great classifying scheme of natural history, which like the history of art can teach us a great deal, but which erases or excludes, also like the history of art, whatever it considers irrelevant. Each tree once sheltered in its shade a vast number of insect, or bird, or lichen species. Perhaps it belonged to a sacred grove or was a special object of worship; perhaps its wood was used for lighting fires, or building canoes, or masts, or statues of the gods. It doubtless had a name that was laden with meaning for those who bestowed it, and that is now irrelevant beside the scientific Latin name with which it was christened upon arrival at the Gardens.
I walk into the museum with a feeling of wonder as well as a slight sense of mistrust. I do not want to forget that it is a very recent invention. Thousands of years before the written book, or even before the birth of writing, the world was already filled with stories, with poems as elaborate as the Iliad, which in turn is almost new in comparison with Gilgamesh. The Prado, which was one of the first museums, is exactly two hundred years old, about the same age as the word “art” in the simultaneously sacral and restricted sense we bestow on it. The earliest known carved or painted images, on the other hand, were made over forty thousand years ago, and may have to be traced back still many more millennia if the dating of certain paintings attributed to Neanderthals is confirmed. If museums did not exist, if the term “art history” had never been coined, we would still have the wild horses of Chauvet, the heads and figures of the Cyclades, the whales, bears, and seals carved in ivory by the Inuit. We would still have Las Meninas, the wooden Christ of Medinaceli, the religious medals and cards that are worshipped and sold not far from here: Ladies of Sorrows; bloody effigies of Christ carried through town on the shoulders of a rapturously fervent Catholic crowd during Easter in the region where I was born; or the Holy Face, archaic and stern, that I used to see as a child in the cathedral of Jaén, a face that according to Church doctrine and common belief is not a painting made by the human hand but rather the true and miraculous impression of the face of Christ on the veil with which a woman named Veronica tried to wipe away his sweat and blood as he carried the Cross. Every year, the Holy Face of Jaén was carried in procession and displayed to the fields and orchards so it would protect the harvest. Three versions exist in different parts of the world, not because it was copied by painters but because Veronica’s veil had three folds. Each was equally miraculous: “Rare wonders are experienced, the sick regain their health, the blind their sight, the deaf their hearing, the lame their ability to walk, proving to be an especially felicitous antidote for anyone suffering from ailments of the eyes,” in the words of one writer.
The faithful go up to the Christ of Medinaceli on their knees; they kiss its foot and ask him for peremptory favors, health, matters of life and death. Just a few minutes away, in the Prado, Velázquez’s Crucified Christ is doubtless more dramatic and more persuasive in its painful naturalism. Yet except perhaps on some rare and memorable occasion, no one kneels before it or prays to him, just as no one kneels before the many St. Sebastians or St. Rochs to ask them for protection against the plague, as people did for centuries, and no one is seized by a desire to lead a life of penance when looking at a St. Jerome beating his chest with stones and lashing his flesh, shriveled by hunger and cold. Nonetheless, when Velázquez painted it, the Crucified Christ sprang from a religious impulse at least as powerful as the one that inspires those who pray to the Christ of Medinaceli. It was not meant for an art collector’s parlor but for a chapel in a convent, and its exquisite anatomical precision was also a spiritual statement imbued with complex theological meaning. Christ, the son of God, was truly a man, who suffered and was nailed to a cross as literally as the nails themselves, which seem to sink into a piece wood that you might almost touch. He suffered on the cross and died as truly as any other human being subjected to such torment, which is why Velázquez paints him as a corpse, at the very moment of death, even if destined to rise in the supreme miracle of Resurrection.
I have been to the museum so many times that I hold in my head a complete three-dimensional map. First, when I arrive, I choose an entrance, since that will determine the course of my path. Henry James said that the house of fiction has many windows, many ways of access. The museum is a labyrinth that adopts particular configurations depending on the door you choose. Like the Botanical Gardens, it is a self-contained ecosystem. I usually prefer the north entrance, with its magnificent steps, its perfect rotunda that seems both sprightly and imposing, and then the calm, receding view of the central gallery, which is itself a reminder and a celebration of the fictional spaces created by painting after the Quattrocento. Its columns and arches, which seem to fade into the distance without entirely vanishing, could be the sumptuous background of a Tintoretto. It feels like a threshold, a passage between two worlds: from the open, noisy space of the city to the sequestered precinct of the museum; from the raw light of Madrid to the tempered clarity of a sheltered atmosphere; from confusion and bluster to order and silence; from action to contemplation; from the three spatial dimensions of reality to the subterfuge of depth and movement on the smooth surface of painting.
To look down the gallery from the rotunda is to be part of one of the rare perfect spaces in all of architecture. Function and form, form and meaning are in precise correspondence. Space makes visible the depths of time: in the foreground, where the hall begins, there are paintings by Titian that belonged to Charles I and Philip II. In the farthest distance one can see, by peering closely, the nearly ghostly figures of the Family of Charles IV by Goya. Auguste Renoir saw this painting and thought the king had a face like a sausage maker’s. When the gallery is unobstructed by people, Goya’s figures seem to float in the furthest reaches of time. The large space between is taken primarily by the ceaseless collecting of Philip IV and by the historical course of the Habsburgs and the storms of the Counter-Reformation. The gallery forms the spinal column of the Prado, the marrow, where everything is gathered, the entrance to the many paths that form the labyrinth of painting. Walking becomes insight. Walking in a straight line from the sixteenth to the beginning of the nineteenth century, from Charles I to Charles IV, through the wondrous woods of European painting.
When we experience this powerful sense of passage, this liminal condition, we realize that the museum, though an institution of modern secularism, retains a deep connection to a type of space that in large measure it came to supersede as the place of art: the temple. Many of the works we find here were once on altars and in chapels, cells, refectories. Seizures of Church property during the nineteenth century swelled the collections of the old Museo de la Trinidad, whose holdings were added later to those of the Prado. These works had previously been used liturgically and to inspire devotion. When they lost their original aim, religious devotion turned largely into a devotion to the arts. “Painting,” says Francisco Pacheco in his Art of Painting of 1649, “being one of God’s works, enters through our eyes as through the windows of the soul, which languishes here in its cell, depicting within us a light which by nature is immortal.”
Simone Weil claims that all contemplation is necessarily religious. We have shifted this emotion toward a purely aesthetic experience, one so closely connected to the senses that its first conscious devotees, in the eighteenth century, associated it with the sense of taste, as if they were savoring food or drink. That was Addison’s word for it: taste, or goût, in the French of Diderot. But if we want truly to see the works before us, we need to carry out an intellectual effort that is not unlike time travel, attempting to shed momentarily our cultural baggage in order to see through the eyes of those for whom the paintings were first made. To step across this threshold is not just to sharpen our gaze. We must also, as when we step into a sacred space, leave our own selves, our own present in abeyance, entering a blank space that can be filled by an intuition of the symbolic world into which these paintings once fit, much like the Tibetan pine tree or the araucaria and the habitat where they belonged.
The glut of images in the museum, and in our daily lives, makes it very difficult for us to see from the standpoint of people who only rarely encountered visual representations. How would someone born, for instance, in the time of Velázquez—someone who neither enjoyed access to the court nor happened to be one of the privileged few to own a private collection—be affected by the visual display of a retablo above the altar in a candle-lit church; or by the figure of a male or female saint in a side chapel, where the eye would have to grow accustomed to the dark, witnessing their torment in each cruel detail, but also, perhaps, the half-glimpsed beauty of a naked shoulder? Not just in those days, but even well into the second half of the twentieth century, very few people in repressive, Catholic Spain ever saw depictions of the naked body. I am old enough to attest to it myself. We are so used to nakedness or near nakedness in all its possible forms that we cannot imagine how a nude must have affected viewers not just in the seventeenth century, but in 1970.
This is an important matter. We will not understand the meaning or the worth of images unless we take into account that, when they were made, their power was far superior to the one they have for our saturated eyes and minds, so impervious to anything sacred or magical. A picture was always an apparition to those who were not used to them. Images are much more than figures depicted on flat surfaces, or carved in wood, or sculpted in marble and stone. Images were imbued with powers that are inconceivable to us. They produced magical effects and could bring about miracles. “Wondrous works have come about through images,” says Pacheco; “amazing and remarkable things, for instance healing, and delivering of men from inescapable dangers; pictures have remained unharmed in the midst of blazing fires; they have protected cities from the oppression of their enemies, and produced many other miraculous effects.” They can save lives, cure illnesses, undo amputations. Byzantine emperors carried large panels with pictures of the Virgin into battle or hung them from the walls of cities under siege, nullifying the enemy’s catapults. Byzantine troops carried enormous icons of the Virgin in procession, just as, five hundred or a thousand years earlier, the armies of classical Greece marched under the protecting, warlike aegis of Pallas Athena. In the vast gloom of the cathedral of Jaén, with its immense columns and arches of bare stone that were all the more imposing to the dazed eyes and the short height of a child, my mother and grandmother made me cross myself before the miraculous picture of the Holy Face, pointing as well to a gigantic St. Christopher that took up an entire wall, with a tree for a staff and his enormous feet in the water, carrying the Christ child on his mountainous shoulders. They told me that if you looked at that picture of St. Christopher, you were certain not to die that day.
A picture of Christ on the cross suddenly spoke to give thanks to Thomas Aquinas for the immense effort he put into the Summa Theologiae. A sacred picture, all by itself, could redeem a sinner and save a soul. Seventeenth-century treatises on painting are filled with examples: “A Milanese nobleman,” writes Francisco Pacheco, “having firmly determined to kill one of his enemies, went into a church, and seeing there an image of a crucifix, suddenly felt his inmost soul most deeply moved, and kneeling down before it, turned that cruel thought to tears and repentance.”
The very act of painting an image could be partly miraculous. The painter’s work was steeped in devotion and could involve prodigies and revelations. Pacheco, whose writing is so rich in stories, tells of a Florentine artist who climbed a very high scaffold to paint a fresco of the Assumption of Mary. He had finished the upper part of the body, including an arm, and was putting the final touches on the right hand when the scaffold collapsed. The Virgin reached out with her freshly painted hand and saved the painter from falling to his death. Antonio Palomino, whose valuable treatise on painting was written in the eighteenth century, but who belonged entirely to the Baroque culture of the Counter-Reformation, tells the story of a crucifix desecrated by Jews in a Syrian city: “These Jews having renewed upon the holy crucifix all the perfidious torments that their ancestors had inflicted on the person of Jesus Christ, going even so far as to pierce it with a lance, such copious blood poured forth mixed with water that, collected by Catholics in rich vessels, all the Eastern churches were enriched by this incomparable treasure.”
Sacred paintings and sculptures produce miraculous effects. But miracles, dreams, visions, and prodigies are also involved in their creation. The Virgin Mary appeared to Juan Sánchez Cotán in his cell in the Carthusian monastery of Granada and asked him to paint her, according to a story told years later by the friars to Palomino. Commissioned to carve an image of Our Lady of Solitude, Gaspar Becerra labored in vain for a long time, unable to achieve a design worthy of her holy essence. He presented two sketches of great beauty to Queen Isabella of Valois, wife of Philip II, who had commissioned the work, but he failed to gain her approval. Palomino deploys all of his narrative skill, which was far superior to his talent for painting, in relating what then took place:
Immersed in such thoughts, he stayed up late one winter night drawing designs on sheets of paper [. . .] He fell asleep, absorbed [. . .] and dreamt that a shadowy figure addressed him. He could not tell who it was, only hear its words: “Wake up, arise, take that thick log burning in the fire and sculpt from it your conception; you will succeed, you will find in it the image you desire.” He awoke in fear and amazement, though giving credence to his imagination [. . .] since even awake he still seemed to hear the echoing voice of the person who had spoken, which he considered a most miraculous event. He rose, though somewhat disturbed, and saw in the fireplace the burning log of which he had been told: he doused it with water, which was enough to put it out [. . .] the day began to dawn, and he regained his senses more fully in its light. Deeming the log well suited to his intention, he made it smooth and then began to carve it, watching it grow in perfection, and finally producing a miraculous work, the portentous image of Our Lady of Solitude, revered to this day.
Pier Paolo Pasolini, in his Decameron, plays a painter of the Trecento who, overwhelmed by the immense task of finishing a great fresco of the Assumption of the Virgin, falls asleep and dreams it in all its dazzling perfection. “Perché realizzare un’opera, quando è così bello sognarla soltanto?” says the voice of Pasolini. Why carry out a work when it is so beautiful simply to dream about it? It is a variation on a tale that was still in circulation when Vicente Carducho wrote his Dialogues on Painting around 1630:
First I went to see and worship the miraculous picture of the Nunciata [. . .] painted in the year 1252 on one of the walls by a most devout artist who applied himself body and soul through prayer, penance, fasts, confessions, and communion [. . .] and, when he came to paint the face of the angel [. . .] did so nearly in a transport, the brush, as well as his own hand, being moved by a higher power; but when he came to the image itself, having taken every care, and wishing to begin on the holy features of the Virgin, he fell asleep. The Church was then filled with light and fragrance; the friars came and found the most exalted face drawn by no labor of painting. They hold this work in special worship, and they keep it covered under many veils and rich curtains; nor is it ever uncovered except by order of the Grand Duke, in answer to some great lord’s request.
Here we may observe fortuitously another fact of great importance. The highly celebrated picture of the Annunciation is not always on display, nor is it accessible to just anyone. It is “covered under many veils and rich curtains; nor is it ever uncovered.” Museums have accustomed us to the thought that a painting’s natural fate is to be exposed publicly without constraint. Ease of reproduction, magnified by the instantaneous nature of the Internet, has made pictures universally accessible regardless of time and place. They are just a click away, or even closer, since we simply have to graze a smooth glass screen with the tip of a finger. Yet throughout most of history and prehistory, many of the most highly accomplished images were intended to remain hidden from nearly everyone, to be seen only by a few people, powerful lords, clerics, the initiated, even in some cases to be sealed forever in the darkness of a tomb. When The Judgment of Paris, specially commissioned from Rubens by the king, arrived in Madrid, it was covered in a large curtain of red damask, “seeing as the three goddesses were too naked.” For almost two centuries after Velázquez painted it (until it was put on display in this museum) the work we call Las Meninas was seen by very few people. It hung in one of the most inaccessible rooms in the Alcázar, the private study of Philip IV. “It was taken to His Majesty’s lower chambers and placed in his study,” writes Antonio Palomino, who saw it there after arriving in Madrid just a few years after the death of Velázquez. It was not a popular painting. There were no engravings or reproductions to disseminate it. As large as it is, we must imagine it in a rather small room, sunk in a darkness that must have blended with the darkness in the painting. It could have been lost in the fire of 1734. A parallel, entirely plausible world without Las Meninas is as dismal as a world in which Don Quijote had never been written, or one where Cervantes had lost the finished manuscript, or where it perished in a fire in the printer’s workshop.
In my three-dimensional map of the museum, I now take the granite staircase to the ground floor and pause before a painting that for centuries was more famous and admired than Las Meninas, being given in fact the highest valuation in the inventories of the Royal Collections. The hierarchies of the history of art are nearly as fickle as those of fashion. Christ Falling on the Way to Calvary, otherwise known as the Spasimo di Sicilia, is an immense picture depicting a scene whose figures project a strange mix of pathos and impassiveness. Very few visitors stop to look at it or are even aware of its existence in the general bustle of people and painted figures crowding the room. For centuries it was taken for a masterpiece by the painter who until well into the nineteenth century was considered the most famous of all, Raphael Sanzio. Vasari says that in Sicily the painting was “held in greater fame and reputation than Vulcan’s mountain.” Raphael’s supremacy began to fade when the Romantics and then the Impressionists discredited the orthodoxy of academic painting. Now we know that the Spasimo of Sicily is largely a workshop painting, but Philip IV paid an exceptional sum for it: four thousand ducats in perpetuity to the convent of Santa Maria dello Spasimo in Palermo, and an annuity of five hundred escudos for life to the abbot who brought it from Sicily to Madrid.
Reproductions completely distort our sense of a painting by depriving us of a physical confrontation with its true size. We don’t just look at paintings, we measure ourselves against them with our entire body. We must stand before them truly to see them, to know what they are like and how the life-size figures affect the viewer’s mind. In this case, it is also very helpful to keep another thing in mind: we are looking at an object of prodigious power. The high value reflected in the price that Philip IV paid for the Spasimo stems partly from the fact that it was as miraculous as the picture of the Assumption that saved the life of its maker. Our source is none other than Giorgio Vasari, in his Life of Raphael. When the painting was finished, Raphael sent it from Rome to the Sicilian convent that commissioned it, but the ship that carried it foundered in a storm at sea. The ship was entirely lost, the crew and the passengers all drowned, but the painting, safe in its wrappings, sailed on its own to the coast of Genoa, where it was rescued and worshipped all the more after its miraculous survival before being sent on to Palermo. Nor is this the first sacred work to undertake a sea voyage all on its own. An icon of the Virgin, painted by St. Luke with his own hand and the help of the angels, was thrown into the sea at Constantinople by heretical iconoclasts in the eighth century but miraculously managed to cross the Mediterranean, arriving in Rome intact and floating upright on the water.
There is something else to consider when looking at the Spasimo. Given its worth as a work of Raphael, its devotional power, and its miraculous provenance, the painting was hung in a very particular place of the Alcázar, the most holy, the most liturgically and politically significant: the main altar of the royal chapel, in effect the ceremonial center of the Catholic monarchy. That is where Lázaro del Valle, musician, chronicler, and friend of Velázquez, was able to see it. It was the power of the king that brought the painting from a convent in one of his dominions, the kingdom of Sicily. It thus testified simultaneously to his religious devotion and to his worldly supremacy, which were closely intertwined, as well as to his vindication of the use of images in Catholic worship. The king and queen sat alone before the altar, very close to the painting, whose great size was well suited to the dimensions of the chapel and the distance from which it would be seen by its other viewers, all of whom belonged to the innermost royal circle. It only remained in view, however, when the king and queen were not directly at the altar. Once they took their places, a curtain was drawn behind them.
By also holding the Blessed Sacrament, the altar extended into the present the Passion depicted in the painting, especially considering that, according to the orthodox view that gained particular force during the Counter-Reformation, the body and the blood of Christ are actually in the Eucharist. The heir to the throne, who would one day become Charles II, was baptized there. Beneath the altar there was a crypt holding a reliquary with a fragment of the cross, a piece of the Virgin’s robe, and one of the nails that had pierced the flesh of Christ. The figures in the painting were thus in exact correspondence with the meaning of the liturgical service and the material evidence of the Passion. During the great fire of 1734, those who fought the flames were concerned above all with saving the Blessed Sacrament and the relics. According to later accounts, the fact that the Spasimo remained intact was further proof of its miraculous nature.
Nothing is easier or more flattering, in our era of individual and collective narcissism, than to feel condescension toward the past, towards those who lived before us and held beliefs and attitudes that we deem ridiculous. As if none of ours were ridiculous as well, or the cognitive baggage of our forebears was more deficient than our own. At this very moment, people just like us are praying to carved, painted, or even photographed Virgins, Christs, and saints, asking for their miraculous intercession. Islamist militants in Iraq and Syria destroy sculptures in museums or at ancient sites in observance of a prohibition as old as the Bible and the Koran, one that spread through the Byzantine Empire for over a century and was later reawakened in parts of Europe when Protestants carried out attacks on religious images in churches. In Barcelona, fervid patriotic militants set fire to images of the king of Spain in public, not even covering their faces, and the flames unleash a collective frenzy. To burn an image is to grant it extraordinary power, to make it a vehicle of provocation and abuse.
I am speaking now from personal experience. I can attest to an effect of images that is deeper and more tangible than any aesthetic reaction. Until the age of twelve or thirteen, I prayed before religious pictures and asked for their assistance in difficult times. I have seen images that filled me with terror at the punishments of Hell and Purgatory. I have also seen, with curiosity and remorse, other images that incited a vague lust that was still that of a child, or just barely adolescent. Spaniards of my generation have the curious virtue of possessing memories that seem prior to our own lives. That is the benefit, so to speak, of having been born in an anachronistic country. I was born in 1956, seventeen years after the end of the Civil War, but I remember having spent my childhood in the shadow of the war, doubtless on account of the crude objective fact that the Spanish postwar period only began to wane well into the sixties. Yet I can also say that I lived during the Counter-Reformation, even if the Council of Trent came to a close nearly four centuries before I was born. Much of what history books recount about that period (its notions of God, guilt, sin, salvation, the Immaculate Conception of Mary, in fact all the notions expressed in the religious Catholic art of the seventeenth century) remained firmly in place until I was a teenager. That was when I managed to escape them, with a sense of freedom and of slightly revengeful relief that has stayed with me to this day. I was thus able to experience what it is like to live in a world with very few images, almost all of them religious and laden with very strict dogmatic and penitential meanings.
This may account in part for my inclination and my strong sensibility to images. The very first painting I remember showed the souls of Purgatory engulfed in flames, raising their eyes and hands in supplication to the Virgin and the saints and angels, some of whom were leaning over the edge of a cloud and reaching out a hand to a condemned soul whose punishment had come to an end. The painting hung in the Church of the Trinity, in Úbeda, where it can perhaps still be found and where I occasionally attended Sunday mass after my First Communion, which used to take place when you turned seven. It must have been a crude picture by a local painter, smudged, dark, with lurid flames and twisted bodies whose torments I took quite seriously. In Catholic doctrine, which was drilled into us far more than Fascist ideology, Purgatory and Hell were by no means symbolic places, fantasies that need not be literally believed. The damned were truly burning in those flames, for years or centuries in Purgatory, for all eternity in Hell. To burn endlessly in a fire that will never weaken or go out is a very useful idea to imbue in the mind of a six- or seven-year-old child; no great effort of the imagination will then be required to intuit the fear of a faithful Catholic of the seventeenth century. I experienced that terror myself, and it was worse than any fear one might feel about material dangers, comparable only to the utter panic of nightmares. Dying in mortal sin sufficed to ensure an eternity in Hell.
Although I did not know it, what I was being shown in that painting was a depiction of Catholic propaganda against Protestantism. Purgatory did not become a subject of religious painting until the late sixteenth century. Luther and every other reformer after him had denied its existence, thus, too, the legitimacy of the masses and indulgences that furnished such substantial income to the papacy. It was scandalous to pretend to shorten in exchange for money the punishment of a condemned soul. And it was unacceptable, according to the Lutheran doctrine of predestination, to think that prayers or a mass could influence God’s will or alter the categorical divide between those destined to be saved and those who were damned for all eternity. Luther had written that the Church used the fires of Purgatory to keep its bacchanalian cauldrons burning. Counter-Reformation art is as doctrinal and combative as the art of the Soviets or of Mao’s Cultural Revolution. The control of theologians over the work of painters and religious scenes after the Council of Trent was just as strict as the one wielded by political commissars over the painters and sculptors of Socialist realism. One of the last dicta reached by the Council dealt precisely with the place of images in Catholic worship, a crucial matter given that Protestants had denied them any legitimacy. Here are the records of the Council, as related by Pacheco: “Truly great advantages may be gained from sacred images, not just in communicating to the people the gifts and benefits they received from Jesus Christ, but considering as well that divine miracles and the salutary example of the saints are placed before the eyes of the faithful that they may thereby give thanks to God, ordering their lives and manners in their imitation, awakening to the love and worship of God and the reverence of mercy.”
Art and propaganda seem incompatible to us, and any imposition on the artist’s work seems like an outrage. A large portion of the works gathered in the central gallery of the museum and its adjoining rooms are pure, shameless propaganda, dictated by theologians and even inquisitors to whom artists had to subject themselves without complaint if they were to receive any commissions or have their work be declared acceptable. Francisco Pacheco, Velázquez’s father-in-law, was not just a painter and writer but also a minor officer of the Inquisition. The document attesting to his commission is unambiguous: “We charge and instruct him henceforward to take particular care to visit and inspect whatever paintings of sacred matters may be found in shops and public places. And [. . .] should he find anything in them that is worthy of notice, that he take them to the inquisitors, so they may see them and determine accordingly.” Pacheco took this work quite seriously. His Art of Painting, no doubt the most complete and compelling treatise on the subject written in Spanish, contains an entire section devoted to the strict regulations governing proper decorum in depicting sacred figures. Pacheco warns, for instance, of the dangerous lapse involved in drawing angels as women, “not just by adorning their heads with feminine curls and braids, but even by giving them full breasts, a thing unworthy of their perfection.” He also rejects, despite a tradition going back centuries, the nude depiction of the newborn Jesus, as well as any image in which the Virgin appears barefoot. The stiff, fully swaddled Baby Jesus in Velázquez’s Adoration of the Magi is one consequence of this decree of his father-in-law, who had once been his teacher.
A similar concern about the bare feet of the Virgin had been expressed by Vicente Carducho in his Dialogues on Painting: “What I would most attend to [. . .] would be to have Our Lady always painted with great decency and authority, putting an end to the offense of painting her with bare feet or with her breasts exposed.” To condemn the seemingly dangerous custom of painting barefoot Virgins, Carducho appeals to an argument that combines superstition with an archeological viewpoint: “Our Lady the Virgin Mary did not go barefoot,” he writes, “as attested by the worshipful relic of a slipper from her blessed feet, which can be found in the cathedral of Burgos.” An image’s disturbing capacity for disruption can make even the holiest among them dangerous. “I have heard of a certain Carthusian monastery where they had to take away a most accomplished image of the Blessed Mary from a monk who kept it in his cell, because its great beauty induced him to dishonest thoughts.” In the much more lenient atmosphere of sixteenth-century Florence, less somber than that of the Spanish Baroque, it still seemed necessary to keep a close watch on the disturbing effects of the painted nude. Vasari mentions a St. Sebastian by Fra Bartolommeo that had to be taken down from the altar when the friars discovered, in confession, that many women felt bodily temptations when they gazed upon the chaste, naked body of the martyr.
Images are a very serious matter. To a mindset like Carducho’s, or Palomino’s, or that of a religious person in our own time (weeping before a carving of Christ or the Virgin during a procession in Seville, hypnotically entranced in addition by the glow of candles, the smell of incense, the music, the magnified fervor of the crowd); to the vast majority, in fact, of those who have worshiped and feared them through millennia, images are much more than those works of aseptic beauty that we now see in the sheltered, neutral space of a museum. Images are weapons of religious and political propaganda. Or they are paths to faith and salvation, which can nevertheless just as easily lead us into sin. The Counter-Reformation, in its refutation of Protestantism and of the bare churches of the North, unleashed all across Europe and in Catholic colonies across the New World a prodigious flood of images. Yet it also fueled a sense of mistrust, anxiety, and censure that had never been expressed with such rigor before, even if had always been an impulse in the most severe of religious minds.
Cardinal Paleotti, in 1582, proposed the creation of an Index of forbidden pictorial works like the one that already existed for literary writings. The relative visual freedom of the early Renaissance, nourished so copiously by the humanist revival of pagan stories, darkened gradually as the religious disputes, political upheavals, and religious massacres intensified. The alliance that had been forged in Italy between the visual culture of Christianity and the tradition of classical antiquity surely saw its culmination in Michaelangelo’s Final Judgment. A few years after his death, there were already orthodox voices demanding that the frescos be destroyed. Nude figures that until then had been admired as models of perfection were suddenly a scandal: a naked, beardless Christ that looked like a Roman god; the souls of the damned carried to Hell in Charon’s pagan boat. The rise of this new rigor is a sign of heightened anxiety with respect to images: fear of a latent, ever-present danger within them that can explode unless controlled.
It is the danger, above all, of naked or partly naked bodies, male, sometimes, but mostly female. The male nude was carefully regulated; many centuries had passed since the images of the ancient gods had disappeared. It was Adam’s nakedness, or that of St. Sebastian in agony, or Christ being baptized by John the Baptist, or nailed to the cross, or rising from the grave for the Resurrection. The only sanctioned female nude was Eve’s, always hidden by a fig leaf, the leaf of an apple tree, an animal hide, a tress of her own conveniently long hair.
There are, of course, the countless nudes of pagan mythology. We look at them distractedly and with a slight sense of boredom in the galleries of the museum. Right by the entrance, through the first opening to the right, in the magnificent rooms devoted to Venetian painting, Titian’s Bacchanal of the Andrians and his Worship of Venus prepare us for what is to come. The room is rather secluded and probably goes unnoticed by many visitors drawn to the central gallery. Perhaps deliberately, these powerfully erotic paintings are hung in a discrete, sequestered place in the museum, one that turns out to be an aid to contemplation and that reminds us both of the space for which they were conceived and of the places they have successively occupied through the centuries.
Remarkably, the intended audience of the first “poem in paint” was Philip II, who inherited his father’s admiration for Titian as well as the generous patronage of his work. In a letter that accompanied one of the paintings, Titian alludes to the room for which the series was intended. Danaë was meant to be seen together with Venus and Adonis: one of them depicts a nude seen from the front, the other from the back. We tend to imagine Philip II in somber seclusion at the Escorial, surrounded by the apocalyptic visions of Hieronymus Bosch and by crucifixes, tortured saints, relics brought at immense effort and expense from all over Europe. We know that Titian’s Ecce Homo and his Mater Dolorosa with Her Hands Apart hung in his private chapel in the Alcázar, as they had once hung in his father’s chapel in Yuste. In the chapel at the Escorial, as Father Sigüenza reports, there was also a Christ by Titian. “For an altar in the king’s private chapel there is a Christ carrying the cross, a most singular and pious figure [. . .]; it seems to break one’s heart, and finds there its proper place even if it cannot be much enjoyed during the day when the candles are out. By night, the most devoted king Philip spent a good deal of time there, contemplating how much he owed to the Lord who carried such a heavy cross on his shoulders on account of his own sins and those of all mankind.”
Each work has a particular place. There are large altar paintings for public devotion and smaller ones for private prayer. The location of the royal study mentioned in Titian’s letter is unknown, but we do know that subsequently the paintings always hung in secluded rooms in the Alcázar. Endowed with an aesthetic and also a spiritual refinement that we find displeasing, Philip II was capable at different times and places of successively appreciating a naked Venus, a Danaë, an Ecce Homo, a Mater Dolorosa. Philip III was apparently less partial to painting and ordered that the “poems in paint” remain hidden away for many years. Philip IV took up again and broadened his grandfather and great-grandfather’s taste for painting and the collections they had amassed. To our great good fortune, many of the royal inventories of the Alcázar were preserved, providing detailed and revealing knowledge of the places where the paintings were kept, and thus, too, of their specific function and the people who were allowed to see them.
This is how we know that Titian’s “poems” were rescued from the storage rooms in the time of Philip IV and hung, according to the inventory of 1636, in an even more private place than the one assigned to Las Meninas, the room “where his majesty retires after having supped.” In this room, where the king retired alone for his afternoon nap, the inventory lists nine paintings: all of the highest quality, all nudes, all by Titian. The king could reach this room discreetly. A sixteenth-century Italian writer, Giulio Mancini, explains the virtues of this arrangement: “Lascivious paintings [. . .] like Venus, Mars, the seasons of the year, or naked women, must be kept in garden galleries and secluded chambers. Deities can be kept in rooms on the ground floor, which are more frequented, while lascivious subjects will go in secluded places; should their owner have children, he will keep the works covered, unveiling them only in the company of people who enjoy his trust and are not overly scrupulous.” Mancini adds that the object of these paintings is not just to give rise to aesthetic feelings: “These lascivious paintings are much to the point in places where one has relations with one’s spouse, since their sight stimulates excitation and the siring of strong, beautiful, healthy children.”
Painting is thus an aphrodisiac, which in addition helps transmit the beauty of its figures to children conceived in its proximity. Antonio Palomino relates the opposite effect as well, brought about by a painting of Jusepe de Ribera depicting Ixion being tortured and clenching his fingers in pain. A pregnant woman living in the house in Amsterdam where the painting hung “gave birth to a tyke with shriveled fingers, just as in the painting.”
Paintings apparently can do it all. Incite lust, save a soul, damn a painter who dares to depict a sinful scene, make a fetus beautiful or deformed when it happens to be in its vicinity. In a treatise on the virtue of chastity published in 1601, Friar José de Jesús María relates the case of a painter who came back from Purgatory and begged his confessor to destroy a Venus and Adonis he had once painted, an act that would have sent him straight to Hell were it not for the intercession of some saints he had also painted. Friar Hortensio Félix Paravicino, a fearsome preacher who was very knowledgeable about art and posed for one of El Greco’s large portraits, was among the most fervent enemies of lascivious paintings: “Do not consent or allow in any public places (no! not in the most secluded) this noxious profanity, this subtle poison that in its spirited lies can rival truth [. . .] I confess [. . .] that it pains me—nor can I conceive—how a pagan canvas can hang in a Christian chamber.” To paint a nude is a deadly sin, and so is to display it publicly. “Nor must they be kept secretly,” Paravicino adds, “if they thus remain a temptation to their owner.” Paravicino, who writes with the peculiar vehemence of those who seem to have intimate knowledge of the sin they condemn, claims that the quality of a painting does not absolve it from censure but in fact renders it worse, since greater skill will strengthen its pernicious effects. “The best paintings are the most harmful: let the best be burned.”
They could indeed have easily gone up in flames. A painting is a piece of cloth soaked in oil and mounted on a wooden frame. Everything we take for granted, all that seems permanent in the museum, has been very close to destruction. From 1621 to 1664, the number of paintings in the Alcázar increased from four hundred to over fifteen hundred. Eight hundred paintings were purchased for the palace of Buen Retiro, 171 for the Torre de la Parada. Over sixty percent of that huge collection was lost, primarily in the great fire of 1734, which consumed 538 paintings including many masterpieces. Another fifteen percent left Spain after the French invasion. Ascertaining the fate of other works that were stolen or sold for a pittance in successive waves of disaster is very difficult. But the most dangerous fire was orthodoxy. Seventeenth-century manuals on chastity harp obsessively on the peril posed by temptations that reach us through the most dangerous of the five senses, sight, “which is commonly the gateway for death,” as the theologian Juan Eusebio Nieremberg wrote in his 1636 treatise On the Virtue of Chastity. The senses must be shut to temptation, says Nieremberg, “as [the gates] of a fortress are shut when enemies surround it on every side.” His proposed remedy is drastic: not to look “at women, or at nude and lascivious paintings, or at other things of the like sort.”
In 1640, the Inquisition banned the painting of nudes. “To prevent in part the grave scandal and equally deleterious harm brought about by lascivious paintings, we hereby order: that no person dare bring into our kingdom painted images, engravings, statues, or other forms of lascivious sculpture, or make use of them in public places such as squares, streets, or the common rooms in a house. Likewise is it forbidden for painters to paint them and for other craftsmen to carve them or in any other way produce them, under penalty of major excommunication.”
None of this prevented Philip IV from continuing to buy “lascivious paintings” in Italy, or in the sale of Charles I’s collection after his beheading, or of Rubens’ estate. Velázquez, too, ignored the ban, painting what was probably the most sensual nude anyone had ever seen, the Venus at Her Mirror, which belonged to the collection of a well-known libertine nobleman in Madrid who was related to the Count-Duke of Olivares. A certain preacher, greatly admired for his poverty and eloquence as well as for being Queen Margaret of Austria’s confessor, railed from the pulpit against lascivious paintings and also went to the houses of the nobility, where he knew many were kept in private rooms, urging rather ineffectually that they be replaced with religious pictures. The scandalous sensuousness of painting gave rise in all these ministers of the Church to a slightly prurient zeal. In a manual for confessors published in 1651 under the title Devotion to the Virgin Mary, Father Cristóbal de la Vega says that “when displayed, the painting of a naked body awakens sinful desires in the will,” and that Venuses and Adonises, Tarquins and Lucretias, Cupids and Floras, whether naked or covered by transparent veils, are “a cauldron of lascivious thoughts, [. . .] like books where [the common people] learn to sin.”
The acrimony did not diminish with the passage of time. In 1762—different century, different dynasty—King Charles III ordered Anton Raphael Mengs, his court painter, “to come to the Retiro and the new palace and select among the paintings those that show too much nudity, that they may be burned.” Only in 1809 did King Joseph have them brought out, to serve as matter “of study for pupils of the Academy, of inspection and imitation for its professors, and of delight for lovers of the Fine Arts.”
The past fades and is finally lost in the museum’s didactic progression. The paintings in these rooms will no longer shock anyone, but neither will they produce a tremor of sensuality or danger, or a religious epiphany. Wandering down the central gallery, I stop before one of my favorite paintings, Venus, Adonis and Cupid, by Annibale Carracci. We know it hung among other mythological paintings in an area of the Alcázar that was exclusive to the king, and that, when the queen happened to visit, the nudes were covered with tapestries or curtains. It is a work of delicate and potent sensuality. Seeing each other for the first time, the goddess and the youthful hunter are instantly overcome by desire.
This time, however, what I notice is another painting hanging next to the Carracci, evidently by reason of what counts as coherence within the museum, which is to say by the logic of the history of art. Next to a painting that Charles III wanted to burn and that would have awakened in Friar Hortensio Félix Paravicino a prurient combination of repulsion and lust, one now finds The Virgin of the Chair by Guido Reni. No one in the court of Philip IV would have dreamt of the impropriety, the incongruity of placing them side by side. In this case, too, we know where the painting (which Reni must have finished sometime in the 1620s, and which came to Spain shortly after as a gift of Philip IV to his wife Elisabeth of France) hung in the Escorial: the private chambers of the queen, where Velázquez’s Coronation of the Virgin would also be kept decades later, in accordance with a spatial distribution that punctiliously determined the kinds of works that were suitable for men and women, king and queen.
In a temporal arrangement, nothing seems more logical than placing a work by Guido Reni next to one by Annibale Carracci. Guido was a disciple of the Carracci at their school in Bologna, nurturing, like them, a rigorous yet inventive synthesis of the two great prior schools of Italian painting, one based in Florence and Rome and one in Venice. In the eyes of those for whom the Venus and Adonis and The Virgin of the Chair were painted, in their view of the world, of religion, and of painting, the two belong to completely separate spheres that are in fact mutually incompatible. One belongs to the erotic male gaze, the other to the type of religious contemplation suitable for women; one is pagan, the other Christian; one is found in those hidden rooms where only the king and a few other highly privileged men may enter, the other in those where the private life and the religious worship of the queen take place. Venus and Adonis deals with desire, hunting, conquest. The Virgin of the Chair combines a private religious piety with Church dogma and its political implication, blending Catholic faith with the anxieties of motherhood and the dynastic obligation of producing heirs. Like the Virgin in Heaven, the queen is a crowned woman. During the years when the painting hung in her chambers, queen Elisabeth had several daughters, none of whom survived past early childhood. Only in 1629 did she give birth to a son who seemed hale enough to succeed to the crown. Like a strong, healthy heir, the Child Jesus takes a few steps away from his mother’s lap in Reni’s painting. The size of the painting, its lack of any scenic emphasis, and the place where it was displayed, all bear witness to the precise conditions in which it was viewed. Standing in the great central gallery of the museum, we have to make a mental effort to conceive those conditions. Only then can we recover a glimpse of that sequestered space for which its formal values were meant: its sensuous quality; its chiaroscuro, that seems to echo Caravaggio; its suggestion of a spirituality that is neither punitive nor threatening.
Beneath the layout of the museum, we move in our imagination through the rooms and hallways of the Alcázar, which held so many paintings and were consumed by fire, and through the cells and vaults and frigid gloom of the Escorial, and through the private rooms and studies where very powerful men enjoyed the exclusive privilege, not so much aesthetic as erotic, of looking at naked women.
[Translated from the Spanish by Guillermo Bleichmar]
Note: This is the first in a series of four lectures delivered by the author as El Prado Chair in November 2019, on the occasion of the two hundredth anniversary of the Museo del Prado.