MURILLO, Bartolomé Esteban
(b. 1617, Sevilla, d. 1682, Sevilla)

The Two Trinities

Oil on canvas, 293 x 207 cm
National Gallery, London

Murillo was one of the leading artists in seventeenth-century Spain, surpassed in his lifetime only by Velázquez. Both artists were from Seville, but their temperament, careers and critical success could hardly have been more different. Velázquez spent the greater part of his life at court in Madrid. Murillo remained in Seville, painting mainly religious subjects for pious foundations; his death was the result of a fall from a scaffold in the Capuchin church in Cadiz. His secular paintings included a few masterly portraits, but otherwise consisted almost entirely of scenes of childhood, an unprecedented genre in Spain.

Murillo's fame eclipsed Velázquez's through the eighteenth century, when he was ranked second only to Raphael and influenced, among others, Gainsborough and Reynolds. Only around 1900 did his manner, so well attuned to the religious sensibilities of his time, begin to cloy. For Murillo is the great interpreter of a range of feelings we have come to mistrust: avoiding scenes of martyrdom, he specialised in tender Holy Families, lovable infant saints, graceful Madonnas and Immaculate Conceptions. In later life he was charmingly reassuring even in his portrayal of vagrant children. But the emotional springs of his work were not what they might seem to a twentieth-century viewer. The youngest of fourteen siblings, his parents died when he was nine, and he outlived his wife and all but three of their nine children. From 1635 Spain was interminably at war throughout Europe. In 1649 half the population of Seville died in the plague; there was a popular uprising in 1652. As the world about him sank further into grim despair, it was not sentimentality but heroism which impelled Murillo to cloak his painted world in clouds of incense and of roses. The visitor who flinches from uplifted eyes and pink-cheeked cherubs should perhaps first focus on the firm drawing of the hands, here masterfully foreshortened and individually characterised in eloquent communion. The artist's impeccable draughtsmanship, at first sight concealed under the 'vaporous' brushwork of his late style, influenced by Rubens and Van Dyck, is the visible sign of his underlying stoicism.

Murillo had treated the subject of the Two Trinities before, early in his career, when he depicted the Holy Family returning from the Temple (Luke 2:51). The compositions of both pictures derive from sixteenth-century engravings made for Jesuit devotional books by the Flemish Wierix brothers. These images, designed to appeal to a broad lay audience, stressed the humble labours of the Holy Family, and glorified Saint Joseph, carpenter, protector of the Virgin and earthly father of Christ. As God the Father, the dove of the Holy Spirit and Christ form the Celestial Trinity, so Mary, Joseph and Jesus mirror them on earth in a Terrestrial Trinity. In this painting, probably commissioned as an altarpiece, Joseph - the only character directly to address us - holds the flowering rod, sign of God's will that he become Mary's husband. The Christ Child is raised on a dressed stone, both a compositional device to set him at the apex of a triangle in the centre of the painting and symbolic: 'thus saith the Lord God, Behold, I lay in Zion...a precious corner stone, a sure foundation' (Isaiah 28:16). As the clouds part to reveal the divine light, their shadows temper the bold red and ultramarine blue, the apricots, pinks, gold and white of the highlights to a wonderful overall harmony, a haze of grey, sky-blue and saffron.