VALDÉS LEAL, Juan de
(b. 1622, Sevilla, d. 1690, Sevilla)
In Ictu Oculi1670-72
Oil on canvas, 220 x 216 cm
Hospital de la Caridad, Seville
The Brotherhood of Charity, the Caridad, as it is known, was one of Seville's major lay confraternities. It was founded in 1565 with the mission of providing a decent burial for paupers. From 1663 the charitable activities were expanded to provide care for the needy sick, and a hospital was built, simultaneously enlarging and renovating the already existing chapel.
The scheme for the decoration of the chapel is a tripartite exposition of Christian charity as the way of salvation. The first part comprises two memorable paintings by Valdés Leal, demonstrating the futility of earthly pursuits and honours. A life devoted to accumulating wealth, power, and even learning is shown to lead only to the grave. Charity, which constitutes the second part of the program, provides the way to salvation, as seen in the seven acts of mercy, six of which are depicted by Murillo; the seventh, burying the dead, the Caridad's foundation charity, is embodied in a sculptural group, the Entombment of Christ by Pedro Roldán, placed in the altarpiece. The third component consists of two paintings by Murillo for lateral altars, depicting St Elizabeth of Hungary and St John of God, both illustrating the efficacy of good works and the necessity of personal participation in charitable deeds.
Valdés Leal's relentlessly gruesome paintings are located just inside the entrance, so that visitors to the church must experience the agony of Valdés's Hell before entering the promised land of Murillo's acts of mercy. The first, entitled In Ictu Oculi (In the twinkling of an Eye), is a highly charged representation of the futility of worldly goals and pursuits. The path of glory lead but to the grave, which is unflinchingly rendered in the companion picture, Finis Gloriae Mundi (The End of Worldly Glory), where vile bugs feast on the rotting remnants of human flesh.
Of all the great painters of the school of Seville - alongside Zurbarán, Velázquez and Murillo - the distinctive style of Valdés Leal is the most difficult to place. Only these two major allegories on the transience of life and on death which he himself is said to have described as "hieroglyphs of our afterlife" have remained truly popular. His patron, Don Miguel de Mañara, was a Knight of the Order of Calatrava who became a benefactor of the brotherhood of the hospital and its church in penitence for his previous life of decadence. The epitaph on his grave succinctly describes the spirit that commissioned such a powerful vanitas still life: "Here lie the bones and ashes of the worst person who ever lived on earth". His last will and testament contains the most humble self accusation not only as a great sinner, but also as an adulterer, robber and servant of the devil.
The In Ictu Oculi (an allegory of death) presents the triumph of the grim reaper, who sweeps into the picture as an imposing figure. One skeletal foot stands on the globe, while the other stands on armaments, the trappings of office and insignia of power. Under his arm, he carries a coffin and in his hand a scythe. As his right hand snuffs out the life-light represented by the candle, he stares at the spectator from the very depths of his empty eye-sockets.