Spain was one of the great world powers in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. At its peak, Spanish
rule extended over Portugal, southern Italy, Flanders, and much of the Americas. The Spanish courts
especially appreciated early Flemish painting—works by van der Weyden and Bosch are among the
treasures of the Spanish royal collections—and Spanish painting from the late fifteenth and early
sixteenth centuries shows many Flemish characteristics. Philip II, who was king in the mid-sixteenth
century, was also one of Titian’s best patrons, so it is a bit strange that Titian’s style did not influence
Spanish painting more. The answer to this puzzle may be found in the fact that the paintings for Philip II
were almost all private, erotic works, while most other commissions were awarded by the Catholic
Church, which was conservative and controlling, especially during the Counter-Reformation in the late
sixteenth century.
The one Spanish artist from the sixteenth century who is probably
familiar to students is Domenikos Theotokopoulos, known as El
Greco (“The Greek”). Born in Crete, influenced by Byzantine art, and
trained in Venice, El Greco arrived in Spain when he was thirty years
old, after having developed a highly personalized variation of
mannerism. His figures are elongated and flamelike, and his palette
is dominated by black and brilliant flashes of gold. Although El
Greco’s style did not have a lasting impression on later Spanish
painters, it does represent an intense spirituality found in some
Spanish art in the baroque period.
In the seventeenth century, Spanish painting entered what has been
called a “golden age.” At the beginning of the century, Caravaggio’s style arrived in Spain either in the
form of copies and prints or by way of Spanish artists working in Naples (a Spanish territory in this time).
The dramatic contrasts of Caravaggio’s style and his use of ordinary looking people as models appealed to
a wide variety of Spanish painters. But they were not mere followers; each of this period’s great masters
added his own personal stamp to Caravaggio’s manner.
The Catholic Church was a powerful presence in Spain, and this was especially true in the late sixteenth
and early seventeenth centuries when the Counter-Reformation was at its height. Counter-Reformation
critics wanted art to impact people emotionally so that they would be inspired to uphold their faith when
faced with so-called heretical beliefs. Images of martyrs who died for their faith were especially
important; often it seems the bloodier the scene, the better. These paintings often depict people who
resemble the working class as a way to encourage identification of this group with the heroic saint. But
there is also an intensely personal, mystical side to Spanish religion that is given visual form in the work of
artists like Francisco de Zurbarán. There is little movement in his paintings, like the Martyrdom of St.
Serapion. This quality has been associated with a strain of mysticism called Quietism, which saw a life of
withdrawal and silence as a way to become one with God.
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