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Velázquez and Religion

Study Morning

Saturday 9 December 2006
Sainsbury Wing Theatre, The National Gallery

This very well attended Study Morning, held by the National Gallery in London in collaboration with ACE (Art and Christianity Enquiry) was held to coincide with the Gallery’s major exhibition, Velazquez (18th October 2006 – 21st January 2007), which has brought together forty-six of the artist’s major works from collections all over the world.

Diego Rodriguez de Silva y Velazquez was born in Seville in 1599, where he was apprenticed at the age of eleven to the influential Francisco Pacheco, and was licensed in 1617 to practice as a master painter. In Madrid in 1623 he came to the notice of the Count-Duke of Olivares, chief minister of King Philip IV, and thereafter his career was spent largely at the Royal Court, except for the years 1629-31 when he was studying in Italy, and 1649-51 when he was again in Italy acquiring works of art for the royal collection.

His entire output of religious art, as the curator of the exhibition, Dawson Carr, pointed out in his introductory lecture at the Study Morning, comprising some fifteen surviving works out of about a hundred, date from the earlier part of his life. Not a single overtly religious composition can be dated to his last twenty years. Had he remained in Seville, with its richly variant (not to say turbulent, as Sara Nalle of William Paterson University, New Jersey, pointed out in the second lecture) religious and cultural life, there is little doubt that Velazquez’ early promise as an a composer of religious subjects would have flowered. The surviving works show an astonishing assurance, realism and maturity.

The two introductory lectures were followed by two more detailed studies; by Ronald Truman of Christ Church, Oxford (Velazquez’s intellectual culture – attitudes to religious experience) which focused particularly upon the ‘Flagellation contemplated by the Christian Soul’ (circa 1628); and by the Revd Professor David Jasper of Glasgow University (Velazquez – interpreter of the Bible) which concentrated upon the 1618 ‘Kitchen Scene with Christ in the House of Martha and Mary’. The four papers neatly complemented one another, and those of Truman and Jasper in particular were richly informative.

The exhibition itself provides an excellent opportunity to study Velazquez as a religious painter; no fewer than nine of the artist’s surviving major works on religious and Biblical themes, drawn from the collections of the National Gallery of Ireland, the Mseo Nacional del Prado in Madrid, the Musee des Beaux-Arts in Orleans, the Real Monasterio de San Lorenzo de El Escorial, the Museo Diocesano de Arte Sacro, Orihuela and the National Gallery itself, are drawn together here. As Dawson Carr pointed out, Velazquez never failed to make a profound statement on his chosen subject, and this judgement is certainly true of each and every one of the religious works shown here, which were effectively discussed and analysed during the Study Morning.

John Morgan-Guy

 

Art and Christianity Enquiry

Exhibition at Trinity College Carmarthen.
Diego Rodriguez de Silva y Velázquez, Christ in the House of Mary and Martha, c.1618, National Gallery, London