Stories, Seen and Unseen

Who knows how many times I stood before Carracci’s Venus, Adonis and Cupid without noticing a crucial detail, a tiny mark that holds as in a cipher the meaning of the tale.[1] Perhaps I had not looked as closely as I thought. “To see what is in front of one’s nose needs a constant struggle.” George Orwell’s remark about our observation of reality can be applied as well to works of art. Until recently, I had never noticed the speck of a red dot on Venus’ golden, shining skin, just on the edge of the small patch of shadow between her breasts, as if a pinprick had left behind a tiny trace of blood. I failed to see it even though the figure of Cupid was pointing from within the painting to where I should look. The picture itself discloses the key to decoding its riddle.

Renaissance painters eagerly pointed out the similarities between painting and poetry, renewing a debate that dates back to antiquity and is encapsulated in a single terse line of Horace: Ut pictura poesis. Here is Leon Battista Alberti, the first serious art theorist of the quattrocento: “I would advise the studious painter to gain the esteem of and become well acquainted with poets, orators, and others who are versed in letters, since these learned spirits will not only furnish him with choice ornaments, but in addition will be of profit to their inventions, which in a painter are most highly to be praised.”

Annibale Carracci (1560–1609), Venus, Adonis and Cupid, ca. 1590. Oil on canvas. 2.12 x 2.68 m. Copyright © Museo del Prado/HIP/Art Resource, NY.

Annibale Carracci was familiar with the passage in Ovid’s Metamorphoses that recounts the scene shown in the painting, and so was the patron who employed him. This kind of knowledge was a mark of intellectual status, of a level of sophistication as exclusive as having the means to commission a lascivious painting for a private study. The sexual thrill the story must have elicited was allied to the satisfaction of knowing how to decipher its literary and mythological clues. The young hunter Adonis has come upon Venus playing with her son Cupid in a clearing in the woods. He stands bewitched by her naked beauty while she gazes at him in a moment of simultaneous rapture. The nearness of the bodies to the pictorial foreground heightens their sensuality, as does the magnetism of their closeness to each other. The nucleus of the story is condensed into a single image as instantaneous as a photograph. The forest shade seems as intimate as that of a nuptial bedroom. A strange light, like a hazy sunset, or like the light in a dream, seems to heighten the vague yet vibrant contours of their bodies, modeling the softness of bare flesh. What truly matters, however—the point of origin for all that follows—is the wound: visible yet unseen, concealed by the vigor of their bodies and the resplendent flash of their crossing glances as their eyes meet for the first time and forever. This mutual spell, and all the flood of sensuousness and disaster that are yet to come, would never have taken place without the faint inoculation caused by the tip of the arrow in Cupid’s hand—Cupid, who realizes what he has done, but is himself intoxicated, complicit in the randomness and recklessness of passion.

This wound that almost no one can see (it goes unnoticed even by the one who just received it) contains the key to the story, the sign of a destiny that will be inexorably fulfilled. Fate is already happening even as we fail to see it happen, says Cesare Pavese. By comparing their art to poetry, painters since Leonardo da Vinci sought to heighten its nobility and thus aspire to the kind of status already enjoyed by poets, free of any suggestion that they might be practitioners of a manual craft. It is not in portraiture that painters show their true worth, but in works requiring an intellectual effort like that of the epic poet or the historian, incorporating a visible tale that could be sacred, mythological, or historical. Leonardo calls the painter “a composer of stories.” Francisco Pacheco, always finely attuned to questions of status, writes in his treatise: “The name and renown attained by Apelles in antiquity, or by Raphael of Urbino and the great Titian in their time, was not acquired by their portraits (though they were wondrous) but by their inventions and the copious wealth and grandeur of their histories.” Here Pacheco displays his allegiance to the purest classicist idea of painting, outlined by Leon Battista Alberti when he categorically asserts that “a painter’s greatest work is not a colossus, but a history.”

The meaning of the term is defined with cutting clarity by Javier Portús: “Complex compositions with human protagonists and themes derived from prestigious narrative repertoires like those of mythology, sacred history, or antiquity.”

To us, Velázquez’s prestige is grounded above all on his astonishing portraits and on the truthfulness and precision of his everyday scenes, objects, and landscapes—the nearly sacred dignity of the commonplace, a jester’s noble or blank stare, the majesty of a dwarf, a dog’s drowsy calm. None of it was highly prized by his contemporaries. When he was a young man, according to Antonio Palomino, “some balked at his not painting more serious subjects in a smooth and beautiful manner, emulating Raphael of Urbino.” Even Philip IV, who never faltered in his support, even if he sometimes complained of what he called “Velázquez’s phlegm,” repeated in his presence disparaging comments made by others about his work: “One day, His Majesty told him there were some who said the sum of his skill was knowing how to paint a head.” Velázquez gave a commendable reply: “My Lord, they do me a great honor, since I have yet to meet anyone capable of painting one.”

We find this scale of values mystifying. A contemporary viewer does not generally give much importance to the subject of a painting, or expect it to have one, or try to discover what it might be. Around 1820, in one of his delectable Italian travel journals, Stendhal ventured that future works of art would be appreciated solely for their formal quality while their subject matter would be inconsequential. It struck him as a bold hypothesis. A painting needed a plot, just like a novel. The foremost painters of his time, even the most advanced, like Delacroix, painted stories: battles, political events, scenes from the Old and New Testaments, even the old mythological tales. The importance of a painting was directly related to its subject matter and to the social rank of the characters that appeared in it. One sign of Denis Diderot’s artistic daring and of his freethinking is his impassioned defense of Jean-Siméon Chardin’s paintings despite the fact they only featured figures of low standing, like children, maids, seamstresses, people involved in completely ordinary scenes.

The lack of a narrative subject was as disconcerting to early critics of Impressionism as those lines and volumes that were undiluted by light. All of a sudden, the only thing that happened in a painting was the red hue of sunset on a church façade or a black plume of smoke from a locomotive beneath the glass-and-iron dome of a train station.

Yet if we want to imagine how the paintings in the museum were seen by their contemporaries, our only option is to look for the stories they tell. Then the Prado becomes an immense library of silent books, volumes that open and close as we go by and that may well seem to us written in unknown languages, in characters and even hieroglyphs that can only be deciphered partly and with great effort. Silent poetry: that is how the old treatises often refer to painting. “An open book, a mute story,” says Vicente Carducho, writing in 1633. In those out-of-the-way rooms that no one visits, or when the museum has yet to open, or as it gradually empties at closing time, we begin to realize how much silence there is in painting.

Treatises on painting, and painters themselves, describe the act of looking at a picture as a form of reading. Friar José de Sigüenza, who had such an exquisite sensibility for painting, says of The Haywain Triptych by Hieronymus Bosch: “I confess that I can read more in this panel with the quickest glance than in other books in the course of many days.” Of another picture that hung in his cell, a temptation of St. Anthony, he said that it was “a very good one, in which I sometimes read and lose myself.” Gazing at the Haywain, he is well aware of its key narrative: “It is based on the passage where Isaiah declaims, by God’s command, that ‘All flesh is grass, and all the goodliness thereof is as the flower of the field.’” A painting is not only to be looked at: it must be understood, like a written text. Nicolas Poussin, in a letter, recounts to one of his highly educated patrons the narrative and symbolic details in a painting: “Matters that, I believe, will not displease those who know how to read them.”

Hieronymus Bosch (ca. 1450–1516), The Haywain, ca. 1516. Oil on oak panel. 1.47 x 2.12 m. Copyright © of the image Museo Nacional del Prado/Art Resource, NY.

In the cold silence and the solitary darkness of a cell in the Escorial, Friar Sigüenza could conceive of his contemplation of Bosch’s triptychs as a form of reading. Meanings that are cryptic to a lay observer in the twenty-first century were by and large transparently clear to him. “Hieronymus Bosch,” says Sigüenza, “that strange figure among painters.” Friar José has devoted a great deal of time to the contemplation of his works and ascribes the notion that they are merely extravagant to careless looking. “They are commonly called the absurdities of Hieronymus Bosch by those who pay little heed to what they see. Did it not require too long a digression, I could show that his paintings are not absurdities, but books of great sapience and ingenious contrivance.”

A Flemish triptych could be opened and spread like a book. In Italy, where the technique of fresco painting flourished during the same period, stories were read along a wall, left to right, top to bottom, like the pages of a monumental graphic novel. Beginning in the late quattrocento, the narrative codes of painting are subjected to a unifying visual synthesis imposed by the art of perspective. An entire story can be grasped in the same instantaneous glance that takes in the depth and structure of space. Alberti, once again, states it most clearly: “He who strives for distinction primarily in the telling of the story must perhaps depict it concisely. For just as brevity of speech lends majesty to a prince . . ., so too will the least possible number of pertinent figures add dignity to a story.”

In Flemish paintings of the fifteenth century, as in those triptychs by Bosch where—despite the fact that they were made in the early 1500s—we continue to glimpse the world of the Middle Ages, stories proliferate and intertwine like the figures that take part in them. Triptychs open and close like books of hours, books whose illustrations themselves are sometimes reproduced at a larger scale on painted panels. Looking at stories means reading them. Penitents pause to inspect each minor episode, each narrative or symbolic detail, in a sustained labor of visual apprehension that is itself a kind of religious trance. Those who, in Sigüenza’s words, “pay little heed to what they see,” are missing not just an aesthetic experience, but a religious lesson.

Ways of reading change as new modes of representation are developed in Italy at the height of the quattrocento. The visual economy of Renaissance painting dictates a synthesis, the selection of a part that stands for the whole of a complete story. The entire tale is summed up in a climactic moment. The floors of the Prado are like geologic strata allowing us to see different ways of telling a story in pictures. On the ground floor, the rooms devoted to Flemish painting are filled with the astounding, inebriate spectacle of those who wanted to recount and to compress the whole world. No portion of a panel is without a character or a narrative flourish. The painters, and those who commissioned their works, seem devoted to a totalizing project as exhaustive and boundless as Dante’s in the Divine Comedy or as that of the generations who devoted themselves to the completion of a cathedral.

José de Sigüenza could spend hours looking at the Haywain triptych or at The Garden of Earthly Delights as if reading a complete history of the world, from the third day of Creation to the great trumpet blasts of the Day of Judgment and the torments of Hell. In a passage bordering on a personal confession, he says that he is especially drawn to and disturbed by the episodes recounting the temptation of St. Anthony, recognizing there the fantasies that can assail a monk in the midst of his penitence and isolation.

Pictures are filled with literary allusions aimed to please the learned, but are also a universal language that anyone can instantly understand, the so-called “poor man’s Bible.” “By this means,” says Vicente Carducho, “as in an open book, in clear and common language, things are shown and made understandable, especially to women and simpletons, who are unable or do not know how to read.” In 1600, Gaspar Gutiérrez de los Ríos, an idiosyncratic savant rescued from oblivion by our splendid Francisco Calvo Serraller, explains in particularly vehement terms the superiority of painting over reading: “These [painted stories] are seen almost without trying, in the blink of an eye, and are thus of greater profit; the other kind requires willingness and the time to read or hear them, which very few people have, especially in our own country, Spain, where reading is so abhorred. . . . Reading breeds melancholy and fatigue. Of looking, especially in these arts, we never grow tired.”

Of looking we never grow tired. You wander through a museum, and stories unfold before you in a dizzying assortment where nevertheless one begins to discern a repetition, a sequence, an echo. Painters seemingly never grew tired of repeating once more the story of the Annunciation, the Adoration of the Shepherds or the Magi, the moment when Jesus and John the Baptist play like cousins under the watchful, worried eye of their elders, the episodes of Christ’s Passion, his last encounter with Mary Magdalene after the Resurrection. The same stories come back again and again, as regularly as feast days on the liturgical calendar. Each day, says Father Sigüenza, in the lower cloister of the Escorial, the monks go in procession past an exhaustive sequence of oils and frescos, “in such wise that along its perimeter there are forty-six stories from the New Testament, from the Conception of the Holy Virgin to the Final Judgment that awaits us all . . . the Conception being as it were the first stone of this edifice laid by God. . . . And opposite . . . stands the final trial he will make of us.”

Stendhal, reasonably, deplored the fact that artists were forced for centuries to devote their talent to the same grim repertoire of pious tales. Time and again, St. Sebastian is struck by arrows that pierce his defenseless flesh, and St. Jerome rudely beats his bare, wrinkled breast with a stone, and Mary Magdalene mortifies herself in a cave or a deserted wilderness, and the saints lift their eyes to the sky as they witness their visions. Demons, sinners, heretics, embodiments of evil bite the dust under the avenging stomp of a saint, an archangel, the Virgin herself, or the hooves of a horse bearing a king or a warrior saint. Pedro Berruguete depicts a group of heretics burning at the stake to the delight of the townspeople and the authorities in an auto-da-fé presided over by Saint Dominic of Guzmán. In one of Rubens’ sketches for a tapestry sequence on the triumph of the Eucharist (the one devoted to the Church), its cortège advances not so much in the manner of a Roman triumph as of a Panzer division. The figure representing the Church, lifting the monstrance in her hands, rides a chariot whose jewel-encrusted golden wheels crush a series of figures representing heresy. Following beside the chariot like prisoners of war are Ignorance, with a pair of donkey’s ears, and Error, wearing a blindfold. The full, terrifying measure of the pieces’ warlike and triumphal effect is displayed when, instead of looking at Rubens’ little sketches, one stands before the massive tapestries hung across entire walls in the Convent of Las Descalzas Reales.

The Prado is not just any museum. The core of its collections arose from a project of religious and political propaganda that sought to glorify the Habsburg dynasty and to support an inflamed Catholic orthodoxy against the Protestant Reformation. Painters do not choose the stories they must depict again and again, let alone take part in working out their narrative details. In Spain, with the exception of a few privileged artists working for the court or under the patronage of a cultured nobleman, painters are at the service of the Church—in particular of religious orders, which monopolize a miserable art market as beholden to their authority as to the regulations of the guilds, which painters, bound nearly to the condition of servants or manual workers, must observe.

Philip IV, whose enthusiasm for collecting first-rate paintings knew no bounds, showed very little interest in any other Spanish painters than Velázquez, whose delays drove him up the wall. In the Alcázar, the Buen Retiro, the Torre de la Parada, Velázquez and other painters and expert courtiers arranged for him great visual cycles that concocted—through a series of equestrian portraits, battle landscapes, and tendentious historical scenes—a grand unified narrative about the past and present glory of his dynasty as well as the future its heirs would ensure if their efforts did not miscarry. Among other things, the Prado is a gallery of dead princes, ghostly heirs that seem arrested and bewitched in their sickly childhoods. Vicente Carducho clearly explains the relationship between certain areas of the palace and the stories they displayed: “If they be royal galleries, let the stories depicted there be grave and majestic, worthy exemplars of imitation, like the rewards given by great monarchs to those who were constant in their bravery and virtue, the just punishments they inflicted on wicked acts and betrayals, the feats of illustrious heroes and the exploits of the most renowned captains and princes, their triumphs, victories, and battles.” Walking through the museum’s corridors and rooms, the courtly visitor, the foreign ambassador would see in a kind of projected display the sequential history of the monarchy’s triumphs and of its continuity across the generations.

It was precisely during the years when the crisis of the monarchy was most intense and the Empire seemed to crumble that painters, decorators, and courtiers made the greatest effort to prop up the grand phantasmagorical mirage of Spain’s dynastic glory. The privileged few who were able to enter the galleries and see their pictures, mirrors, and tapestries, must have wandered past a kind of sequence of holograms where every battle was won, every enemy conquered, and kings and princes galloped triumphantly against a far and hazy background of Dutch plains sunk in mist and rain and the smoke of fires and artillery. Many of those stories are now scattered across the rooms of the museum, or disappeared long ago, or they are displayed in distant collections where they ended up through often dubious paths. We are used to seeing The Surrender of Breda, The Recapture of Bahía de Todos las Santos, the equestrian portraits of Charles V or any of his descendants, as self-enclosed stories, complete in themselves. In fact, they are like scattered film frames of what was once an imposing grand narrative, one that enjoyed a brief existence in places of great ceremony and propaganda like the Hall of Mirrors in the Alcázar or the Salón de Reinos in the Buen Retiro. Each seemingly isolated story—an imperial marble bust, or Francisco de Zurbarán’s depiction of the The Labors of Hercules, or Titian’s portraits of Roman emperors, which were all consumed by flames in the great fire of 1734—each was once connected to all others like pieces in a vast mosaic that we can now only reconstruct by walking through the museum or by doing research in books, a rigorous as well as a slightly delirious labor of the imagination.

The museum is an orderly encyclopedia, meant to be read didactically, and at the same time it is one of those amphibious books that can be read in spurts, by leaps, back to front, opening them at random and setting off again, or not, dwelling rather on a fragment that we read again, finding a connection to another passage that came before or is yet to come. The complete freedom to develop themes, technique, and styles seems to us like an artist’s unalienable right. The delight we experience in the museum also comes from learning how, for centuries, painters developed their stories in conformity with the exact elements of the tradition and the constraints of religious orthodoxy, yet in full exercise of their imaginative faculties and technical expertise. Expressive codes are rigorous because they must be shared with the greatest possible reach and efficacy. The coarse shirt, the ointment jar, a bare shoulder or a nearly uncovered breast allowed a seventeenth-century viewer to recognize Mary Magdalene as assuredly as a black cape and a black mask that looks like carved obsidian are sufficient for us to know that we are looking at Darth Vader. Each of those characters conveys a story.

Someone may have counted how many versions of the Annunciation currently hang in the museum. All are instantly recognizable in the shared vocabulary of their iconography. Yet each differs from the rest, changing not just according to the nature of the artist or the school to which it belongs, but also because the rules of representation change over time. In the fifteenth century, in the North, as well as in Italy, the Annunciation is a domestic scene suddenly disrupted by a miracle. An archangel bows to Mary in Fra Angelico’s painting, but his feet rest on the same ground as hers, and she, upon seeing him, allows the book she had been reading to drop on her lap. In Dirk Bouts’s version, the angel seems not so much to have descended from Heaven as to have walked in like a discreet messenger through a door that remains slightly ajar.

Later in the sixteenth century, as the Counter Reformation intensifies, the ordinary setting and the very manner of the everyday give way to a virulent escalation of special effects. The Virgin’s bedroom expands until it acquires the scale of a stage set or a Baroque church. The ceiling disappears behind vortices of heavenly clouds where angels spread their wings as if they were being pulled into the eye of a hurricane. In El Greco’s Annunciation of 1570, the doorway is already a kind of triumphal arch, and the angel floats on a rather unconvincing cloud. In his version of 1597, any suggestion of daily life or of a domestic space is gone. Angelic orchestras and choirs exalt the entire scene to the utmost theological heights. What was once a humble vase of flowers has turned into Moses’ burning bush, ever aflame without being consumed, as miraculous and intangible as the Virgin’s physical integrity in conceiving a son and giving birth to him without altering her condition.

These turbulent Annunciations, like the blinding visions of the Virgin experienced by the saints, or the obsessive propagation of the theme of the Immaculate Conception, tell an essential part of the story. Following the Council of Trent, the figure of the Virgin is proclaimed with a new and bellicose intensity: her shrines proliferate, as do her epithets and invocations and the stories of her miracles, because she must be rescued from the slander of the Protestants. Her cult and her rank in the celestial hierarchy are exalted more zealously than ever before because the Protestants have denied them. In 1623, a priest named Giovanni Felice Astolfi published in Venice a Historia Universale delle imagini miracolose della Gran Madre riverite in tutte le parti del Mondo (Universal History of the miraculous images of the Great Mother of God) listing some three thousand instances. The Roman basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore was decorated with a theologically and iconographically complex series of frescos meant to accompany the image of the Virgin painted by St. Luke.

The Spanish monarchy played a decisive role in the approval of the dogma of Mary’s Immaculate Conception. If the Protestants denied her virginity, to the point of making blasphemous jokes about it, the Church and the Catholic hierarchy needed to confirm and strengthen it. Not only had Mary conceived a child and given birth while retaining her purity, but her parents too, Saint Joachim and Saint Anne, had conceived her with the same miraculous chastity, so that she was born free of original sin. Francisco Pacheco, always vigilant in matters of pictorial orthodoxy, requires the Virgin’s parents to be depicted in their old age, “once the blood has abated and the natural heat grown cold,” “holding each other with great modesty and composure, which is most decent and most fitting for married saints. But not giving each other the osculum pacis, in order to prevent the ignorant mistake that . . . by means of that kiss, and through no other means, the Virgin was conceived.” Émile Mâle has explained how anything the Protestants attacked was celebrated by the visual arts when allied with the Church: the cult of the Virgin, the rule of the papacy, faith in the sacraments, the veneration of relics and images.

Stories recounting acts of charity multiply because Protestantism denies that good works can contribute to salvation, which depends only on faith, since no human act can influence divine will in its enactment through predestination. The Hospital de la Caridad in Seville, with its magnificent cycle of stories illustrating its presiding theological virtue, is a refutation at once practical and theoretical, visual and narrative, of Protestant heresy. The figures of the hermitical saints, which Northern art had invested up until the time of Bosch and Brueghel with the half-terrifying, half-festive air of a theological sidenote, begin to appear again on altars and in private chapels, shorn of their outlandish ghastliness, attending only to their inner life and to the practice of penitence, another sacrament the Protestants deny.

In a pious yet festive painting by Joachim Patinir, with its distant, shining blues that may not exist in nature, St. Jerome is still the miracle-working hermitical saint of The Golden Legend, the one who tames a wild lion by removing a thorn from its injured paw. That painting was in the lower cell of the prior of the Escorial. In Raphael’s Madonna with the Fish, St. Jerome, with his lion at his feet like a gentle dog or a pet cat, is as dignified and imposing as a prelate of the church, serious but calm, showing no more signs of penitence than a Roman cardinal of that period. He holds an open book in his hands, his Latin translation of the Bible, and the Infant Jesus lays a hand on it, keeping it open perhaps at the passage in the Book of Tobit that recounts the story of the two figures facing him, Tobias and the archangel Raphael. It is a painting from a time of relative theological calm. Shortly after, the figure of St. Jerome is radically transformed, as if he himself had experienced the great religious crisis unleashed by the Protestant Reformation, the wars of religion, and the Catholic Counter Reformation in the minds of many believers and in the narrative and pictorial modes that govern the telling of religious tales.

St. Jerome had been worshipped as a hermit or a humanist, with varying emphasis in one direction or another. Toward the middle of the sixteenth century, any sign of solemnity or intellectual absorption is erased by the primacy of penitence, the recrudescence of physical punishment, malnutrition, the harshness of life in a cave in the desert. Visual details are drawn directly from St. Jerome’s own letters: “I, who fearing Hell had confined myself to a dungeon among scorpions and deer, often thought I was seeing young maidens in a dance. My face was pale from fasting; but my spirit burnt my frozen body with desires, and the fire of voluptuousness crackled in an all but deceased man. . . . Sometimes I had to scream all day and through the night. I was forever wounding my breast.”

In 1643, in a version of the story by Antonio de Pereda, St. Jerome is an emaciated old man, his flesh consumed by fasting and self-punishment, his skin hanging loosely from his limbs, half covered in a cardinal’s cape that looks like tattered rags, with a wild beard, a lost glare in his eyes, holding up a crucifix made of crudely nailed sticks, like a scourge with which he had just stopped beating himself upon hearing the trumpet that appears on the upper left, as significant to the narrative as all the other elements surrounding the saint. The inkwell is a reminder of his learned work as a Doctor of the Church. The open book is the Vulgate. The closed book under the skull must be one of the pagan texts he had read enthusiastically in his youth, a reminder of his guilt that here serves as an emblem of the vanity of all earthly concerns, including any kind of knowledge that is not derived from scripture. On the lower left is the stone he used to injure himself by beating his breast, in punishment for the delight he once took in pagan books. The sound coming out of the trumpet is the call to the Final Judgment, which is depicted in an engraving on the page to which the Bible lies open. There is no trace of a landscape, of any benevolent beasts or natural history. There is only faith, penitence, the threat of a Final Judgment.

A painting made by Veronese in his old age shows an advanced stage in the transformation of St. Jerome. Here, too, there are clues to which we must be alert, unspoken suggestions to the museum detective. Once more, there are spots of blood and fingernail scratches on his bare chest, harder to see given the wrinkles on his flesh. He holds something in his right hand, close to the ground. A stone, where we can see yet more traces of blood.

As I wander, led to St. Jerome and Veronese in my search for stories, I find myself back at the starting point, the sinful scene depicted by Annibale Carracci. The beauty of the bodies it portrays, the serene rapture of the faces, the precise yet carefree quality of the brushwork are a relief after so much theological agitation and the many sufferings of hermits and martyrs. Each work carries me in imagination to the exact and now invisible place for which it was meant. Each one, so worthy of contemplation on its own, points as well to a series of connections that redoubles its significance by relating it to others. Looking at Carracci’s Venus, Adonis and Cupid, I can simply turn to the other side of the central gallery and find the same characters at a later moment in their story, painted now by Veronese.

Paolo Veronese (1528–1588), Venus and Adonis, ca. 1580. Oil on canvas. 1.62 x 1.91 m. Found in the collection of Museo del Prado, Madrid. Copyright © Museo del Prado/ HIP/Art Resource, NY.

The story moves forward, but the chronology goes back, since Veronese’s painting was made ten years before Carracci’s. It was Velázquez who bought it in Italy, during his second trip. All the same visual elements are there: the nearly undressed goddess, the young hunter, the child-god Cupid, the woods, the hunting dogs. The air is clearer, because the sky is growing bright even though the sun has yet to come out. Veronese’s characters do not stand as close to us as Carracci’s, so their sensuousness is less powerful. Carracci’s Venus is barely covered in a bit of cloth that drapes over her right thigh and only just conceals her sex. All stories are composed primarily of blank spaces, things untold, unseen. The rapture caused by a tiny wound, a pinprick of blood, has been consummated in this later scene. Adonis sleeps. There is a sense of male abandon and sated desire, a suggestion of physical power, even of brutality in his splayed legs. Carracci’s Adonis was blond and beardless, with a soft sensuousness to his limbs that is delicate and nearly feminine. Veronese’s is bulky, bearded, dark-haired, with the massive thighs of a hunter or a warrior. There is a hint of menace to the seeming peacefulness of the scene, the moment when Venus turns to Cupid, who is holding back one of the dogs, because she senses his unease. The other dog has not yet scented anything. Once again, it seems like an instant captured in a photograph, the sequel of the past, the premonition of the future. In a few seconds, Adonis will awaken with a sense of alarm as instinctive as that of his hunting dogs, and the boy Cupid will be unable to restrain any longer the one whose fine scent caught before any others the smell of prey. The peaceful scene acquires an air of imminence.

I do not have to walk very far to reach the next episode, the third and last. One of the rooms that opens on the rotunda, rooms that convey some of the sense of secrecy one must have felt in approaching the private galleries and cabinets of a princely palace, holds another Venus and Adonis, this time by Titian, who sent it, along with a letter, to Philip II, an austere monarch who kept in his chapel a Christ on the Way to Calvary, also by Titian, and who delighted in the contemplation of Bosch’s apocalyptic fantasies. Once more, I had to go backwards in the history of painting to move forward in the story. The painting of past centuries operates by means of variations on highly codified common elements. The impending ecstasy of Venus and Adonis, then their threatened repose, has now turned into pure distress. Day has broken, and the chariot of Apollo glitters high in the sky, its golden beams falling like a blazing fire on the woods, where one can already hear the growl of the wild boar that Adonis’ hounds have scented and are rearing to pursue. Cupid is now as irresponsibly asleep as when he earlier wounded his mother with the tip of the arrow. His bow and quiver hang uselessly from a tree. Adonis readies himself for the hunt, indifferent to Venus’ beauty, while she clings to him, twisting painfully, knowing what awaits him without being able to prevent it. This moment in the story is not found in Ovid. Titian has invented it, asserting an original power of poetic inspiration comparable to his artistry as a painter. “The story,” Alberti had written earlier, “will move the souls of the spectators when the characters involved in it express their emotions clearly.” Titian, exerting his powers of invention, paints Venus from the back, because he painted Danaë from the front and has conceived the two paintings to be seen together. Though we now know that the Danaë commissioned by Philip II is the one in the Wellington Collection and not the one in the Prado, whose purchase was brokered by Velázquez, the composition is the same, and it is fitting to display it next to Venus and Adonis, as Titian suggested to the king. Titian wants to display his mastery as a painter and also show that painting can attain the same three-dimensional view of the human body as sculpture. He is measuring himself not just against Ovid, but against Michelangelo.

Titian (Tiziano Vecellio) (ca. 1488–1576), Venus and Adonis. 1554. Oil on canvas. 1.86 x 2.07 m. Found in the collection of Museo del Prado, Madrid. Copyright © Museo del Prado/HIP/Art Resource, NY.

The task of painting is to fool the brain. To counterfeit movement out of pure immobility and spatial depth or solid volume from a flat surface. The story takes place in the viewer’s mind rather than on the canvas. From the few things that are actually seen, the imagination raises the wondrous spectacle of a narrative as rich in episodes as in nuanced detail, fed by the system of cultural, religious, and symbolic connections that forms the shared, implied environment of the community to which the artists as well as their patrons and viewers belong. The educated viewer sees the nearly naked woman, the armed man impatient to leave her, the sleeping child, the hunting dogs and can instantly identify the story before him, paying close attention like a good reader to each and every detail: the quiver of arrows, the figure shining in the sky, the woods newly touched by the light of the sun. He understands the story because it was made for him. He is so familiar with its narrative elements that he is unaware of needing to decipher them, just as a reader fails to notice how he instantly turns signs into intelligible sound as his eyes move swiftly across the page.

There is a particular delight in wandering aimlessly, lured by a chance sequence of stories, choosing one, observing it closely in the wish to discover how it is being told, which requires above all finding a correspondence between what is overtly seen and what is only implied, the part of the narrative that remains submerged and on which everything visible (never as transparent as one might suppose) actually rests.

The painter Juan Genovés used to say that some paintings are more photogenic than others. There are paintings we walk past without a glance, because the museum’s overabundance tends to leave us in a daze: but one day, for no reason, we stop before them, and they become a customary resting place in our itineraries. It all depends on the door you choose to go into the museum. No doubt, too, on your mood when that particular day arrives. Certain days call for the limpid hues and clear horizons of Italian painting, just as others call for a brisk walk on a forest path.

One morning, I pause a little longer before Andrea del Sarto’s The Virgin and Child Between St. Matthew and an Angel. The stated subject, and the way the figures are arranged, seems to convey the story in a straightforward way. Then I realize the strangeness of the space those figures inhabit, despite seeming naturalistic at first glance. The steps on which the Virgin sits give way to a landscape to which they bear a coherent and at the same time utterly implausible relation. The foreground leads without transition or connecting space to a faint horizon. The effect is strengthened by Andrea del Sarto’s ambiguous technique, half Florentine, half Venetian, with solid figures in the manner of Florence, but softened at the edges. The half-tints of a Leonardo sfumato combined with the sumptuous materials of Venice. The explanatory signs in the museum are always quite precise. The man sitting on the left is St. Matthew the Evangelist, as indicated by the angel and confirmed by the book in his hands. It could be one of those magnificent yet pleasantly proportioned volumes that were being printed around that time in Venice by Aldo Manuzio, printer to the humanists—one of those editions of the New Testament that Erasmus prepared with great philological rigor, and that were already unleashing the great uprising of the Protestant Reformation.

The Infant Jesus stretches his hands toward the book while his mother tries to hold him back, wishing she could prevent him from growing older, from setting out to fulfill the sacrificial destiny the Gospels will recount. Once more, if we look closely, a peaceful scene reveals an underlying tension. The present moment is fraught with the signs of what will come. By looking attentively, we can add another line to the story, one we might easily miss, and that requires a greater degree of knowledge to be deciphered. In the landscape behind the main characters, where we see a faint view of a walled city on a hillside (it could be one of the borghi that lie scattered over the Umbrian hills), a woman and child can be seen walking hand in hand, their backs turned to us, the woman wearing a veil, the two figures blurred by distance. We are drawn to them, standing so removed, rendered even more helpless in relation to the vast space stretching before them, busy with their own concerns and seemingly disconnected from the main story. The boy holds his mother’s hand, lifting his other arm perhaps to point at the distant fortress, like those chatty children who keep talking while a grown-up leads them down the street.

Everything becomes clear when we learn that they are Saint Elizabeth, the Virgin’s cousin, and Saint John the Baptist, and that they are fleeing the great horror of the Massacre of the Innocents, which the Sacred Family was also able to escape in time because an angel came to warn Saint Joseph in a dream. One of the most repeated scenes among the museum’s religious paintings is the childhood meeting between Jesus and John the Baptist, burdened with the heavy weight of their future fate, their stories linked by the omnipresent narrative of the Passion. One of the mothers wants to hold back her son, the other is able to save hers without knowing she is thus preserving him for a destiny as necessary as it is dreadful: the child will be beheaded at the same sacrificial age as his cousin’s when he dies on the cross. Two stories take place simultaneously in a single pictorial space, one on the plane of the supernatural, the other on the plane of fables and tales, the fleeing mother and child, figures imbued with the perennial power of images always to suggest more than one expects of them. Images tell stories that have been told with words before but are not ultimately subject to the meaning of those words. Therein lies their ambiguity, and their danger too, the power of their spell even when we do not share or even understand the ideas or the dogmas they depict.

Andrea del Sarto (ca. 1487–1530), The Virgin and Child between Saint Matthew and an Angel, 1522. Oil on panel. 1.77 x 1.35 m. Copyright © of the image Museo Nacional del Prado/Art Resource, NY.

It is in the background, in the distance, in the margins of a painting that we find the most revealing clue to a story, the small detail that suddenly discloses what lay hidden and did not need to be shown. The tiny wound, a mere scratch in Venus’ golden-white flesh, or Cupid trying to hold back one of the dogs, or a hunting horn that is barely visible and that Adonis continues to cling to even in his sated sleep. The viewer turns into a detective and also an archeologist, trying to reconstruct a world of symbols and stories out of fragmentary data, things that may appear trivial or incomprehensible but can open a corridor to the imaginary lives of people who lived centuries ago.

I bring along a notebook and a pad, and I would bring a camera too if the museum rules allowed it, one of those concealed cameras used by spies. Not a day goes by that I do not discover a detail I had never seen until that moment. There are books you can read forever without exhausting them, music that seems forever new the more familiar you become with it, paintings you will never finish seeing, which seem to change before your eyes at every moment like the quality of the light or the color of the leaves on the trees in the park outside. You will not step twice in the same river, or visit the same museum twice, or ever cease seeing certain paintings for the first time.

I look at the blue tones of Velázquez in the faint, nearly indistinguishable landscape that forms the background of one of his most densely narrative works, Saints Anthony Abbot and Paul the Hermit. There are two distant figures there that are nearly indiscernible, either attenuated by distance or thinned by the passage of time. Looking very closely, one can see they are a centaur and a man in a black cape. How strange, a pagan centaur inside a devotional Catholic painting. A little closer in, following the turnings of a river, there are two more figures standing slightly farther apart from each other. One, again, is the man in the black cape; the other is a satyr, a creature of the woods, half animal, half human.

As we draw closer still to the foreground and the central characters, other figures are more clearly seen, though everything becomes even more confusing: two lions, off to one side, and a man who seems to lie dead on the ground quite near them, and kneeling beside him the figure in the black cape, which has become rather familiar, and in whom we now recognize one of the two saints in the foreground, Saint Anthony Abbot, bearing his T-shaped staff though unaccompanied by the pig that usually sits by him as tamely as the lion by Saint Jerome. Towering over the entire scene is a massive rock that determines the size of the figures, and in its side we see the opening of a tunnel or the entrance to a cave. Something is happening there too.

Understanding what we are looking at requires two conditions, without which it remains illegible: the first is to know the story of the visit of Saint Anthony Abbot to Paul the Hermit, as recounted in The Golden Legend; the second, to accept a certain narrative technique, already anachronistic in Velázquez’s time, which consists in arranging the successive episodes of a story within the same visual setting. Velázquez must also have been thinking of an engraving by Dürer that would have had a certain archaic flavor for him, and seemed connected still to the cycle of late-Medieval stories of the saints. Saint Anthony Abbot sets off on a journey to visit Saint Paul the Hermit, for it has been revealed to him in a dream that this man is even more perfect than he in penitence and solitude. Traversing the wilderness, he meets a centaur and then a satyr who help him find the way. This all takes place in the first Christian centuries; many pagan creatures still inhabit the woods and fields. Saint Anthony reaches Paul’s cave and calls to him, but the saint has been alone for so many years that he is fearful and thinks perhaps a wild beast has come to his door. Finally, he opens the door, and during his conversation with the other hermit, who declares himself his disciple, the crow that every day for many years has brought him the scrap of bread that is his only sustenance flies down from the sky. This time, however, he brings a double ration, so that Saint Anthony may also eat. They say farewell, and on the way back it is revealed to Saint Anthony that his aged master has died. He retraces his steps and prepares to bury him, but the ground is so hard that he cannot dig a hole. Then two lions arrive, and by the strength of their paws they dig the tomb where Saint Paul will rest.

On the same day I first noticed the arrow in Cupid’s hand in Carracci’s Venus, Adonis and Cupid, I stood looking, a little later, at another arrow, this one inverted, serving to identify Saint Ursula in a wonderful picture from the workshop of Giovanni Bellini. There are various kinds of Catholic religiousness in the museum. Bellini’s is as calm, as contemplative and devoid of menace as Andrea del Sarto’s, who came a little later. They stand, as it now appears to me, on a middle ground, far from the late-Medieval fantastical terror of Flemish painting, but long before the morbid gloom and bellicose dogmatism of the Counter Reformation. Bellini’s Virgins are young mothers with fresh complexions, dressed in cloaks of costly ultramarine blue and shown against the background of the flat, fertile fields of northern Italy, well-tilled landscapes touched by the clear light of early morning and the dewy freshness of the air. The one in the Prado is somewhat more solemn, because the background is a cloth that seems part of an altar. It is clear from its size that it was meant for a private chapel. The saint on her right could be Catherine of Alexandria, given the coiled string of pearls she wears as a headdress. But we cannot be sure, since all her other customary attributes are missing: the broken wheel, the palm of martyrdom.

Each of these symbols implicitly contains a story. When it is a story of martyrdom, it is almost always drawn from the same source, The Golden Legend, a thirteenth-century compilation by the Italian cleric Jacobus de Voragine, so popular that nearly a thousand manuscript copies have been preserved from the two centuries prior to the invention of the printing press. In the usual play of narrative expansion and restraint found everywhere in the museum, this finely drawn arrow of Saint Ursula contains in utmost abbreviation one of the most outlandish tales of martyrdom in the entire liturgical repertoire. Vittore Carpaccio told it sumptuously in a series of nine canvases for the Confraternity of Saint Ursula in Venice, each one a celebration of the city’s civic and religious rituals as well as of its cultural and political splendor. Recently, in Treviso, in the old Convent of Saint Catherine, I unexpectedly discovered a cycle of twenty-four frescos from the trecento that foreshadowed the opulence, the narrative imagination, and the visual and dramatic fecundity of Carpaccio’s paintings.

Saint Ursula, in the Medieval legends compiled by Jacobus de Voragine, is a kind of Sinbad the Sailor of the Christian martyrology, a princess of Brittany who converted to Christianity in the first century, then journeyed by sea to Rome to see the Pope, accompanied by ten other ladies plus a thousand maidservants each, sailing in eleven ships. After many adventures as entertaining to read as The Thousand and One Nights, the fleet carrying Saint Ursula and the great cohort of eleven thousand virgins is swept away by a storm at sea, ending up in the Rhine, by the city of Cologne, which at the moment is being besieged by the Huns under Attila’s command. Unanimously resisting the lust of the barbarians, the eleven thousand virgins have their throats slit in a paroxysm of cruelty and martyrdom that furnished considerable material for painters as well as for relic collectors, including Philip II. Attila draws Ursula apart and asks her to marry him in exchange for her life. Ursula, predictably, refuses, and Attila shoots her at very close range with an arrow that pierces her side. Caravaggio depicts the scene in one of those somber final works of his that are so filled with darkness, sorrow, and cruelty. Giovanni Bellini chooses to tell the whole story while saying almost nothing. It is not, once again, a purely aesthetic question: like the trecento painter in Treviso, Carpaccio made works intended to fill large ceremonial spaces, commissioned by powerful civic institutions that served as one of the foundations of the glorious visual culture of Italy during those periods. Bellini has received a particular commission determining the painting’s smaller format and providing its iconography: it is to be a sacra conversazione, a composition in which the Virgin and Child are accompanied by two or more saints, each bearing an attribute allowing us to know their name and to recall their story, which need not be made explicit since it is familiar to everyone.

Sixteenth-century humanists, among them Juan Luis Vives, subjected The Golden Legend to a devastating textual and historical critique. Jacobus de Voragine provided too easy a target for Protestant mockery. How could the cult of the saints and martyrs and of their miraculous relics be taken seriously if their biographies were as absurd as the tales in The Golden Legend? During the Counter Reformation, the Church had to attempt a very difficult balance that was fraught with peril and can be clearly seen in the art produced after the Council of Trent. On the one hand, it sought to vindicate the worth of images against a blasphemous iconoclasm, strengthening the popular cult of the saints and martyrs, and along with it the truth of their miracles and the efficacy of their relics. On the other hand, a new age of extreme religious and thus political virulence demanded more stringent control over sacred images and the stories they told. It was no longer appropriate to show the Virgin Mary baring her breast to feed the Child, or fainting at the foot of the Cross, or even, as Palomino explained, learning to read with the help of her mother Saint Anne, since it would imply that the Virgin came into the world with an imperfection. Neither a mule nor an ox should appear in a Nativity, since they are never mentioned in the Gospels, and since it seems disrespectful to place such animals next to the Infant Jesus. Pacheco condemns that one of the shepherds in an Adoration should be shown carrying a basket of eggs. They are herdsmen, not chicken farmers. Any visual extravagance, any unauthorized detail or lack of decorum in a figure’s dress or facial expression can undo the efficacy of a religious painting: “The saints,” says Friar Sigüenza, “must be painted in such a way that they not discourage people from praying to them, devotion rather coming first, and being the principal end and effect of painting.”

Details that had always been secondary suddenly acquired decisive theological importance. In a painting of the Resurrection, should the tomb be shown open or closed? There was an equally complex debate regarding the height of the column in the Flagellation. Saint Jerome had seen it at the end of the fourth century in a portico in Jerusalem, still showing traces of the blood of Christ. If it was part of a portico, it must have been a tall column. But there were strong grounds for the tradition of painting it of middle size, since it conformed to the column that was taken to the Basilica of Saint Praxedes in Rome in 1223, and which is worshipped there to this day. Similar debates were frequent in the world of the Soviet Union’s socialist realism, and could entail much more serious consequences for the physical survival of the painter than those faced by their colleagues working in the Catholic countries of Europe during the sixteenth century.

The jovial tradition of popular tales and imagery that gave rise to The Golden Legend survives in less regimented settings, away from the altar, the chapel, or the monastic setting, where the theologians and historians of the religious orders subjected artistic practice to even stricter control. An Adoration of the Magi painted by Rubens in 1609 has all the Baroque megalomania of a grand papal ceremony. It is in the clay figurines of a Neapolitan Nativity, or in the Portuguese presépios of the eighteenth century, that one can see the survival of the popular though also delicately evangelical tradition of the manger, the cave, the mule and the ox, the singing angels that come down from heaven to mingle in their joy with the folksy din of the guitar, the panpipe, and the tambourine. The same spirit survived until recently in those popular carols, or villancicos, where it is not indecorous for the ox to warm the naked newborn with its breath, against Francisco Pacheco’s express injunctions, or for Joseph to sit fixing the sole of a shoe under a porch in Bethlehem that has been turned into a shoemaker’s stall. Carols and Nativities also preserved the narrative tradition of the Rest on the Flight into Egypt. There was one that my grandmother and my mother sang where the Child feels thirsty during the journey but neither the Virgin nor Saint Joseph can help it:

No pidas agua, mi niño. No pidas agua, mi bien. Que los ríos bajan turbios y no se puede beber.

Don’t ask for water, my child. Don’t ask for water, my love. For the streams are coming down muddy, and we may not drink.

Then they reach a stand of orange trees, and the blind orchard keeper gives the Virgin an orange. She sates with its juice the thirst of the Child, who gives the blind man his sight again in a token of simple gratitude.

Joachim Patinir (ca. 1480–1524), Rest on the Flight into Egypt, 1518–1520. Oil on panel. 1.21 x 1.77 m. Found in the collection of Museo del Prado, Madrid. Copyright © Museo del Prado/HIP/Art Resource, NY.


A miracle of the same sort, practical, nearly agricultural, is shown by Patinir in his version of the story of the Rest on the flight into Egypt. The Virgin is suckling the Child. The donkey that carries them, released from his burden, is eating grass. Saint Joseph approaches, carrying in his hands very carefully something that seems like a milk jug, perhaps some cheese curds that he has bought from the shepherds. At first glance, the scene is imbued with a sense of calm conducive to leisurely contemplation. The unity of action that Aristotle demanded, and that Titian, Veronese, and Carracci always kept in mind, is not important here. Disparate things are always happening in life and often at the same time. The miracle is that, due to the presence of the Virgin and Child, the field some peasants have just plowed and sown is brimming by the next morning with a bountiful crop of wheat ready for harvest, bringing the blessing of plentiful bread to these people who have been punished so many times by hunger and poor harvests. Like Saint Ursula’s arrow, or the wound on Venus’ breast, or Saint Jerome’s bloodstained stone, a small detail that can easily go unnoticed holds the narrative key to yet another wonder: it is a sphere of marble or porphyry, bearing the feet of a golden statue. According to The Golden Legend, when the Holy Family went past a pagan temple in their flight, the statues spontaneously fell off their pedestals and shattered. We can go on reading, without any of the sense of surfeit or fatigue that according to Gutiérrez de los Ríos comes from reading the written word. Not far, close to the calm of the foreground and to the pleasurable weariness of these daily tasks—the mother suckling her child, the man coming back with something to eat, some peasants mowing the field—there is horror too. You have to squint to perceive, in the far distance, one of those scenes of violence and cruelty that can be glimpsed as well in the far distance of a painting by Bosch. Bathed in that morning light, in a setting that would be all the more frightening to a contemporary viewer because it depicted his own world, the Massacre of the Innocents is taking place.

[Translated from the Spanish by Guillermo Bleichmar]

[1] This is the second in a series of four lectures delivered by the author as the El Prado Chair in November 2019, on the occasion of the two hundredth anniversary of the Museo del Prado.