Theology for the masses

“Is there anything else than roguery there?” asked the 19th-century art critic John Ruskin of Bartolomé Esteban Murillo’s “Invitation to a Game of Argolla”, a painting of two young street urchins. “Or was it well for the painter to give this time to the painting of those repulsive and wicked children? ... We all know that a beggar’s foot cannot be clean; there is no need to thrust its degradation into the light.”

Today the 17th-century Spanish painter is more often associated not with dirty realism but with Catholic kitsch – all soft-focus Madonnas and cherubs lounging on clouds. But this impression too is quickly dispelled when confronted with “The Foundation of Santa Maria Maggiore in Rome: The Dream of the Patrician and his Wife” (1664-65), an immense semicircular “lunette” painting that displays Murillo’s compositional confidence and mastery of paint. While the artist’s source was a brief account in the Roman Breviary of the Virgin of the Snows’ appearance to a Roman couple in a dream, the result is supremely ambitious and coherent. Murillo echoes the lunette shape in a series of arcs – the shapely fall of the tablecloth moving through the patrician’s arm, his sleeping head propped on his elbow. The tablecloth’s red is picked up in the wife’s voluminous skirt and the yellow of the patrician’s shirt in the heavenly glow surrounding the Virgin.

Murillo’s ‘A Young Man with a Basket of Fruit (Personification of Summer)’ (1660-65)

The picture is a highlight of the travelling exhibition Murillo and Justino de Neve: The Art of Friendship, which came from the Prado in Madrid to Seville’s Hospital de los Venerables Sacerdotes (a former institution for retired priests for which Murillo made several paintings), and has just opened at London’s Dulwich Picture Gallery. De Neve, canon of Seville cathedral, was Murillo’s patron; the show offers an opportunity to see in one place his normally scattered collection of Murillos, loaned by national and private collections across Europe and America, alongside Dulwich’s own important examples. It also lets modern gallery-goers see Murillo as his contemporaries did, with Dulwich Picture Gallery transformed into a church-like space complete with nave, side chapels and an altar.

The dispersal of Murillo’s works began during his lifetime. His home town of Seville was also home to European merchants who developed a taste for Spanish art. In 1672 the Sevillian poet-priest Fernando de la Torre Farfán declared that Murillo had become better known in every corner of Europe than in Spain. By 1779, so many works had left the country that a royal decree was issued limiting the free trade in paintings, particularly those by Murillo. But it wasn’t to be: following the Napoleonic invasion, many Murillos were looted from Sevillian churches for the Louvre (then called the Musée Napoléon) and for various private collections.

Tempering realism with sweetness – what Dulwich’s chief curator Xavier Bray calls a “kinder baroque” – and executed with painterly dexterity, Murillo’s work was widely coveted. In 1658, he visited Madrid (his only recorded absence from Seville) and his exposure to the works of Titian, Veronese, Rubens and Velázquez brought about a loosening of his technique.

De Neve secured commissions for him to paint four lunettes for the parish church of Santa Maria la Blanca, and several works for Seville cathedral and the Hospital de los Venerables, as well as for his private collection. While de Neve could make only minor additions to the cathedral, he could be more radical in Santa Maria la Blanca. From 1662, he oversaw the church’s reconstruction and, following Alexander VII’s papal bull defending the doctrine of the immaculate conception, he commissioned “The Dream”, along with its partner “The Patrician and his Wife before Pope Liberius” (which, sadly, cannot leave the Prado) and a pair of smaller lunettes, “The Immaculate Conception” and “Faith”.

Murillo’s ‘Spring as a Flower Girl’ (1665-70)

These three lunettes now adorn the “nave” at Dulwich, imposingly hung at a height of 3m but sensitively lit to bring out Murillo’s rich palette and variety of brushwork. The incongruous gold corners of “The Dream”, which were later added by the French to square the canvas, are hidden in this radical installation, allowing us to see the work as the congregation of Santa Maria la Blanca would have done. At the end of the “nave” is Murillo’s towering “The Immaculate Conception of the Venerables Sacerdotes”, the low light giving it an extra intensity.

The hang enables visitors to encounter Murillo’s commissions as distinct entities, while also making connections between them. “The Immaculate Conception of the Venerables Sacerdotes” was probably intended for de Neve’s private oratory, but it was displayed on a temporary altarpiece outside Santa Maria la Blanca to celebrate its reopening in 1665.

Also part of the altarpiece was Murillo’s Caravaggesque “The Infant Saint John the Baptist with a Lamb” – light emanating from the centre of the painting, illuminating the boy against a dark landscape. Here it is hung to the left of “The Immaculate Conception”, recreating the effect of the altarpiece while also opening a dialogue with Murillo’s secular beggar boys (“Invitation to a Game of Argolla” and “Three Boys”) to the right of the “altar”. Murillo’s brand of elevated realism – his beggars look rather healthy and well-fed – and his soft, painterly style span both religious and genre paintings, lending his subjects a common dignity.

Dulwich’s stagy yet scholarly show is an important opportunity to reassess this contradictory genius.

‘Murillo and Justino de Neve: The Art of Friendship’, Dulwich Picture Gallery, London, until May 19

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