The Art of Zurbarán

In the Museum of Prado in Madrid and the Museum of Fine Arts in Seville you can see a number of paintings by the 17th century Spanish painter, Francisco de Zurbarán. Now I don’t know about you, but I don’t recall ever having heard Zurbarán’s name when I was in school, although admittedly art history was no longer part of the grammar school curriculum by then.

The first time I took notice of Zurbarán was, in fact, in the Prado, seven years ago now – I must have seen him in the National Gallery in London before, but the National Gallery is so vast and so full of masterpieces of all styles that I passed him by. The Prado was different. Not that it’s short of masterpieces from all over the world, mind, but I went there specifically to look at Spanish paintings. I wanted to see Goya and El Greco and Velázquez… and while doing so, I came across Zurbarán.

Saint Francis in Meditation by Francisco de Zurbarán (1598 – 1664), National Gallery, London (NG230) [CC BY-NC-ND 4.0]


What first caught my eye was the harshness of his pictures. Zurbarán isn’t one of those painters who call out to you seductively as you wander aimlessly through a busy art gallery. Generally speaking, he didn’t go in for chubby faced blond angels, pious looking pretty Madonnas wearing sumptuous blue mantles over bright red robes or scenes from the Bible full of drama and movement.

The Virgin in Prayer by Sassoferrato (1609 – 1685), National Gallery, London (NG200) [CC BY-NC-ND 4.0]
In other words he didn’t go in for what I, up to the moment of encountering him, I classified in my mind as the genre of ‘religious painting‘.

Why Zurbarán?

What first comes to mind when I think of Zurbarán is monks. Monks in white, brown or grey habits, static against an undefined dark background – how boring does that sound?

And yet, he had something, for even those austere paintings of unknown monks stand out in the memory. Not to mention the rest:

I would have struggled to explain what this special something consists of but as it happens, I’m not alone in being captivated by Zurbarán. The Dutch writer Cees Nooteboom is a great admirer and he has a better way with words than I do:

But why Zurbarán? Why this singular obsession with saints, martyrs, monks, and crucifixion? Who is still interested in that earlier Spain which looks to be drifting rapidly away from us, which seems closer to the world of Dante than to our own?

The answer must be a very simple one: that the subjects, the age, are of no importance. Zurbarán was doomed by circumstance and by the century of his birth to paint pictures of monks. Monks were his patrons and masters, they instructed him, to the smallest particular, on the subjects he might portray.

But the point is that Zurbarán did not actually paint monks. He painted habits. He painted material. Hokusai painted a lion every day in the hope of one day achieving the perfect lion.

I know I’m doing many aspects of Zurbarán’s mastery an injustice, but it can’t be helped. Fabric, material, stuff. What Zurbarán studied in painting after painting was matter, the plasticity of matter, the primary colours. He must have painted untold lengths of black and white cloth, sometimes several square metres in a single painting. All the riddles of light and shade, the shifting shadows made by folds and pleats in the material – he painted them all.

And if I make bold enough to separate the commissioned subject-matter that Zurbarán the craftsman was expected to deliver from what he actually painted, the outcome is this: an essay on the relation between light, colour and material such as would not be seen again before Cézanne.

Cees Nooteboom: Roads to Santiago

Does this explain Zurbarán’s art sufficiently?

There is a hole in St Francis’s habit on the elbow in the painting on top. Go on, have a look. Follow the link to the National Gallery and zoom in. But I mean really zoOM in. You can see the bloody threads.

The Spanish Caravaggio?

Francisco de Zurbarán (self-portrait)

I don’t know much about Zurbarán, the man. He was a friend, or at least acquaintance, of Diego de Velázquez – who was more famous, more successful and also from Seville. He owed it to Velázquez that in the 1630s he could hold the job of the ‘official painter’ to the king for a while. That would be Philip IV and we are in the so-called Siglo de Oro, the Golden Century, when the arts in Spain flourished even as the country increasingly went to the dogs. Paradoxically, Zurbarán seems to have painted some of his worst pictures while in the – presumably well-paid and secure – employment of his king. I would have never looked at a Zurbarán painting again if the first I saw was one of his labours of Hercules.

If Wikipedia is to be believed, Zurbarán was nicknamed the Spanish Caravaggio, “owing to the forceful, realistic use of chiaroscuro in which he excelled”. I love Caravaggio (except when I hate him) and perhaps I like Zurbarán because, unconsciously, I recognised the similarities in their style of painting. On the other hand, perhaps I’ve never recognised anything. I’m not an art historian and my understanding of painting techniques is vague in the extreme; I might just recognize the incomparably beautiful blue of lapis lazuli but that’s where I stop. Nor can I explain a painting the way I can analyse a work of literature when I put my mind to it (although it’s something I prefer to avoid). No, when it comes to paintings, I go by gut instinct and stand regretting my lack of knowledge. Was Zurbarán influenced by Caravaggio? Has he even seen a picture by Caravaggio? We don’t actually know. Perhaps Zurbarán arrived at similar ideas and techniques in painting entirely independently.

Monks, nuns, saints. A still life or two and the odd scene from the Bible. Dark, somber tones, fabric you can feel between your fingers, the white standing out starkly against the dark background, a simple composition… It doesn’t sound much, yet it packs a tremendous punch: you come closer to God with Zurbarán than in you would in many a glittering cathedral.

Agnus Dei, Museum of Prado

He was concerned with something that lay far beyond the borders of human psychology or the anecdotal, a passion of such intensity as to justify calling it mystical. And there you have the paradox: that the idea of mysticism is not evoked by the representation, even if the subject is a mystical experience but that two square metres of white or black, over which the anecdotal eye slides so casually (just a portion of the tunic in the lower right hand corner, say) do actually produce that effect.

Cees Nooteboom: Roads to Santiago

Picture credits: 
Unless otherwise indicated, all pictures are public domain via Wikipedia/Wikimedia Commons/Google Art Project

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⇒ ... and the National Gallery in LondonMy Love-Hate Relationship with Caravaggio
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