Bartolomé Esteban Murillo was born in Seville in 1617, the last of fourteen children of a surgeon barber and his wife, who had been married for 30 years by the time he came along. Unfortunately, his parents died before he was 11 years old and he went to live with a sister, married coincidentally to a surgeon barber, but he did not follow tradition and became apprenticed to the painter Juan del Castillo, to whom his mother was related.
Murillo soon became recognised as a gifted artist and he specialised in genre paintings, showing the street life of Seville, and in religious works, both types being commissioned throughout his life and being much sought after by collectors in Spain and elsewhere in Europe. Apart from two short stays in Madrid, Murillo lived in Seville, visiting Cadiz to complete commissions towards the end of his life. It was in Cadiz that he received a severe abdominal injury after falling from a scaffold while painting and he died in Seville in 1682 as a result of this injury.
No consideration of Murillo and his work can be complete without knowing more about Seville at this time. Situated on the Guadalquivir River, some 100 km inland from the Gulf of Cadiz, Seville had been an easily defended commercial port from Roman times. After the Moors had been defeated by the Spanish, it became a major trading hub and, at the time of conquests by Spain in the Americas, grew very wealthy. As a demonstration of this wealth, the mosque was demolished in the 15th Century and replaced with a huge Gothic cathedral that was completed in the Sixteenth Century, the minaret of the mosque being used as a bell tower – the Giralda. Also retained from the Moorish period was much of the original Alcázar palace and its beautiful gardens, showing that not everything from this time was to be destroyed. However, the Roman Catholic Church showed no tolerance for Muslim beliefs, or those of other faiths, and the courts of the Inquisition were active. The Counter Reformation was also in full flow and the Spanish Baroque, with its strongly Roman Catholic symbolism, gives a flavour of the times in terms of religious power in Spain, the great wealth of Seville contributing to the importance of the Church in the city.
While there were great riches, there was also poverty and the Caridad Fraternity was founded to provide charity to the poor. This was an important organisation and it was needed, for, in addition to widespread poverty, there was also disease, including a devastating outbreak of plague in 1649 that resulted in tens of thousand of deaths. By the Seventeenth Century, Seville, still thriving as a trading centre, had lost its significance as a port, with Cadiz becoming much more important. The wealth of the city was also affected by taxes levied to pay for wars in which Spain was involved, including the 30 Years War.
It was against this background of a wealthy/poor city that was declining, and in which there was suffering, that we should view the works of Murillo. Add to that the tragedies of his own life and we can imagine a man who felt emotional pain. In the self-portrait that hangs in the National Gallery we can see this side of the man and, as the painting was requested by his surviving children, and retained by them, our impression is probably not based on imagination alone (see above). We know also that Murillo was active in the work of the Caridad Fraternity and, although he was wealthy and successful, we sense a man who felt for those less fortunate than himself. This is the secret of his genre painting, where street urchins, although clearly poor, are usually portrayed as being well-fed and cheerful - not true of all older people who feature in some pictures, like the wonderful An urchin mocking an old woman eating migas (see below). Although it is a generalisation, the impression gained from the genre paintings is one of resourceful survivors and they challenge us when they look out of canvasses. The rich owners of these works could convince themselves that the poor were able to thrive and the subjects will have reminded them of The Beatitudes and the difficulty of the rich entering Heaven that is expressed in The Holy Bible (Matthew 19:24). Much charity probably resulted, as well as generous gifts to the Church and the financing of Fiestas that all citizens of Seville could enjoy.
Among Murillo’s religious paintings, the finest is The Heavenly and Earthly Trinities painted near the end of his life (probably completed the year before he died) and also providing a link to his genre painting. This wonderful work (shown above) hangs in the National Gallery in London and I’d like us to look at it in detail. Let’s begin with its composition rather than its subject matter. In the picture below, I have plotted (crudely) the principal lines of composition and these can be listed:
1. The composition is framed by an oval and all our attention is drawn to the characters within that frame.
2. The vertical is not at the mid-point – 45% of the painting is to the left, 55% to the right
3. Two diagonals run across the painting, crossing the vertical at the near-central point of the picture.
4. Further “sub-diagonals” (shown as dotted lines on my sketch) link the central figure with the figure at lower left and the figure top left with that at lower right.
Our eye is thus drawn through, and around, the subject and we can readily identify the characters. The central figure is Jesus, shown somewhat unusually as a child, and the principal lines of composition run through his face, that looks upward. The vertical connects Jesus to God through a dove representing the Holy Spirit, thus giving the “Heavenly Trinity”. A dove is used as it is impossible to visualise the Holy Spirit and doves are mentioned in The Holy Bible as appearing at significant events – as in the Baptism of Christ by John (Mathew 3:16). White doves are a colour variant of Rock Doves (Columba livia) that are the ancestors of urban pigeons and also homing pigeons. The homing ability of these birds has been known for thousands of years and, in a society where humans had never flown, a pigeon able to fly and travel to a known destination is a suitable symbol, especially if it is white as this is the colour of purity in Western culture.
Both the dove and Jesus have an aura of light behind them in Murillo’s painting and this emphasises that they are part of God. Trinitarianism was probably an early invention of the Christian Church and there were some who feel that Jesus, while the son of God, was not God on Earth. Perhaps the leading scholar of the early writings that led to Trinitarianism was Sir Isaac Newton, but his lengthy scholarship was not published and his notes were only discovered after his death. Newton was, after all, a Fellow of Trinity College Cambridge and public knowledge of his view that the worship of Jesus was idolatrous would have been disastrous, even though no one would have questioned his otherwise orthodox Christian belief. Having established Trinitarianism early in its development, it is no surprise that the Roman Catholic church retained this view, as did the Protestant Churches.
In the painting, Jesus is standing on what appears to be a mounting block and his hands are resting on those of Mary and Joseph – importantly, he is being steadied, but not being held. Showing Jesus on a pedestal has two functions: the first is compositional, as has already been described; and the second is that Jesus is not of the Earth. The Earthly Trinity thus has three members of very different status. The sub-diagonal running from the head of Mary to that of Jesus emphasises the close link between them, as does their physical closeness (provided by the shift to the left of the vertical "centre line" of the painting). We are reminded of the idea of intercession by the Virgin and anyone gazing at Murillo’s master work is aware of Mary’s status. We are getting close to Marian worship here.
Joseph looks out at us and we wonder what he is thinking. He carries the flowering rod that identified him as the future husband of Mary, an old story that was given significance by The Golden Legend of Jacobus de Voragine from mediaeval times and now enshrined in Roman Catholic doctrine. We note that his costume is that of a carpenter and its colour reminds us of the colours of Murillo’s genre paintings, another link to his poor and very earthbound position. However, the sub-diagonal that runs across the picture from Joseph to God, across the void of space, ensures the importance of his role. Mary wears much more expensive robes in “her” colours of blue and scarlet and the brighter colours of the left “half” of the picture, remind us of Rubens (who probably inspired Murillo’s palette). The contrast in the colours of the two halves was balanced by Murillo by shifting the centre line to the left, in addition to drawing Mary closer to Jesus.
God is in Heaven and has his hand on a silver globe that emphasises his being the Creator and also comments on the geocentric nature of Roman Catholic belief at this time. Although Copernicus had demonstrated that a heliocentric view of the solar system was the best explanation of our observations, this view was considered blasphemous by the Church as it offended Christian orthodoxy. Indeed, it should be remembered that Galileo was found guilty of blasphemy for propounding heliocentric views in the early Seventeenth Century and died under house arrest in 1642.
The final figures in Murillo’s painting are the cherubs that are flying around on either side of God. To anyone interested in the history of Western Art, these figures will be recognised as putti that adorn some Italian Renaissance pictures and sculptures. Putti have older origins but, in Italian Art, they represent agents of Cupid, the Roman god of love, and the role of these boy babies with sparrow wings is to encourage a “bit of action”, sometimes by firing darts from the little bows that they may carry. The cherubs of the Spanish Baroque clearly have another function and possibly represent cherubim, described in the Bible as being part of the heavenly throng. Roman Catholic doctrine on heavenly beings was formed around the writings of Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite, who identified classes of beings, with angels and archangels as the lowest two orders and seraphim and cherubim as being of the highest rank. Unlike Biblical descriptions of angels and archangels, where wings are not mentioned, we know that seraphim have six wings and cherubim two, but they are large enough to cover the mercy seat. There is thus a conflict between the cherubim of The Holy Bible and the cherubs of Spanish Baroque paintings and we do not know what they represent. In some paintings, including at least one by Murillo, we see heads with wings attached (there being no body) and these take away the need to disguise their sex. It might be proposed that these torso-less heads represent souls that have flown to Heaven, or to Purgatory, but that cannot be the explanation of the cherubs in Murillo’s painting as they would have to be Jewish souls and that would not go down well with the authorities. They must represent something important to those of faith, but what?
Such a question does not detract from the magnificence of the work and its grand scale. It is unquestionably a great painting and we are lucky to have it on public display, whether we agree with Roman Catholic doctrine, or not.
This essay is a shortened version of a talk that I gave in Room 30 at the National Gallery in London on 21st March 2018.
The following sources formed a vital part of my research for both the talk and the article, together with numerous internet sources:
Vicky Hayward (editor) (1982) Bartolomé Esteban Murillo 1617-1682. London, George Weidenfeld and Nicholson Limited.
Xavier F. Salomon and Letizia Treves (2017) Murillo: The self-portraits. New Haven, Yale University Press.
Richard Westfall (1993) The Life of Isaac Newton. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press.