Saturday, October 10, 2009

Fragments of Heaven

Alonso Cano (1601 - 1667)
Saint John the Evangelist's Vision of Jerusalem
c. 1635 - c. 1638
Oil on canvas
Image size: 82.6 x 43.8 cm
The Wallace Collection, London

This painting was part of the altarpiece dedicated to St. John the Evangelist that was commissioned on 23 November 1635 from Alonso Cano by the convent of Hieronymite nuns of Santa Paula in Seville.

The paintings which constituted the large multi-paneled altarpiece of the visions of St John have since been dispersed such as in The Louvre in Paris.

Of the New Jerusalem, St John wrote:

"The wall was made of jasper, and the city of pure gold, as pure as glass. The foundations of the city walls were decorated with every kind of precious stone. The first foundation was jasper, the second sapphire, the third chalcedony, the fourth emerald, the fifth sardonyx, the sixth carnelian, the seventh chrysolite, the eighth beryl, the ninth topaz, the tenth chrysoprase, the eleventh jacinth, and the twelfth amethyst. The twelve gates were twelve pearls, each gate made of a single pearl. The great street of the city was of pure gold, like transparent glass” (Revelation 21: 18-21).

A virtual cacophony of precious gems : a riot of colour to attract and dazzle the eye and awe the spectator

In George Eliot`s, Middlemarch (New York: W. W. Norton, 1977), Dorothea sees one of the pieces of jewellery of Celia, “a fine emerald with diamonds,” just as the sun, emerging from behind a cloud, lights it up, and she is transfixed by the gem’s beauty:

“‘How very beautiful these gems are!’ said Dorothea, under a new current of feeling, as sudden as the gleam. ‘It is strange how the colours seem to penetrate one, like scent. I suppose that is the reason why gems are used as spiritual emblems in the Revelation of St John. They look like fragments of heaven’”

Cano studied painting in Seville with Pacheco (Velázquez was his fellow-student) and sculpture with Montáñez, and stayed in the city from 1614 to 1638. He was forced to leave the city in 1638 because of a duel with the painter Sebastián de Llano y Valdés. He then moved to Madrid to become painter to the Count-Duke Olivares and was employed by Philip IV to restore pictures in the Royal collection.