Sunday, March 11, 2012

Sacred Stories and Spanish Religious Art in the Nineteenth Century

Luis de Madrazo y Kuntz 1825 - 1897
The Burial of Saint Cecilia in the Catacombs of Rome 
Oil on canvas
302,6 cm x 253,5 cm
Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid

Alejo Vera 1834- 1923
The Burial of Saint Lawrence in the Catacombs in Rome
Oil on canvas, 224 x 233 cm. 
Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid

At present there is a temporary exhibition in The Prado in Madrid entitled Sacred Stories. Religious Paintings by Spanish Artists in Rome (1852-1864)

The two paintings above are just two of the exhibits

Before the 19th century, a stay by artists in Rome was regarded as an essential part of their training. In the 19th century, however, the period spent in the Spanish Academy in Rome was considered the final phase in an artist’s academic training and marked the start of professional maturity

The course of study usually took three years. In the first year students copied Greek and Roman sculpture to learn anatomy, classical architecture to learn ideal proportion, and  they copied old master paintings. In the second year they did work on the human figure. In  the third year they utilised all the skills learned by practice, travel, and observation into one large historical painting drawn from either religious, classical, or historical texts. 

Both these paintings illustrate the revival of religious feeling and interest aroused by the re-discovery of the Christian catacombs in Rome in the nineteenth century especially the discovery of the tomb of Saint Cecilia near the Appian Way

This rediscovery and publicisation of the catacombs was the work of two men: Giovanni Battista De Rossi (1822–1894), contributor to more than two hundred publications,and generally regarded as the father of modern scientific Christian archaeology; and his close friend the Jesuit scholar Father Giuseppe Marchi (1795–1860) who began the study of early Christian monuments.

The nineteenth century saw a steady stream of books and articles which sought to interpret the evidence of the Roman catacombs in an aid to "uncover" the early years of Christianity

In England, there were Hypatia, or New Foes With an Old Face (1852–1853), by Charles Kingsley; Fabiola, or The Church of the Catacombs (1854), by Nicholas Wiseman; and Callista: A Tale of the Third Century, by Blessed John Henry Newman (1855)

Kingsley`s novel is critical of the early Christianity as corrupt - like the Roman Catholic Church who set great store by the patristic fathers and the idea of tradition.. Wiseman and Newman`s novels were a necessary refutation and correction

"Then Almachius, hearing that, commanded that she should be beheaded in the same bath. Then the tormentor smote at her three strokes, and could not smite off her head, and the fourth stroke he might not by the law smite, and so left her there Iying half alive and half dead, and she lived three days after in that manner, and gave all that she had to poor people, and continually preached the faith all that while; and all them that she converted she sent to Urban for to be baptized, and said: I have asked respite three days, that I might commend to you these souls, and that ye should hallow of mine house a church. 
 And then at the end of three days she slept in our Lord, and S. Urban with his deacons buried her body among the bishops, and hallowed her house into a church, in which unto this day is said the service unto our Lord. She suffered her passion about the year of our Lord two hundred and twenty three, in the time of Alexander the emperor, and it is read in another place that she suffered in the time of Marcus Aurelius"

According to Johann Peter Kirsch (1908):
"De Rossi located the burial-place of Cecilia in the Catacomb of Callistus in a crypt immediately adjoining the crypt or chapel of the popes; an empty niche in one of the walls contained, probably, at one time the sarcophagus with the bones of the saint.  
Among the frescoes of a later time with which the wall of the sepulchre are adorned, the figure of a richly-dressed woman appears twice and Pope Urban, who was brought personal into close relation with the saint by the Acts of her martyrdom, is depicted once."

From this interest in the catacombs and the early Christian history, Madrazo was led into an interest in painting Biblical scenes from the Old and New Testaments

Vera`s work is much later. 

Obviously his work is influenced by the earlier work of Saint Cecilia.

Of the death and burial of Saint Lawrence, The Golden Legend states:
"And so he [Lawrence] gave up his spirit. And then Decius, being all confused, walked into the palace of Tiberius with Valerianus, and left the body lying upon the fire, which Hippolitus in the morning took away, with Justin the priest, and buried it with precious ointments in the field Veranus. And the Christian men that buried him fasted three days and three nights and hallowed the vigils, weeping there and wailing"
The classical style of early Madrazo heavily influenced by the Nazarene school in Rome gives way to a more realistic style. But both artists were heavily influenced by the same religious source to produce works which show that in the middle of nineteenth century Spain, Spanish art had not lost religion as a vital spark of inspiration and Christian evangelisation.