Arts / Entertainment

Look Closer: This is a Symbolic Tribute to the Mother of God

Francisco de Zurburan's work may appear to be nothing special, but that's because you don't know his symbolic language.

Looking at Bodegones


As promised last week, the image that we will be looking at today is a form of still life known as the bodegón (kitchen or tavern scene).  The Spanish bodegones tended to be more specifically religious than their Northern European counterparts, and were often quite literally a visual metaphor for a spiritual reality.

Our painting is by the Spanish artist Francisco de Zurburan (1598-1664), Seville’s leading religious painter of that time. The work is entitled “Still Life with Basket of Oranges” (1633).  But don’t be misled by such a mundane title for a painting that is – I hope you agree – sumptuous in its realistic detail, while at the same time revealing what I can only describe as exquisite simplicity.  The work in fact pays homage to the Virgin Mary, which might seem an extraordinary statement, but if you begin to read around the subject in various art history publications you will find that most of them make this affirmation.  However, there is an aside matter that we need to consider first.

Like fine art itself, art history in the 20th and 21st centuries has become a very diminished subject when it comes to the study of Christian art.  The reason behind this is a very simple but obvious one, and it involves the lack of theological formation.  I have quite often followed the guides around the National Gallery in London and listened to them ‘unpack’ the content of sacred paintings to their willing audiences.  However, more often than not, what people are being told about Christian content is at best diminished and at worst completely wrong.  Here is an example: The book Still Life by Norbert Schneider is a good study of the still life genre, offering many excellent insights.  However, in concluding a study of a vanitas painting by the 17th century Italian artist Evarist Baschenis (a Catholic priest), he describes the dark baroque background, which stands in sharp contrast to bold light falling upon dusty wooden instruments, as perhaps reflecting the ‘melancholic mood’ of the artist.  

It is important to point out that the baroque movement in art, into which both the Baschenis and the Zurburan are categorized, was originally a deeply spiritual Catholic response of the Counter-Reformation to the stark ideology of the Protestant Reformation.  If you search in Google Images for the paintings of Caravaggio, you will immediately notice the intense contrast of dark and light within the works.  This was intentional: the light represents the light of grace in the symbolism of the baroque, while the dark is that of sin in the world.  The striking contrast of dark and light is called chiaroscuro, and today the device is little more than a style, but in the 17th century, its meaning was deeply significant. Indeed, it is quite disturbing that a historian of Scheider’s calibre had failed to note this.  I do not have the space to develop this further, but it is important that you be aware of the problems surrounding this subject.

In Zurbaran’s image, the chiaroscuro is used intentionally to convey the depths of John 1:5: “…and light shines in darkness, and darkness could not overpower it.”  Our Lady overturned the darkness of Eve’s disobedience through her simple “yes” to God; she is the perfect embodiment of the obedience of faith.  Zurburan attempts to convey such truth through the fusion of ultra-realism (another aspect of the Baroque) and mysticism. Indeed, his works are often described as ascetic.  

There is a reason for this.  Like in the iconographic tradition, his work aims to inspire prayer and quiet contemplation, and he achieves this not only through the combination of ‘ultra’ realism and chiaroscuro but also through the arrangement of the objects and through the use of space between them.

Let us try to unravel this.  It helps to have the de Gheyn (from last week’s discussion) and the Zurburan on hand on your computer.  Take a look at the de Gheyn once again and note what your eyes are doing.  There is a sense of excitement or perhaps restlessness when looking at the de Gheyn; one cannot help but look at each object in no particular order. The eyes of the viewer are kept moving, rather like a butterfly fluttering from one flower to the next, without coming to rest upon any particular one.  The senses are quite literally bombarded with symbolism.  

Now look at the Zurburan.  The pace is almost processional; one tends to look at each object in turn, moving from one side of the painting to the other, and then back again.  Zurburan creates a subtle flowing movement, rather like a slow-moving river, and he does this through a precise use of measurement.  Mathematics creeps into the work; the space between the objects presents a sense of exact calculation, in the manner of points evenly spaced along a straight line.  If one were to insert another object, then the dynamics would be lost – in fact, this work has been x-rayed, and Zurburan originally included a silver plate of crystalized sweet potato, but removed them in favour of this very precise arrangement.  The viewer is quietly invited to contemplate these three points in space. This is not a ‘quirk’ belonging to Zurburan alone.  If you search for Juan Sánchez Cotán, you will find that his depictions of food items takes the mathematical in art to the extreme.  He tried to create a visual form of the Ignatian spiritual exercises.  Spirituality underlines the Spanish bodegone.

Of course, aiding Zurburan’s arrangement is the intense but warm glow of studio light, which falls at a precise angle of 45 degrees upon the objects and stands in stark contrast to the darkness surrounding the scene in front of us.  His use of chiaroscuro gives the objects form and ‘solidness’ – the viewer gets a real sense of the weight of each object pressing down on the surface of the highly polished tabletop.

Let’s now consider the objects.  These are humble everyday objects, and in a sense there is nothing more appropriate to use in a visual metaphor of Our Lady.  In her Magnificat in Luke’s Gospel, Mary describes herself as a lowly servant of the Lord (Luke 1:48).  However, each of the objects bears its own significance.  

In the still life tradition of Northern Europe, lemons were an item of luxury since they had to be imported from Spain, and so were largely used in a negative way.  However, here in the country of origin, lemons were a humble fruit, and therefore represented faithfulness or fidelity, thereby becoming an important Marian symbol.  Alongside this, it is interesting to note that the citron has played an important role in the Jewish Feast of Tabernacles over a very long period of time.  In Christianity, Mary becomes the living Tabernacle of the Lord, a link that should not be overlooked.

The basket of oranges plays a similar role.  Filled to the brim, it represents bounty and fruitfulness, but more important are the leaves and blossom of the fruit that rest gently on the top of the oranges.  A distinctive feature of the fruit tree is the simultaneous bearing of fruit and blossom – the blossoms have therefore become representative of fecundity (fertility, fruitfulness).  Do you begin to get a sense of how this image is becoming Marian?

Placed almost tenderly beside the fruit is the small cup – a vessel of clay reminding us of Adam and here, more importantly, Eve, because Mary is the New Eve.  Water fills the cup, and there lies a single rose positioned at its side.  Water is usually used to represent baptism, and certainly here there is also the suggestion of membership in the Church with Mary as its Mother, but in this case it also represents her purity – this is where the rose comes in.  Mary is sometimes called the “Mystical Rose” because of her participation in the Holy Trinity as Heaven’s Rose.  So we have here not only a precise reference to Mary, but also a Trinitarian reference, for the rose can also represent divine love.  Do you now see the importance of the three items, whose distance from each other is exact?

It is interesting to note that this particular work is Zurburan’s only signed and dated still life, which perhaps only serves to demonstrate how important this work was to him.  It is certainly a work that, once a viewer is aware of the language (which would have been much more widely understood in the 17th century), opens us to a profound depth of beauty, stillness, and contemplation.  It perhaps serves us in a similar way to the Fra Angelico we discussed two weeks ago by giving us a choice in our contemplation, directing us away from the worldliness around us.  But in this case, it differs in that now we are being asked to contemplate the beauty and grace of God that can be found within the things of this world.