COELLO, Claudio
(b. 1642, Madrid, d. 1693, Madrid)

La Sagrada Forma

Oil on canvas, approx. 500 x 300 cm
Sacristy, Monasterio de San Lorenzo, El Escorial

In 1683 Coello was rewarded with the appointment of royal painter, and in 1686 he was appointed court painter, filling the vacancy created by the death of Carreño. In 1685, Coello began his first important painting for the king, known as La Sagrada Forma, a highpoint in Spanish baroque painting. This large, ambitious work has a complex history which is rooted in the endless political intrigues of the reign.

This enormous work, which measures about five by three meters, is in fact a movable screen, which can be lowered by a pulley into the floor below, revealing the miraculous host of Gorkum, the "Sagrada Forma," a monstrance that had shed blood when defiled by the Protestants in 1572. This precious object was transferred to the new altar in El Escorial, set up by the noblemen previously violating the sanctuary of the monastery in search of a refugee hiding there, in an expiatory ceremony held on 19 October 1684 and attended by the king, the offending noblemen, and members of the court, and it is this event represented in Coello's picture.

The Sagrada Forma is at once a documentary, a ceremonial group portrait, a religious allegory, and a statement of political propaganda, all conjoined in a masterpiece of illusionistic painting. As a documentary, it records the ceremony of 19 October 1684, when Charles and members of the junta expunged the penalty of excommunication through the prescribed act of penitence. The king kneels sin devotion before the host of Gorkum, which is held by the prior. In the right corner are the offenders; members of the religious community fill the rest of the place, which is depicted with literal accuracy, to the pictures on the wall, the same ones installed by Velázquez in the 1650s.

The picture was intended to be more than an artistic "snapshot" of an important event. It also has an allegorical dimension, which is introduced by the inscription and by the winged personifications that soar in the upper reaches of the high-vaulted room. By inserting this textual and allegorical references Coello sought to shift the focus to an age-old Habsburg theme - the dynasty as the temporal defender of the faith.