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Immaculada c. 1620
(Juan de Mesa y Velasco)

Description

One of the most potent artistic issues of the Spanish Golden Age was the subject of The Immaculate Conception. While deeply rooted in religion, it had social and political ramifications. This belief, not made into a dogma until centuries later (1854[1]), had a long and hazardous path, with many supporters and detractors. Between 1615 and 1618, this theme, more than any other, appealed to the Hispanic sensibility and was  an expression of popularised faith where the mass of public outpouring overruled other opinions[2].

This controversy influenced the arts and, in those years, most particularly sculptural works. Two different types of Inmaculadas were made in the most important creative centres of the time: Valladolid (Castille) and Seville (Andalusia). In Castille, Gregorio Fernandez made an Inmaculada de la Vera Cruz (Salamanca, 1621) that portrayed a humble adolescent praying, with very long hair and curls on her forehead (Fig.1). The mantle, covering her shoulders and pinned on her breast formed a sharp triangle, typical of the Castillian School. In Andalusía, Juan Martínez Montañés’ long series dedicated to this iconographical subject culminated in La Cieguecita (1629-32), which perfectly depicts the Sevillian features that were well known and that captivated locals and foreigners alike: a graceful and virginal maiden, in mild frontal contraposto pose, the mantle covering her in a circular movement; the hands lightly placed towards one side while the head is inclined towards the other, supported by the crescent moon with beneath the heads of angels in a number of positions wearing a variety of expressions(Fig.2)[3].

There was a dual predicament in the representation of this subject: one artistic, the other religious. The artistic challenge was to revive the style of classical draped statuary, while still revealing their anatomy – a style already well established during the Renaissance. In addition, there was the further baroque requirement for more authentic or realistic human form, described in documents of the period as ‘al vivo y al natural’ (alive and natural). The religious issue was how to achieve a model of such feminine beauty and grace that it convincingly evoked and represented a sense of the supernatural, something a priori that was difficult to reconcile. Thus the subject of the Immaculate Conception demands a humble adolescent, chosen to become the Mother of The Son of God, who is given the grace of being conceived without the original sin visited on all mankind, since The Fall. This theological aspect compounded a difficult aesthetic problem. The expectation of the religious authorities was that the artists, with the limited resources available to them, should infuse the viewer with the mystic nature of the spirituality of faith and yet make it a reality by means of the contemplation of a plastic creation. We know that great artists will make any commission their own, particularly the sculptors here discussed. They shared the intense religiosity of their age and tried time and again to create a masterpiece that touched both the educated as well as the ignorant. One way of achieving this end was by creating a modest feminine face that evoked, with its grace, purity and tenderness, the supreme beauty of body and soul. These ideas are well documented in artistic and religious texts of the time[4].

The Inmaculada sculpture exhibited here was unknown until very recently and such a discovery is a rare and pleasant surprise, even in the field of Spanish art. The image fits perfectly well with the Juan Martínez Montañés’ style from the period that started with the Inmaculada del Pedroso (1606, prior to the sublime La Cieguecita) [5], and that was continued by his disciples and followers both in the Americas and in Spain, such as Juan de Mesa, Francisco de Ocampo, Gaspar de la Cueva, Pedro de Noguera, Luis Ortiz de Vargas and Jacinto Pimentel, among others. This Inmaculada’s similarity to the master’s works brings to mind the names of Francisco de Ocampo and, in particular, Montañés’ best disciple, the cordobés Juan de Mesa. This latter, Juan de Mesa, was a sculptor who was enormously in demand, especially for his sculptures of Christ crucified (such as the Buena Muerte or Vergara) and of Christ carrying the cross (Gran Poder) [6]. In contrast with his elderly master, Juan de Mesa died young, so his definitive works date from a limited period of just over fifteen years (1610-1627). This makes the discovery of a new piece to add to his catalogue so much more important. This Inmaculada may be compared to his documented sculptures, such as the  Inmaculada Carmelita (convent of San José en Sevilla, c. 1610 Fig.1.); Virgen con el Niño (Antezana Hospital, Alcalá de Henares, 1611 Fig.2) and La Virgen con el Niño (Seville Museum, c.1623 Fig.3).  Since the piece under discussion lacks a detailed provenance other than that it originated in a private collection in Cordoba and was twenty years ago in the hands of a collector-dealer, any argument for an attribution must derive from stylistic comparison.

This Immaculate Conception composition is conceived in a significantly majestic pose with an emphasis that would notwithstanding its detailing in the round it was intended to be venerated frontally. In this it differs from similar pieces made by Juan de Mesa’s master, where the head tends to be tilted and slightly turned with grace and modesty. This characteristic is strongly reinforced by the joined hands which are held together on the same axis with the head; the only contraposto being the Virgin’s slightly flexed right leg. The entire figure is swathed in an extravagantly estofado decorated abundance of swirling drapery whose luxurious sense of movement counteracts the static monumentality by conveying a baroque reverberation of the essential sacred purpose of the imagery.

The mantle, pinned at the breast, enfolds the body in a vigorous curve that covers her right arm, falling from her left arm in gentle vertical undulations. This compositional and plastic tour de force enhances the general shape of the feminine form while at the same time diverting attention from the curves of the contraposto. This sense of decorous sensuality is a result of the efforts of an artist – and indeed a whole school – to reconcile the artistic canon of the natural approach with a fine sense of religious sensitivity toward the Immaculate Conception iconographical idiom in which the slightest hint of sensuality would be deemed improper. Yet another naturalistic detail is the absence of veil or wimple covering the head. Traditionally, covering the head has been as a sign of feminine modesty, while this Immaculate Conception instead shows an abundant head of long flowing curling meshes, an eternal symbol of feminine beauty.  The hair grows flattish at the forehead and flows covering the neck, back and tipping over the shoulders some of the breast, almost as if the hair itself was the virginal veil. The fine and precise strands that frame the face and cover the head dissolve into more sketchy and lighter shapes on the back. This, perhaps, is an indication of the transformation of an earlier baroque aesthetic into pictorial concepts of optical illusionism, already seen in other Juan De Mesa pieces.

Judging by the flowers and the rocaille decoration on the mantle, the polychrome of this sculpture was partially modernised in the 18th Century. Nevertheless, it has retained its delicate original polychromy and embellishments in the white tunic, particularly visible on the sleeves and in between the folds of the blue mantle, particularly on the right side and in the flesh tones.

The touch of Juan de Mesa’s craft is evident in the beauty evident in the face of this piece. A  perfectly formed  geometric oval, yet full of vivid naturalism the face is derived from  the Montañés type, yet here the disciple has moved  further forward towards the humanisation of the sacred image. The axis that goes from the hairline on the forehead, between the brows, over the nose, mouth and chin, is characteristic of Juan de Mesa due to its peculiar morphology: eyes that aren’t wide open, looking down, under heavy eyelids; slightly flattened cheeks, the marked insertion of the mouth into the facial structure which compensates for the marked division between the slightly flaring nostrils. This intensely personal style of shaping the features culminates in strongly modelled small lips, well profiled, but full and more sensually executed than those achieved by his master. Juan de Mesa completes the facial features by gently modelling a fine chin, a slight dewlap begins the neck, where again, Juan de Mesa’s characteristic curves and smoothness appear, although always controlled by the requirement of general modesty in the interpretation of these sculptures, particularly in the strict Sevillian environment which was supervised by the painter and theorist Francisco Pacheco.

Seen as a whole, this unique, elegant and sober sculpture retains the resounding three dimensional presence of classic statuary, but imbued with a sense of internal vivacity. A beautiful maiden stands on the crescent moon, and a couple of cheeky cherubs,  smiling and indifferent to the mystery they bear, appear from beneath the tunic and the mantle, thus adding a joyful touch to the artistic theme most dear to the Seville’s inhabitants

Rafael Ramos Sosa

[1] ‘After consulting theologians, Pius IX, questioned the bishops of the universal church as to whether he should define the Immaculate Conception. 546 of the 603 bishops consulted responded affirmatively, four or five did not think it could be defined, twenty-four questioned whether the time was opportune, and ten preferred an indirect definition. Pius IX was assisted in composing his papal bull, Ineffabilis Deus, by a Jesuit theologian Perrone and by Dom Gueranger, Abbot of Solesmes. The document was not entirely completed when the Pope made the declaration on December 8, 1854.’ (http://campus.udayton.edu/mary/resources/kimmac.html).

[2] S. Stratton, La Inmaculada Concepción en el arte español, Madrid, Fundación Universitaria Española, 1989, pp. 53 and notes.

[3] Beatrice Gilman Proske’s monograph is of great interest for the knowledge of this master’s work (see Juan Martínez Montañés: sevillian sculptor. New York, Hispanic Society of America, 1967). See also J.  Hernández Diaz, Juan Martínez Montañés (1568-1649). Seville, ed. Guadalquivir, 1987.

[4] F. Pacheco, El Arte de la Pintura, (ed. Bonaventura Bassegoda). Madrid, Cátedra, 1990, pp. 575-577.

[5] E. Gomez Piñol, ‘Los retablos del San Isidoro del Campo y algunas atribuciones escultóricas derivadas de su estudio’, in San Isidoro del Campo, fortaleza de la espiritualidad y santuario del poder (1301-2002), Seville, Consejería de Cultura, 2002, pp. 123-129.

[6] J. Hernández Díaz, Juan de Mesa: escultor de imaginería (1583-1627), Seville, 1983. See also A. Villar Movellán and A. Urquizar Herrera (eds), Juan de Mesa (1627-2002) Visiones y revisiones, Córdoba, University of Córdoba, 2002. See also E. Pareja López (et al.), Juan de Mesa. Seville, Tartessos, 2006.

 

Measurements
136 x 54 x 44 cm
Type
Wood, polychrome and gilding
Provenance

Jaime Parlade, Conde de Aguilar, Cordoba;

André Gonzalez Moro, Seville;

Andrés Breheimer Moro, Seville;

Antonio Gil Salas.

Literature

London 2009, The Matthiesen Gallery, The Mystery of Faith, pp.132-139, ill. pp.133,135,136.

Rafael Ramos Sosa, Virgin of the Immaculate Conception, in Juan de Mesa The Master of Passion, Coll&Cortes, 2018, p.84-95.

Where is It?
Valladolid, Museo de Escultura
Historical Period
Baroque - 1600-1720
Subject
Religious: New Testament
School
Spanish
Catalogue
Price band
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