Velázquez | Murillo |Sevilla

This year is the 400th anniversary of the birth of Bartolome Murillo, probably Sevilla’s most famous painter, and has been officially declared the Year of Murillo. As part of the commemorations the Fundación Focus-Abengoa, in collaboration with the Prado Museum, London’s National Gallery, and others, has organised a very special exhibition comparing the work of Murillo and Sevilla’s other most famous painter, Diego Velázquez.

velazquez murilloThe two painters, born in Seville a generation apart (Velazquez in 1599 and Murillo in 1617), and having their formative influences there, nevertheless had quite different career trajectories, Velazquez leaving Seville to work at the Spanish court in Madrid in 1623, while Murillo spent his entire working life in Seville. It’s not known whether the two ever actually met in person (though they must have been aware of each others’ work), but while there is no record of a meeting, it’s not impossible as Murillo visited Madrid on several occasions, although art experts think that there was only limited reciprocal influence.

santa rufinaSanta Rufina by Murillo (left) and Velázquez (right)

However, it’s clear from the 19 paintings in the exhibition, 10 by Murillo and 9 by Velázquez, that there were common influences in the cultural world of Sevilla in the 17th century. This shows itself in both the choice (or commissioning) of subjects, especially in religious subjects pertaining to Sevilla such as the Saints Justa and Rufina and the Immaculate Conception, as well as of Saint Peter and the Adoration of the Magi, and the highly naturalistic style of the scenes of everyday life.

day to day lifeEveryday scenes by Velázquez (left) and Murillo (right)

It’s also appropriate that the exhibition is being hosted in the Venerables Hospital, a building that is of the early 17th century, and which has both a historical and current associations with the two painters. Around mid-January the exhibition, which continues until February 28th, surpassed the 50,000 visitor mark.

Velásquez | Murillo | Sevilla
Hospital de los Vernerables
Plaza de los Venerables 8
Open 10.00 – 18.00 (last entrance at 17.30)
General Admission: 8 euros
Free Admission Tuesday 14.00 – 18.00

Night Visit to Venerables Hospital

It seems that 2016 is to be the Summer of the Night Visit in Seville, as a number of important historic buildings open their doors as darkness falls for unique experiences in some of Seville’s special places. I’m planning on doing several of these, and last Tuesday was the first, a night visit to the Hospital de los Venerables Sacerdotes, in the heart of the Barrio Santa Cruz. The visit, conducted by our guide Sergio Raya, was to be partly by “candlelight” (battery-powered) to better recreate the atmosphere of the hospital’s early days.

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Central Patio

Those early days were in the 17th century, a time of both great wealth for some, great poverty for many, scarred by general economic decline and repeated outbreaks of plague. The relief of hardship fell partly on the church, but mainly on the religious brotherhoods (hermandades) that are now better known for their role in the Semana Santa celebrations. One of these was responsible for founding the forerunner of los Venerables in what is now the Calle de Jesus de Gran Poder in 1627. It moved to Calle Amparo in 1659, and in 1675, while under the direction of Justino de Neve y Chavas, it was granted some land and houses on its present site in the heart of the Santa Cruz by Don Pedro Manuel Colón y Portugal (a descendant of Christopher Colón/Columbus), Conde de Gelves and Duque de Vergara. Building work took twenty years to complete, with Neve himself dying in 1685, but in 1698 the Hospital was formally blessed by the Archbishop of Seville.

The hospital is laid out in two stories around a central patio-courtyard, one of the most unusual in Seville as the central area is below the level of the surrounding colonnaded gallery, and the circular fountain is sunk still lower. Although visually pleasing, the primary reason for the unusual design was apparently the problem of drainage.

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Church and High Altar

Our first stop was the Hospital’s most important building, the Church (tending to men’s souls being more important than tending to their bodies). Although not large, the Church is densely furnished and decorated, with works by Valdés Leal, Juan de Oviedo, and others making it one of Spain’s most important Barroque church interiors. The symbolism of the paintings and sculptures was intended to reinforce the idea of the centrality of the Church and Clergy in the moral life of the nation and the source of all moral authority.

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Ceiling of the sacristy

From the Church we went on through the sacristy, which has a remarkable painted ceiling intended to make the room appear much higher than it is, to the sacristy patio, one of the areas of the complex not normally open to the public. This was in fact where the hospital’s first patients were housed before the completion of the building. At one end is “the back door” which gives access to Calle Consuelo, and at the other a door leading into another small patio with a fascinating history of its own. This was once the Corral de Comedias (a type of small theatre, similar in artistic and social function to the contemporary Globe Theatre of Shakespeare) de Doña Elvira, in its day (1578-1632) the most popular in Seville. It took its name from Doña Elvira de Ayala (born 1377), whose Palace was in the nearby Doña Elvira Square, the theatre being in the palace gardens. Theatrical luminaries of the day whose works were performed here include Tirso de Molina, Miguel de Cervantes and Lope de Vega.

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Patio of Corral de Comedias

Next stop was the hospital ward on the lower floor (there was another on the floor above), a large open room with a high ceiling supported by a row of arches down the centre. The patients’ beds would have been arranged along the walls on either side, a model common to hospitals almost until modern times. From there we went up the main stairway with its ornate cupola with the Papal tiara and Saint Peter’s keys to the upper gallery. On the side next to the church a door leads to a screened balcony inside the church. Further on is the library, created in 1981, and housed in the original refectory, from the far end of which a narrow stairway leads up to our final stop, the Torre Mirador (watchtower), which has a mudejar style ceiling and views over the Santa Cruz, which looks very different from this height.

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Cupola of main stairway with Papal tiara and keys.

Thanks are due to both Focus Abengoa and Engranajes Culturales for the organisation of this fascinating tour, and more about other night tours and cultural experiences can be found here.

Seville’s Golden Age

In fourteen hundred and ninety two, Columbus sailed the ocean blue…

This was the pivotal moment in the history of one of Europe’s oldest cities which would propel it from modest national importance to being the richest city in Europe, a position that it would maintain for the next two centuries thanks to the monopoly of the Americas trade granted to the city by royal decree in 1503.

This monopoly was regulated and enforced by the Casa de Contratación (House of Trade), which collected a 20% tax (the quinto) on all goods entering Spain, as well as other taxes and levies, and had to approve all voyages of trade and exploration, trade routes and the like. This information was updated and preserved in the Padrón Real, the official, and secret, map of the networks of Spanish trade and empire around the world, a major undertaking that employed Spain’s best cartographers. The casa also trained and licensed captains and navigators. From 1543 it worked in conjunction with the Consulado de Mercaderes, the Merchant Guild of Seville, through which most of the wealth from the New World was channelled.

As the money flowed in the city began to acquire the trappings of wealth. The Cathedral, by some reckonings the largest church in the world, was completed in 1526, and the 1560s saw the addition of a belfry and a statue, the Giraldilla, representing Faith, to the Moorish minaret. In the Plaza San Francisco the city’s secular authorities were housed in a new town 1-01-photo 1 (4)hall, the Casa Consistorial (1527-1564), usually known as the Ayuntamiento, with its ornate plateresque decoration and the arcade that gave access to the Franciscan friary which occupied the whole of what is now Plaza Nueva. In the later years of the century the Real Audencia, a court of the Castilian crown, was built on the other side of the Plaza San Francisco, with the Royal Prison on the corner of Sierpes street (the site is now occupied by a bank). Miguel de Cervantes, who wrote Don Quixote, was for a short time “a guest of His Majesty” here. 1-02-photo 2 (4)From the same period are the Archivo General de Indias, built originally as the Casa Lonja or commodities exchange, and now the third of Seville’s World Heritage buildings, the Casa Moneda (Royal Mint), where silver from the New World was minted into coin, and the Hospital de Cinco Llagas (the Five Wounds), which is now the home of the Andalucian Parliament. At the same time many churches, monasteries and convents, as well as private palaces of the aristocracy and merchants all over the city were built or elarged.

With that kind of money came not only lavish building projects, but patronage of the arts. Seville’s Golden Age came to its full fruition in the 17th century Baroque School, among whom were such luminaries as Francisco Herrera, Diego Velazquez, Bartolomé Murillo and Francisco de Zurbarán, as well as sculptors like Pedro Roldán and Juan Martinez Montañes (the God of Wood). Many of their works can be seen in the Fine Arts Museum and other museums around the city.

Although work actually started on it before the discovery of America, Seville’s university, which grew out of the Dominican schools of the previous century, also belongs to this period, with Papal authorisation for its courses being granted in 1505. It was installed in buildings near the Puerta Jerez, where the street named for its founder, Maese Rodrigo, can still be found. All that remains today is the little Mudejar chapel at the end of the Avenida de la Constitución. In 1771 the university moved to another of the important buildings of the time, the College of the Annunciation of the Professed House of the Society of Jesus, and the Church of the Annunciation next door, on the corner of Plaza de la Encarnación, were both built in the 1550s.

This explosion of wealth and culture has left a lasting mark on the modern city, as many of its buildings and artworks are still preserved, and can be seen on a walk around the city. For me, it’s possibly the most beautiful, fascinating, and culturally rich cities in the world.

“Who has not seen Seville has not seen a marvel.”

The Footsteps of Saint Teresa of Ávila in Seville

Entrance to Las Teresas convent
Entrance to Las Teresas convent

In the heart of the Santa Cruz neighbourhood of Seville, leading up from the Plaza Santa Cruz towards the cathedral, is the little winding street of Las Teresas. If you live in Seville, or have visited as a tourist, you will certainly have walked along it. You will quite likely also have stopped in at its best-known landmark, the delightful Bar Las Teresas, with its rows of jamón Iberico hanging from the ceiling. But diverting though it is, this is not our topic for the day and reason for being here, which is across the street and a couple of doors down. Here you will find yourself in front of a truly impressive wooden door in an ornate portal set in a rather blank and forbidding wall, with just a few barred windows set high up near the roof. It’s the entrance to the Convent of San José, better known as Las Teresas after its founder Saint Theresa of Ávila.

Santa Teresa is one of the Catholic Church’s most prominent saints and theologians, a mystic, writer and reformer of the Carmelite nuns, and the current interest in her is because next year is the 500th anniversary of her birth.

She was born in 1515 in Ävila, a small town between Madrid and Salamanca most famous for its virtually intact city wall. Her grandfather had been a Jewish convert to Christianity, and had been investigated by the Spanish Inquisition for allegedly returning to the Jewish faith (remember that the last of the Moors had only been expelled from Granada in 1492, and Christianization of the newly created kingdom of Spain set in motion by Ferdinand and Isabela). Her father, however, had successfully integrated into the new order, and Teresa’s mother was a pious Christian who read Teresa stories from the lives of the saints as a child. After her mother died, when Teresa was 14, she developed a romanticised and sentimental obsession with the Virgin Mary and works of popular fiction about mediaeval knights.

Not long afterwards she was sent to be educated by the Augustinian nuns of Ávila, after which, now aged 20, she entered the Carmelite Monastary of the Incarnation, an order enjoined to contemplation and devotion, supposedly founded on Mt Carmel in the 12th century. It was here in the quiet of the cloister that she experienced the ecstatic religious trances for which she is most famous, and developed the mysticism which was her inspiration. At the same time she became increasingly concerned by the lax observance of the Carmelite order in Ávila, and despite some initial opposition set up a reformed Carmelite (the discalced, or barefoot Carmelites) convent in Ávila, the beginning of twenty years of reform and founding of new convents which bring us back again to the starting point of our article.

On May 26, 1575, Teresa arrived in Seville with a few nuns, for the purpose of founding a convent (her eleventh). To begin with they rented a house on Calle Zaragoza, where they stayed for ten years, but the location was never satisfactory. In those days (Seville’s Golden Age at the height of the America’s trade) Zaragoza was one of the main streets leading down to the port, a noisy place full of taverns, sailors and traders. Eventually, with the help of San Juan de la Cruz (Saint John of the Cross), they were able to buy the property in Teresas Street which has been their home ever since. Although not open to the public, it included among its possessions the only known portrait of Teresa painted during her lifetime, and the original manuscript of her best known work, Las Moradas, the Dwellings of the Interior Castle.

Teresa herself never saw the order’s new home. In 1582 while travelling in northern Spain she was taken ill and died. By one of those strange quirks of fate or history she died on the night when the Church was switching from the Julian to the Gregorian calendar, with the removal of the dates October 5-14 that year. Teresa died either late in the evening of October 4 (Julian), or in the early hours of October 15 (Gregorian). She was beatified in 1614 and canonized in 1622, and remains one of the Catholic church’s most popular and important saints.

Justina and Rufina – Two very Sevillana Saints

If you’re in, or have ever been to, Seville, you may have noticed pictures of two young ladies in mediaeval dress, surrounded by pottery and supporting a model of the Giralda tower between them. The picture is most probably a reproduction of the painting by Seville’s favourite artist, Bartolomé Murillo (1617-1682), and the two young ladies are the Saints Justa and Rufina. Although not technically the patron saints of Seville (that honour goes to Ferdinand III, who reconquered the city from the Moors in 1248) they are considered the special protectors of the Cathedral and the Giralda, which they preserved from harm during the 1755 Lisbon earthquake, and are also patrons of potters and pottery sellers.

justina rufinaAccording to legend they lived in the Triana neighbourhood of Seville in the 3rd century, during Roman times, where they made fine earthenware pottery, a trade by which they supported both themselves and many of the city’s poor. However, they refused to sell what they made for use in one of the city’s pagan festivals, and had all their pots and dishes smashed by angry locals. In retaliation they smashed a statue of the Goddess Venus, and for this crime they were arrested and imprisoned by the Roman prefect Diogenianus.

Unable to persuade them to renounce their Christian faith Diogenianus had them tortured on the rack and with hooks, and then forced them to walk barefoot to the Sierra Morena (a mountain range to the north of Seville). Seeing that their resolve was still unshaken they were deprived of food and water. Justa was the first to die, and her body was thrown into a well. Diogenianus expected that the death of Justa would break Rufina’s spirit, but when it didn’t she was thrown to the lions in the amphitheatre. However, even the lions refused to co-operate and devour her, and Diogenianus finally had her strangled (or possibly beheaded), and her body was burned.

Both bodies were recovered by Sabinus, the bishop of Seville, and given a Christian burial in 287. Their saints’ day is July 19.

Murillo Exhibition at Los Venerables

Right in the heart of the Barrio Santa Cruz, in a charming little square of the same name, is the Hospital de Los Venerables Sacerdotes (Hospital of the Venerable Priests), founded in 1673 by the dean of Seville Cathedral, Justino de Neve, as a home for sick and retired priests, and used for this purpose until the late 1970s. Apart from being quite big, it’s nothing particularly special from the outside, but like so many buildings in Seville the treasures, both arquitectural and artistic, are on the inside, looking away from the troubles of the world outside.

Today Los Venerables is an important museum of the Barroque period (roughly, the 17th century) in Seville, and brings together some of the works of the most gifted artists and architects of that period. It was designed by Leonardo de Figueroa, who also worked on the San Telmo Palace, the Fine Arts Museum, and the Church of Santa María Magdelena, and features an unusual central patio with elevated arcades and a sunken central fountain. The complex includes a church that is surely one of Seville’s hidden jewels. Although modest in size, with only a single nave, the harmony of the shape of the barrel-vaulted roof and the decorations and other artworks, principally by Juan de Valdés Leal makes this a very special place.

In rooms that were once the home of ageing priests are the museum’s art collections. The permanent collection focuses on the life and times of Diego Velázquez, and includes both works by Velázquez himself, as well as other important artists of the time.

From October 9 until January 20, 2013 there is also a special exhibition of works by Seville’s most famous painter, Bartolomé Murillo, which has been brought together in collaboration with the Prado Museum of Madrid and London’s Dulwich Picture Gallery, and offers a unique opportunity to see them in the city where they were created.