Executed in the graceful and airy style typical of Murillo’s work of the 1660s, this recently rediscovered painting is an exciting addition the corpus of Murillo’s autograph works. The subject of the Immaculate Conception of the Virgin, or Inmaculada, was one that Murillo treated on numerous occasions with such success and popularity that his representations would become the standard iconography for the doctrine. Though the present composition is unique in terms of the precise arrangement of the figures and drapery, stylistically, it aligns with Murillo’s mature works, which he painted in Seville following his 1658 stay in Madrid, where he not only studied the works of Renaissance masters but also embraced the innovations of Diego Velázquez. Comparisons with the large canvases he produced for the Seville Cathedral, Santa María la Blanca, such as his Birth of the Virgin (Louvre, Paris) and his Dream of the Patriarch (Prado, Madrid), reveal a similar technique of blending form and color to create an ethereal softness and dynamic sense of movement. Conceived with energetic and fluid brushwork, this beautiful, young Virgin anticipates, as Jonathan Brown notes (loc. cit.), the analogous figures in the monumental Inmaculadas from the 70s that Murillo produced for Aranjuez and La Granja (Prado, Madrid and Cleveland Museum of Art, respectively).
The debate surrounding Virgin’s immaculacy -- that she was born free from sin and thereby was a pure vessel for Christ’s birth -- was one of the most divisive in the history of the Church. Two arguments were central to the quarrel: that of the immaculatists, championed by the Franciscans, held that the Virgin had been immaculately conceived without original sin, while the sanctification doctrine, advanced by the Dominicans, proposed that Mary had been conceived in sin but was purified in the womb of her mother. In 1661, in large part due to pressure and advocacy from Spain, Pope Alexander VII issued a papal bull that officially declared the Virgin Mary immune to original sin and forbade any future discussion of the issue. While in the rest of Europe the cult of the Immaculate Conception remained controversial, in Spain and particularly in Seville, the papal declaration supporting the immaculatists' position resulted in public rejoicing. Murillo's vision of the Immaculate Conception showing an adolescent girl dressed in the purest white and blue, standing on a sliver of moon lifted heavenwards by a host of playful cherubs, became the archetypal image of this complex and abstract theological concept.
Works on copper like this one belong to a special category of Spanish Baroque cabinet pictures that frequently appear in 17th-century inventories, often without attributions but nearly always with high valuations, where they are described as láminas (literally, paintings on a hard support, this has been understood to mean works painted on precious metals such as copper or silver as well as exotic stones). William B. Jordan has drawn attention to the deep appreciation that Murillo’s great patrons and collectors held for his láminas, noting that the inventories of connoisseurs such as Justino de Neve, the canon of the Cathedral of Seville and the Flemish merchants Nicolás Omazur and Joshua van Belle, record numerous such works (see W.B. Jordan, “A Forgotten Legacy. Murillo’s Cabinet Pictures on Stone, Metal and Wood”, in Bartolomé Estaban Murillo (1617-1682). Paintings from American Private Collections, exhibition catalogue, 2002, pp. 63-73). Murillo’s láminas were conceived as independent works intended for personal devotion, as opposed to his small-scale preparatory sketches, which are freer and more summarily executed. Indeed, Murillo’s works on copper exhibit what Jordan describes as an “exquisite balance of spontaneity and finish” (ibid., p. 73).
In his catalogue raisonné, Angulo Iñiguez includes just three small láminas of the Inmaculada (although one was mistakenly described as on canvas). The first was formerly in the Georges Vivian collection at Claverton Manor, Bath (27.5 x 18.4 cm.; sold Sotheby’s, London, 10 July 2003, lot 43 for £300,000; see A. Iñiguez, Murillo, Madrid, 1981, II, p. 364, no. 719.). A second appears in the 1788 inventory of the Prince of the Asturias, the future King Charles IV, among his cabinet pictures in the Casita del Principe at the Escorial (probably the 47 x 33.5 cm. copper panel now in the Arango Collection, Madrid; see ibid., p. 371, no. 719). A final example was documented by Palomino and Ceán Bermudez in the Sacristy in La Cartuja, Granada, as measuring ½ vara (c. 42 cm.; see ibid., p. 365, no. 726). To this list may be added the one formerly in the Forum Filatélico collection (96 x 64 cm.), bought by the Spanish State and currently exhibited in the Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes de Sivilla. As the dimensions of the present copper panel are close to the one recorded in La Cartuja, Granada, it is tempting to hypothesize that they are one and the same.
As Jonathan Brown has noted, a preparatory study for the present work, executed in red and black chalk, is in the Kunsthalle, Hamburg (fig. 1; J. Brown, loc. cit.; for the drawing, see J. Brown, Murillo: Virtuoso Draftsman, New Haven and London, 2012, no. 22). In this drawing, which is dated October 17, 1660, Murillo is clearly working out the group of three putti that appears at the lower center in the present work. Clearly, the master had not fully resolved his composition when he began painting the copper panel: pentiments are visible at the edge of the Virgin’s blue cloak and in the lower group of angels, where Murillo modified the position of the arms.
For his support, Murillo used an engraver’s plate (fig. 2) representing the Great Martyrdom of 1622. The plate is entitled “Triunfo de los religiosos de la provincial de Ntra. Sra. del Rosario de Philippinas de la orden de predicadores tostados a fuego lento por predicadores del Sto. Evangelio en el reyno de Japon Ao 1622”. It depicts the immolation and decapitation of priests and preachers in Nagasaki - according to the inscription, an event that was observed by over 60,000 spectators. At left, the Governor of Nagasaki issues the death sentence and observes the execution of Alonso Navarrete, one of the principal missionaries was killed a few years earlier in 1617. A key at the bottom of the engraving identifies the most important martyrs, including Tomás de Zumárraga, Jacinto Orfanell-Prades, Ángel Ferrer Orsuchi, and Francisco Morales. It is striking that Murillo chose this particular engraver's plate as support, since it would have been more economical to use a thinner sheet of copper, as was the norm in this period. Most likely, he found the contrast between the Virgin's beautiful divinity and the powerful sacrifices made by the martyrs spiritually compelling.
In addition to Jonathan Brown, both Ignacio Cano and William B. Jordan have confirmed the attribution on the basis of firsthand inspection and date the painting to around 1660.