The identity of Juan de Sevilla has long been the subject of debate and some confusion in scholarly publications. Initially named as the anonymous Master of Sigüenza by C.R. Post in his seminal History of Spanish Painting, originally published from 1930, the identity of the master was found with the appearance of the signature Johannes Hispalensis (‘johns ispaletis’, the Latinised ‘Juan de Sevilla’) on a small, portable triptych showing the Virgin and Child enthroned with angels, flanked by Saints Peter and Paul in the wings (Madrid, Museo Lázaro Galdiano, inv. no. 2798). In 1955, this painter was equated with another, Juan de Peralta, the painter of Saint Andrew in a private collection in Paris, signed ‘johns peraltis’ (J. Guidol, ‘Juan de Sevilla - Juan de Peralta’, Goya: Revista de arte, V, 1955, pp. 258-266). Thus, it was proposed that the painter, Juan de Perlata, had originally come from Seville adopting his native city when signing his paintings in the early stages of his career. In 1981 however, this merging of the two personalities was rejected by Eric Young who emphasised stylistic discrepancies between the respective works by Juan de Sevilla and Juan de Peralta (E. Young, ‘Juan de Sevilla, Juan de Peralta and Juan de Burgos’, Apollo Magazine, CXIII, 1981, no. 221). The varying debates as to the artist’s true biography remain somewhat fractured, though several pieces of firm evidence have emerged which provide crucial information on the painter’s, or painters’, patrons and where the surviving, known paintings were made.
One of the works associated with the Sevilla/Peralta group is the so-called Grajal Altarpiece, fragments of which were formerly with Matthiesen Galleries, London. These panels are in two cases emblazoned with coats-of-arms which provide important evidence surrounding its commission and original location. The arms are those of Juan Gónzalez de Grajal, bishop of Sigüenza between 1415 and 1416. The retable was probably originally dedicated to Saint Michael and commissioned for the altar of that saint’s chapel at Sigüenza cathedral. While the date of the commission is not certain, the scale and quality of the surviving pieces of the retable suggest that it came during Grajal’s reign. Thus, the painter is known to have been active in Sigüenza and his skill held in high regard amongst prominent patrons.
The Retable of Saint Andrew and Saint Antonin of Pamiers, now in the Toledo Museum of Art, Ohio (fig. 1; inv. no. 1955.213A-J) is also linked to the artist and again provides useful evidence for establishing information of the master’s workshop and patrons. Before the painting’s acquisition by the museum, it was housed in the sacristy of the Cathedral of Sigëunza following the destruction of its original location, of a hermitage-chapel beside the fortresstower of Sénigo outside the city walls, sometime before the nineteenth century. Though the precise circumstances of the commission are unclear, the escutcheons at the top of the retable again give valuable information about its facture. These have been identified as those of Alonso de Argüello, de Grajal’s successor as bishop of Sigüenza, who served in the position from 1417, again showing the import of the painter’s work and his fruitful workshop in the city which appears to have worked regularly and busily for the clergy there.
Prior to the unification of the kingdoms of Spain under Isabelle of Castile and Ferdinand of Aragon in 1469, the city of Sigüenza was situated within the Kingdom of Castile and León, encompassing most of northern and north-western Spain. During the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, the Castillian kingdom was troubled by political and dynastic feuds amongst the ruling classes and a poor economy which relied heavily on the export of wool (which saw great competition from English and Netherlandish markets). This consequently led to a relative dearth in patronage during the early decades of the fifteenth century, especially in comparison to the more prosperous Kingdom of Aragon, which maintained a much richer artistic output. The present triptych, therefore, represents what must have been a significant commission at the time. Given what is known about the artist from the other works associated with him, it is likely that the Triptych of the Passion of Christ was indeed made in Sigüenza and, since both of the identified patrons for Juan de Sevilla’s were bishops of the city, that it may also have been commissioned by a prominent member of the city’s ecclesiastical circle.
The relatively small-scale of the work suggests that the painting would have been intended for private devotion. The movable wing panels too suggest a purpose other than that of an altar retable. The majority of Spanish pictures of the fifteenth century tended to be fixed, without any moving elements (though sometimes a cupboard or tabernacle was incorporated into the banco or predella). The fashion for devotional objects which could be opened and closed was more typical in northern Europe, predominantly France and the Netherlands. While the influence of Netherlandish painting only really began to be felt in Spain during the second half of the fifteenth century (though in some cities, like Barcelona and Valencia, the influence was felt as early as the 1430s) the movable wings of the present triptych suggests some knowledge of a northern design and prototype. The style of the painting, however, shows the clear influence of Italian painting and, indeed, the triptych was long believed to be by an Italian hand. The framing elements, however, betray its Spanish origin and comparison to other works in the Sevilla/ Peralta group show a homogeneity of style, particularly, for example, in the Crucifixion which surmounts the Toledo Museum of Art Retable of Saint Andrew where the figure of Christ, crowds gathering beneath the Cross and grieving Magdalene at its base can be recognised from the present triptych.