Art/ Collection/ Art Object
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The Holy Family with Saints Anne and Joachim

Artist:
Diego de Pesquera (Spanish, Castile (?), ca. 1540–after 1581, Mexico (?), active 1563–80)
Date:
1567–68
Culture:
Spanish, Granada
Medium:
Wood, painted and gilt
Dimensions:
Overall (confirmed): H. 62 3/8 x W. 41 7/8 x D. 4 in. (158.4 x 106.4 x 10.2 cm)
Classification:
Sculpture
Credit Line:
Bequest of Helen Hay Whitney, 1944
Accession Number:
45.128.5
On view at The Met Fifth Avenue in Gallery 535
Collaboration between sculptors and painters produced a distinctive tradition of polychromed wood sculpture that is a highlight of Spanish Renaissance and Baroque art. In The Holy Family with Saints Anne and Joachim the figures’ different ages and sex give full scope to expressive carving as well as to the coloring of flesh tones and patterning of drapery. The relief shows two couples, the men standing behind their seated wives —  Mary and Joseph to the left and Mary’s parents, Anne and Joachim, to the right. Their glances and gestures join at the Christ Child, sprawled across Mary’s lap. The circle of hands —  from Joachim’s to Christ’s to Mary’s, and back to Anne’s —  connect these figures while focusing the viewer’s attention on the Child. Fingers touch and eyes glance with the ease and intimacy of a family gathering. In contrast to the adults, whose stances are stable, the large Christ Child wriggles. Off-balance, he causes the adults to react; they lean in to support him with their legs and hands. Only Joseph stands back, pensively looking down on the Child and his mother. The miracle of the Immaculate Conception, a particularly important tenet of the Catholic Church at that moment in Spain, is underscored by Mary’s parents, whose presence reminds us that Mary’s own birth was normal and that Christ’s was not.[1]

While the sculptor has created a striking composition, he left ample opportunity for painters to embellish his work. Typically, specialists in rendering flesh (encarnadores) and in patterning drapery (estofadores) would divide this labor.[2] Mary’s face is rendered with pale, smooth skin and a blush on the cheeks, while Anne’s has sunken cheeks and swarthier skin tones. The Virgin’s headdress reveals her golden tresses, while Anne’s hair is fully covered. If the encarnador has given character to the figures, the estofador has tied the whole relief together with sumptuous color and pattern. Once the carver relinquished his panel to the painters, layers of gesso were applied, and then a bole —  clay mixed with animal glue —  was added as a matrix for sheets of gold leaf, brushed and burnished on the surface. Pigments were daubed over the gold leaf and then designs were scratched into the paint layers to create patterns, revealing the brilliant gold beneath. The relatively flat passages of carved drapery made the painters’ job easier, while occasional pleats and wrinkles added verisimilitude as well as liveliness. For variety, some portions of the cloth were left simply gilded with embossed and scratched patterns. Even the background of the relief is patterned, as if the family is grouped before a rich canopy. Were the figures not so plastic and powerful, their outlines would fade or disappear before the brilliant effects of the fictive cloth.

When the sculpture was first acquired by the Museum, it was attributed to one of the best-known masters of the Renaissance, Diego de Siloé.[3] A decade later, the art historian Manuel Gómez-Moreno was able to identify it as the work of another accomplished master, Diego de Pesquera, who divided his career between Granada (from 1563 to 1572) and Seville.[4] On April 27, 1567, before he left Granada, he was commissioned to make a retablo —  an altarpiece decorated with reliefs, of which this is one —  for a parish church in nearby Los Ojijares. Payments suggest that the relief was finished by December 24 of the following year. A related relief of nearly identical dimensions by the same artist, Joachim and Anna before the Golden Gate, remains in situ in a three-level retablo; its structure is supported by fluted columns that create lateral panels for paintings by Juan de la Palenque and Miguel Leonardo.[5] The names of the persons who painted the Museum’s relief are not known, but they are unlikely to be the same as those of the artists who executed the panel paintings, which would have been produced by members of a different guild. The relief now in the Museum was sold by the church in 1881.[6]

[Ian Wardropper. European Sculpture, 1400–1900, In the Metropolitan Museum of Art. New York, 2011, no. 26, pp. 84–86.]

Footnotes:

[1] See Suzanne L. Stratton. The Immaculate Conception in Spanish Art. New York, 1994.

[2] An excellent recent discussion of these techniques is Daphne Barbour and Judy Ozone. "The Making of a Seventeenth-Century Spanish Polychrome Sculpture." In The Sacred Made Real: Spanish Painting and Sculpture, 1600–1700, pp. 59–71. Exh. cat. by Xavier Bray, with Alfonso Rodríguez G. Ceballos et al. National Gallery, London; National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.; 2009–10. London, 2009.

[3] John Goldsmith Phillips. In Richard C. Jebb, "The Classical Renaissance" (texts accompanying illustrations on pp. 75–91). Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin, n.s., 5, no. 3 (November 1946), pp. 73–100, p. 81. This attribution also appeared in John Goldsmith Phillips. "The Renaissance Galleries." Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin, n.s., 12, no. 6 (February 1954), pp. 145–68, p. 146.

[4] Manuel Gómez-Moreno. "Diego de Pesquera, escultor." Archivio español de arte 28, no. 112 (October–December 1955), pp. 289–304, pp. 293 – 95.

[5] The relief and its retablo are illustrated in ibid., respectively, pl. i, fig. 3, pl. i, fig. 1.

[6] Ibid., p. 294.
Helen Hay Whitney (until 1944; bequeathed to MMA)
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