Luis de Morales (Spanish, Plasencia (?) 1510/11–1586 Alcántara)
Oil on walnut
35 × 24 5/8 in. (89 × 62.5 cm)
Purchase, Alejandro Santo Domingo and Annette de la Renta Gifts; Bequests of George D. Pratt and of Annette B. McFadden, and Gifts of Estate of George Quackenbush, in his memory, of Dr. and Mrs. Max A. Goldzieher, of Francis Neilson, of Dr. Foo Chu and Dr. Marguerite Hainje-Chu, of Mr. and Mrs. Harold H. Burns, and of Mr. and Mrs. Joshua Logan, and other gifts and bequests, by exchange; Victor Wilbour Fund; and Hester Diamond Gift, 2015
Active in the town of Badajoz, in western Spain, Luis de Morales was celebrated for his devotional images. Their exquisite facture and morbid sensibility made them perfect vehicles for meditation and earned him the epithet of "El Divino." He was the favorite painter of the religious reformer and saint Juan de Ribera (1532–1611). As one prominent scholar has noted: "No Spanish painter was ever to surpass Morales in expressing the passionate, personal faith of the mystical writers." This extremely fine picture was owned by Pope Pius VII and upon his death in 1823 passed to his family, who retained it until 2014.
The Artist: Luis de Morales is one of the defining painters of sixteenth-century Spain. Indeed, despite the conspicuous difference in artistic ambition and stature, he is scarcely less important for an understanding of Spanish art in the age of the Counter-Reformation than El Greco, who mined the same vein of intense spirituality, albeit with strikingly different results. The exquisite facture and morbid sensibility of Morales’s devotional paintings made them perfect vehicles for meditation and, according to Antonio Palomino (1653–1726)—the author of our major source for biographical information in El Museo pictórico (vol. 3, 1724)—earned him the epithet of “El Divino.” What makes his work so important to any history of Spanish art is the way his images complement the practice of mental prayer that was at the center of the religious life of the great Spanish mystics, such as Saint Teresa of Ávila (1515–1582) and Saint John of the Cross (1542–1591). The character of Morales’s intensely-felt images, of which this painting is an extremely fine example, has been related to such influential religious texts as Fray Luís de Granada’s Libro de la oracíon y meditacíon (The Book of Prayer and Meditation, 1554, revised 1566; for a discussion of this aspect of Morales’s art, see Alfonso Rodriguez de Ceballas, “El mundo espiritual del pintor Luis de Morales. En el IV centenario de su muerte" in Goya: Revista de arte No.196, 1987, pp. 194–203). Indeed, it has been said: “No Spanish painter was ever to surpass Morales in expressing the passionate, personal faith of the mystical writers.” (see Jonathan Brown, The Golden Age of Painting in Spain, New Haven, 1991, p. 52).
The date of Morales’s birth has been debated. According to Palomino, it was 1509, corresponding with the artist's own declaration, in 1584, that he was seventy-three or –four years of age (but for an alternative view see Isabel Mateo Gómez, "Flandes, Portugal y Toledo en la obra de Luis de Morales: las Vírgenes gitanas o del sombrero," Archivo Español de Arte LXXX, 317, 2007, p. 8 n. 2). It has long been conjectured that he spent time in Seville in the workshop of the Flemish painter Pedro de Campaña (Pieter de Kempeneer, 1503–1586), who is documented there in 1537, but since Morales was already active independently in 1535, it is perhaps more likely that he got his artistic training in Castile (on this, see Ruiz 2015, p. 39). His earliest dated work is a Madonna and Child of 1546, painted for the hospital of San Andrés but now in the church of San Augustin, Madrid. One of his most important surviving retables was for Arroyo del Puerco (Arroyo de la Luz) near Cáceres (1560–68). In 1564 he painted the portrait of the new, reform-minded bishop of Badajoz, Juan de Ribera (1532–1611), whose favored painter he became (the portrait is in the Museo del Prado; a triptych with Juan de Ribera shown in one of the shutters is in the Museo de Bellas Artes, Cádiz). Juan de Ribera had attended the Council of Trent, which laid out guidelines for the function of religious images, and his reforming zeal was crucial to Morales’s art—especially for his devotional panels. We know, in fact, that in 1567, Morales was contracted by Juan de Ribera to paint two pictures showing Christ at the column with Saint Peter and two of the Virgin dressed as a gypsy with the Christ Child. These works provided models that were repeated in the workshop, with variations. Even before then, in 1564, it seems that Morales’s work had come to the attention of Philip II, who in that year is said to have given a painting showing the dead Christ (Cristo Nazareno) with the Virgin and Saint John to the royal monastic foundation of San Jerónimo in Madrid. According to Palomino, Morales was summoned by the king to the Escorial, who, however, realized that he while excelled in the painting of works for private devotion, he was less talented for the job of painting the many altarpieces required for the Escorial. That task went instead, in 1568, to Juan Fernández Navarrete (1526–1579), called El Mudo.
Morales had two sons (born 1551 and 1554) and five daughters, one of whom took the veil in 1581 (for a documentary survey of his life, from which this summary is drawn, see Carmelo Solis Rodriguez, Luis de Morales, Fundación Caja de Badajoz, 1999; and, more recently—and with different documentary material—Luis Zolle in Ruiz 2015, pp. 227–54).
The Picture: The Virgin, flanked on her right by Mary Magdalen and on her left by Saint John the Evangelist, is shown supporting her dead son, her veiled head gently tilted, her noble face expressive of contained, dignified sorrow. In her arm she cradles the dead body of her son, with its shockingly described head, the signs of his tormented, violent death indicated with unflinching precision. The Virgin’s left hand gently presses against the flesh of her son’s chest, offering a further contrast between the living and the dead. The two assisting figures, their faces ringed by beautifully rendered curling locks of hair, are shown mourning, with crystalline tears coursing down their cheeks. As is so often the case with Morales, there is an obsessive concern with details that draw the viewer in: the inordinately long eyelashes and individual strands of hair (Palomino notes, “the hair was executed so finely and so delicately that it made even those who are most versed in art want to blow on it to see it move”); the tears that course down the cheeks of the Magdalen and Saint John; the rivulet of blood that trickles down Christ’s neck, pooling in his shoulder blade and then continuing down his breast; the delicately edged, transparent veil the Magdalen holds to her face; and the wood grain of the cross. In this way, sites for meditation are established. In devotional literature tears were encouraged as a spiritual gift. The incipient beard on John’s chin establish his youth and status as a pure virgin—a counterpoint to the Magdalen’s past. The Virgin’s breast, with which she had nursed the infant Christ, is poignantly shown through her garment next to his dead body: a common theme of medieval diptychs was the Madonna and Child in one wing and Christ as the Man of Sorrows in the other. The wood of the cross locates the figures on Calvary, where Christ has been taken down from the cross, but the background is black, eliminating any further reference to time or place. The emphasis is on a meditational recreation of the scene rather than a narrative of an event.
In this work, which is notable for the sculptural character of the figures, Morales combines features from the two great schools of Renaissance painting: the detailed realism of Netherlandish practice and the compositional clarity of Italian painting. But there is also an archaic intention in the simple grouping of the three half-length figures. As noted in the biographical summary, according to Palomino Morales was summoned by Philip II to work at the Escorial. There he would have seen the work of Rogier van der Weyden (1399–1464) as well as the devotional images of Sebastiano del Piombo (ca. 1485–1547). It is the programmed intermixing of these two currents of European painting that gives his art its peculiarly compelling character: at once austerely simple and obsessively detailed. The iconographic formula of the Virgin and the dead Christ aligned along a central axis, flanked by the Magdalen and Saint John the Evangelist, has a long lineage stretching back to Byzantine models and was notably treated by Hans Memling in a painting in the Capilla Real of Granada cathedral. Morales and his workshop treated the theme of the Pietà repeatedly, but most often with the dead Christ shown parallel to the picture plane, his head thrown back along a diagonal, and the Virgin with her body viewed frontally. What is unusual in the MMA painting is the foreshortening of Christ’s body and the notable torsion of the Virgin’s—traits that underscore its ambitious character and its debt to Italian models. Two copies—neither of high quality—are known: one in the Museo Lazaro Galdiano, Madrid; the other sold at Sotheby’s, New York in January 2005. In a Pietà in the parish church of Polán, near Toledo, the figure of Christ is clearly derived from the same cartoon or template as The Met’s picture, whereas the Virgin is frontally posed and shown in isolation and is taken from a different one; the resulting image has a less powerfully sculptural effect. The Polán picture is in every way inferior to The Met’s painting, being less detailed, more generalized, and more planar in its treatment of the foreshortened figure of Christ. (Curiously, Mena Marqués—who, however, had not seen The Met’s painting—inverted this obvious relationship: see Ruiz Gómez 2015). The figure of the Magdalen in The Met’s picture reappears, with her gesture altered, in the wing of a triptych in the Museo del Prado. That is a work that, given the smaller scale of the Virgin and Christ in the center panel vis-à-vis that of the figures in the wings, was apparently assembled in Morales’s workshop from various panels he had on hand. A technical examination of the center panel of that work has shown how designs were used in the workshop (see the contribution in Ruiz Gómez 2015, pp. 220–22). The Polán Pietà and the Prado triptych are both dated to the 1560s, and this seems the most likely date for The Met's painting as well. Examination of the picture with infra-red reflectography has revealed a delicate drawing done in parallel hatching in a dry medium. Similar drawings have been documented in other works by the artist.
The work is mentioned in an inventory of the contents of the Palazzo Chiaramonti in Cesena drawn up prior to 1859. The palace was acquired in 1807 by Pope Pius VII for his nephew Scipione Chiaramonti. It seems likely that the picture was owned by the pope and inherited by his nephew. When Pius died in in the Quirinale Palace in Rome in 1823, his privately owned works had been moved to another apartment in the building, the Soglia (later Meniconi) apartment, which was in the first corridor of the Panetteria. There one finds listed a picture of the Pietà in a gold frame, under glass; this is the way the present picture was kept throughout the time it was in the Chiaramonti palace and thus the two may be one and the same work. If this is so, it raises the question of how Pius VII acquired the picture. Had it been a diplomatic gift to the pope?
[Keith Christiansen 2015]
?Pope Pius VII, Rome (until d. 1823); his nephew, conte Scipione Chiaramonti, Palazzo Chiaramonti, Cesena (1823–d. 1833); Chiaramonti family, Palazzo Chiaramonti (1833–2014; inv., 1853, no. 2, as "Mezza figura di un Cristo morto in grembo alla addolorata Madre, che lo tiene abbracciato colla destra sul petto, e colla sinistra lo sostiene, Qualè la S[an]ta M[ari]a Maddalena, e S[anto] Giovanni"; sold to Orsi); [Galleria Carlo Orsi, Milan, 2014–15; sold to MMA]
New York. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. "European Paintings: Recent Acquisitions 2015–16," December 12, 2016–March 26, 2017, no catalogue.
List of works hanging in the Soglia (later Meniconi) apartment in the Panetteria, Quirinal Palace. September 3, 1823, unpaginated, as "altro rappr. la Pietà, con cornice dorata e cristallo".
Giuseppe Marocco. Monumenti dello Stato Pontificio e relazione topografica di ogni paese. Vol. 13, Rome, 1836, p. 173, as in the Chiaramonti collection; calls it a superb work by Morales.
Inventario della galeria de' quadri esistenti negli appartamenti del palazzo in Cesena della nobile famiglia Chiaramonti. February 23, 1853, no. 2, as "Mezza figura di un Cristo morto in grembo alla addolorata Madre, che lo tiene abbracciato colla destra sul petto, e colla sinistra lo sostiene, Qualè la S[an]ta M[ari]a Maddalena, e S[anto] Giovanni," 0.90 x 0.65, located in the bedroom.
Gioacchino Sassi. Reliquie le più insigni che esistono in questa cattedrale ed in tutte le altre chiese della città e diocesi di Cesena. 1865, p. 65 [Biblioteca Comunale Malatestiana, Cesena, ms. 164.70.9], as "Deposizione della Croce di N[ostro] S[ignore] del Morales Pietro giudicato il Raffaele della Spagna," in the Palazzo Chiaramonti.
Corrado Ricci. "Corrado Ricci a Cesena." Il Cittadino 16 (May 15, 1904), p. ?, on a visit to the Chiaramonti collection, attributes the work—then believed to be by Murillo—to Morales, calling it the finest work by the artist that he knew.
Manuela B. Mena Marqués inThe Divine Morales. Ed. Leticia Ruiz Gómez. Exh. cat., Museo Nacional del Prado. Madrid, 2015, p. 162, fig. 42 (color), calls it "a replica of some quality and similar dimensions" to a "Pietà" in the parish church of San Pedro y San Pablo, Polán (Toledo).