The Marriage of the Virgin, by Bartolomé Esteban Murillo. P14
The Marriage of the Virgin of c. 1670, one of Bartolomé Esteban Murillo’s great masterpieces, is currently on show in the exhibition Murillo at the Wallace Collection: Spanish Painting of the Golden Age. This exhibition allows the visitor to rediscover Murillo as one of the great painters of seventeenth-century Europe.
The subject has no Biblical source but is found in the Golden Legend and the Apocryphal New Testament. When Mary was fourteen, she refused to leave the temple to look for a husband, as Zacharias, the high priest, directed. God ordered that her suitors come to the temple carrying a staff, and that she was to marry the suitor whose rod flowered. Murillo depicts Zacharias blessing the marriage of Mary to Joseph, whose rod has burst into flower just as the Holy Spirit descends upon them in the form of a dove. They are married in the presence of the unsuccessful suitors, who stand behind Joseph. One angry suitor breaks his rod over his knee. Murillo reduces the age gap between the Virgin and Joseph by making her appear older than her years, and Joseph younger.
This painting stands out for its brilliant pairings of warm and cool hues, thus demonstrating Murillo’s great skill as a colourist, inspired by the works of Rubens, Van Dyck, Venetian and Central Italian painters he may have seen during a visit to the Royal Collection in Madrid in 1658. Murillo combines various compositional tricks with his free brushwork to enliven what could be a somewhat static subject. The soft modelling of is characteristic of Murillo’s celebrated ‘vaporous’ style that became increasingly pronounced in his later years (1665-1682). The background figures particularly lose their colour and outline as they recede into space.
This panel also demonstrates Murillo’s ability to work on a relatively small scale. The format suggests that it was made for a private collection, where it could be viewed close-up. This work can be compared with a group of equally exquisite small-scale paintings, including miniatures, also made for private collections, which form a fascinating yet lesser-known part of the artist’s work.
The Marriage of the Virgin is painted on a very precious support: mahogany, a tropical hardwood native to Central and South America. The panel must therefore come from one of the areas that comprised ‘New Spain’, as it was known in the seventeenth century. Murillo’s native city of Seville and Cadiz were the two leading ports for Atlantic trade, at which precious cargoes from the Americas arrived. Several collectors of Murillo’s works were themselves merchants involved in such trade. Murillo also painted on obsidian, a volcanic stone from Mexico.
The original owner of the painting has not been identified. It was first documented in the Spanish Royal Collection in the 1770s, shortly before the Spanish King Charles III issued an edict to ban the export of paintings by Murillo and other Spanish artists. Charles III’s wish was not fulfilled: the painting came into the possession of Napoleon’s brother Joseph, King of Spain (1808-1813), who took it with him to Paris. It was bought in 1848 by the 4th Marquess of Hertford through a Parisian dealer, when the demand for Murillos in Britain and France was at its height.
Gallery Talks: 1st of March and 11th March at 1pm with Dr Lucy Davis
John Ingamells, The Wallace Collection. Catalogue of Pictures I, British, German, Italian and Spanish, The Wallace Collection, London, 1985;
Stephen Duffy and Jo Hedley, The Wallace Collection’s Pictures. A complete catalogue, The Wallace Collection, London, rev. ed. 2011
Gabriele Finaldi, ed.,Murillo & Justino de Neve: The Art of Friendship, exh. cat. , Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid/Hospital de la Venerables Sacerdotes, Seville/Dulwich Picture Gallery, London, 2012-2013.