Botero left his native Colombia in 1952 for travel and study in Europe, stopping first in Barcelona and making his way gradually to Florence. There, in the volumetric bodies and static monumentality of Giotto, Masaccio, and Piero della Francesca, the Trecento and Quattrocento masters with whom he found spiritual truck, Botero discovered what would become enduring precedents for his work. "I learned about the suggestion of calm in Piero della Francesca," Botero later reflected. "It has to do with a sublime hieratic quality that is to be seen in Egyptian art and that always moves me. So much is insinuated in that paralyzed movement! There is such geometric rigor that the movements remain still for all eternity. I like the perennial aspect of the expression."(1)
Botero's receptiveness to Piero's serene geometries and abstract structure is evident in the frieze-like arrangement of the human and animal witnesses to El Milagro de San Hilarión, an early painting whose discrete planes of color and tonal volumes anticipate the prodigiously rounded proportions of his fully mature style. In the years following his return from Europe in 1955, Botero began to synthesize the earlier influence of Cubism's interlocking spaces and planar facture with the calm monumentality and fulsome proportions of the Italian Renaissance masters whom he had lately come to admire. In the present work, and characteristically of his painting of the later 1950s, the individual figures and surrounding decorative motifs are set almost like building blocks within the composition, their forms rhyming and visually balanced on both sides of the archway. Botero's awakening to the plastic values of the Renaissance, which would soon bring his self-described "Braque phase" to a close, was complemented by a corresponding interest in the ecclesiastical subjects that had preoccupied his predecessors. "Like his Renaissance masters," the Peruvian writer and intellectual Mario Vargas Llosa has observed, "Botero has filled his pictures with clerics more for visual than spiritual reasons, and by so doing, he linked his work to those mentors and he expressed a world in which, in effect, as in the Italy of the city-states, the Church was omnipresent."(2)
"The reason why I painted priests is obvious," Botero once remarked of his early interest in clerical subjects. "I was totally involved in and enamoured with the Quattrocento. But I could not of course now paint characters of the Quattrocento. My priests were contemporary, but out of the Middle Ages."(3) Though drawn from the Western canon, Botero's priests and varied ecclesiastical figures belong fully to the modern-day Latin American world, a society where Catholicism has long been a ubiquitous presence in everyday life. Like most Colombians, Botero studied religion as a child and was "immersed, as a matter of course, in the aura of sanctity (both real and imagined) that permeates the traditions of his country," as Edward Sullivan has noted. "Throughout his career he has returned to themes associated with religious life from time to time. Such well-known paintings as Our Lady of New York, 1966 or his various representations of saints (Saint Lucy, Saint Teresa of Avila and others) attest to his continued interest in themes related to Catholic traditions."(4)
El Milagro de San Hilarión counts among Botero's most colorful and humorously good-natured portrayals of saints, the droll characters assembled in the presence of the fourth-century anchorite whose miracle-works and exorcisms spread his fame across the eastern Mediterranean shores. Saint Hilarion's first miraculous act was to cure a woman who had been barren for fifteen years, and he is later said to have healed paralysis and blindness and even to have interceded in a chariot-race on behalf of a Christian against a pagan rival. The festive colors and convivial setting of the present work highlight the joyous wonder of Saint Hilarion's intercessions and the absolute faith of his disciples in the potency of his spiritual presence. Botero's rendering pays cheerful homage to the miracle-working saint, in whom he invests the artistic and religious inheritance of a rich and also personal Catholic tradition.
1) Botero, quoted in A. M. Escallón, "From the Inside Out: An Interview with Fernando Botero," in Botero: New Works on Canvas, New York: Rizzoli, 1997, 44.
2) M. Vargas Llosa, "A Sumptuous Abundance," Fernando Botero, Stockholm: Moderna Museet, 2001, 27.
3) Botero, quoted in Vargas Llosa, "A Sumptuous Abundance," 26.
4) E. J. Sullivan, Fernando Botero: Drawings and Watercolors, New York: Rizzoli, 1993, xviii.