In 1665, at the height of his career, the Spanish Baroque painter Bartolomé Esteban Murillo (1618-1682) began work on the most ambitious project of his life: a cycle of religious pictures for Seville’s newly built Capuchin convent.
The Seville of Murillo’s childhood was a thriving metropolis. Thanks to a monopoly on New World trade, the city had grown in influence to rival Venice, Amsterdam and Madrid. But by 1650, after the port of Cádiz had disrupted shipping routes and plague had begun to decimate the population, Seville’s fortunes were waning. Catastrophic bouts of flooding, famine and recession followed.
As a result, power shifted towards the city’s charitable religious fraternities: the Franciscan, Dominican and Capuchin brotherhoods. And Murillo, who was deeply devout — even by the standards of 17th-century Catholic Spain — became their painter of choice.
Taking up residence in the Capuchin convent, Murillo started drafting his plans for the cycle, which would ultimately include an altarpiece, six devotional pictures, two works for the main chapel, two more for the side altars of the presbytery and an image of the Virgin for the refectory.
It would take him four years to finish the project, now considered a masterpiece of 17th-century Spanish art.
This autograph version of one of the most celebrated paintings from the cycle, Saint Francis Embracing Christ on the Cross, was recently discovered in remarkable condition in a private collection in Madrid. The larger version painted for the Capuchins now hangs in the Museum of Fine Arts Seville.
But why would Murillo have painted another version, especially one of such high quality?
The Spanish art historian Enrique Valdivieso González thinks that this painting is likely to be a ricordo — a duplicate created at a later date. In 17th-century Spain, he has written, patrons were known to commission artists to produce brilliant copies of their high-profile pictures for personal devotion.
Recent X-ray analysis of the work, however, has thrown up a second hypothesis. It reveals differences in details under the surface — the unfurling of Christ’s hand nailed to the cross, the loosening of Saint Francis’s grip around Christ’s torso, even the inclusion of an additional group of three putti — that Murillo then painted over.
It isn’t clear why the artist might have rethought a composition already familiar to him, only to come to the same conclusions as before. So Christie’s Old Masters specialist Jonquil O’Reilly is tempted to think that the painting could have been a modello — a preliminary work used by Murillo to illustrate his intentions to the Capuchins.
The moment of embrace between Saint Francis of Assisi and Christ on the cross was a favourite subject among the pious people of Seville.
‘The beautifully preserved paint surface allows full appreciation of the artist’s fluid, confident brushwork’— specialist Jonquil O’Reilly
For the walls of the Capuchin convent, Murillo depicted the saint barefoot and wearing a rough brown habit fastened at the waist with a rope. According to O’Reilly, the artist skilfully contrasted these coarse textures with Christ’s luminous flesh in order to represent the division between the human and the divine.
The globe under the saint’s foot emphasises his rejection of earthly possessions, a sentiment echoed by the passage from the Gospel of Saint Luke held aloft by the two putti: ‘Those of you who do not give up everything you have cannot be my disciples.’
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‘Whether Murillo painted this work before or after the version in Seville remains open to debate,’ says O’Reilly. ‘Either way, it’s an important addition to our understanding of his Capuchin cycle, as well as his entire oeuvre.
‘The work’s striking intimacy, coupled with the beautifully preserved paint surface, which allows full appreciation of the artist’s fluid, confident brushwork and brilliant depiction of anatomy, make it a fascinating rediscovery,’ she adds.
Murillo’s Saint Francis Embracing Christ on the Cross will be on view by appointment at Christie’s in New York from 17 April, ahead of the Old Masters auction on 22 April.