Spanish PaintingWhen we painters think of the Renaissance today, our minds conjure up work by the Italian masters of course, and if we think a little harder, perhaps we move a little further north to the Germans, where Dürer springs to mind. It would seem that the whole sixteenth century in art revolved around this north-south bipolar axis. Seldom do we hear much about French Renaissance art or English Renaissance art or Spanish Renaissance art. Basically there's a good reason for this. The fact is, there wasn't very much of it to the West while the East was still dominated by the Turks and Moslem calligraphic art. In the West we do find some notable Renaissance literature and music but insofar as painting was concerned, in Spain for example, it was mostly imported talent and it had to wait until the seventeenth century when El Greco hit town (Madrid and Toledo) for Renaissance progress in painting to be felt.
Yet, in general, El Greco's spiritual mysticism had little impact on Spanish art. In the early seventeenth century, that which we've come to know as truly "Spanish" painting came from the South. You're thinking, aha!, Velázquez, right? Well, yes, but actually, two earlier painters, in a sense, paved the road for him. One was Jusepe de Ribera, the other Francisco de Zurbarán. Both were born in the 1590s and were somewhat older than Velázquez. Ribera studied in Italy and was the direct conduit for Mannerism and especially the style of Caravaggio's painting influence to be felt in Spain. His Martyrdom of Saint Bartholomew, painted in 1639 is a good example. The painting depicts the moments before the saint was flayed alive, as he is being "strung up" to a mast, while women and children look on in the background. The composition and lighting is Baroque, not Renaissance, though there is a "down and dirty" quality that goes beyond even the well-known "peasant" look of Caravaggio.
Zurbarán was home-grown Spanish talent. He never studied in Italy and his work lacks the grittiness of Caravaggio. His Vision of Saint Peter Nolasco, painted in 1629, would appear to be a strong influence for Velázquez’s best work, not to mention that of his fellow Spaniard, Salvador Dali some three hundred years later. There is very much a surreal quality to the handling of the robes of the kneeling saint as he confronts the vision of St. Peter, crucified upside down, glowing before him, casting an ethereal light upon his figure in the painting. Although Velázquez studied in Italy, it was not from the Renaissance he got his stylistic influences, but from the Mannerists, and his contemporaries, Baroque artists such as Titian and Rubens. However it was Zurbarán and Ribera from whence came the peculiarly "Spanish" flavour that came to make him the greatest painter Spain ever produced until Picasso.
Contributed by Lane, Jim
9 August 1999