Circle of Francisco de Zubaran    Spanish     1598-1664
SN 343    Oil on Canvas

by Robert Anderson

    Francisco de Zurbaron was one of the greatest masters of the school of Seville and is renowned for his powerful and realistic interpretation of monastic life in 17th century Spain. During the early years in Seville he was probably in contact with other gifted painters such as Juan de Roelas, Francisco de Herrera, Diegi Velazquez and Alonso Cano.     Apart from "The Labors of Hercules" and a large historical scene, "The Defence of Cadiz", a few portraits and some masterly still lifes, he devoted himself almost entirely to religious works. He worked for churches and monasteries over a wide area of Southern Spain and his paintings were also exported to South America.
    His compositionally simple and emotionally direct altarpieces, combining austere naturalism with mystical intensity, made him an ideal Counter-Reformation painter. His first known dated painting "Crucifixtion" (1627) shows striking realism, brought Zurbaran immediate fame and led to numerous commissions from other religious orders.

 The most characteristic of his works are the single figures of monks and saints in meditation or prayer, most of which seem to have been executed in the 1630's. The figures are usually depicted against a plain background, standing out with massive physical presence.
   Towards the end of his career Zurbaran's work lost something of its power and simplicity as he tried to come to terms with the less ascetic style of Murillo. who in the 1640's overtook him as the most popular painter in Seville. He spent his final years in Madrid where he had gained the title of Painter to the King..

    This is a representation of Sara the wife of Abraham. Her story is told in the Old Testament Book of Genesis. She was at first considered barren as she was childless. Not unattractive, however, she was at one point abducted by a King Abimelech because Abraham had referred to her as his sister. God then rebuked Abimelech and Sara was returned to her Abraham.
    Because she was unable to concieve Sara urged Abraham to take her maidservant Hagar as his concubine in order to produce an heir. Late in her life Sara gave birth to a child who was named Isaac. After the birth of Isaac, Sara convinced Abraham to send Hagar and her son Ishmael away.

    Sara is seen in this painting dressed in a brown coat over a dark ankle length dress with a white neck piece. She holds a loaf of bread in her hands and looks to the upper left of the painting at a chalice that is itself surrounded by a diffused orange light. Her mouth is open in awe. There are cherubs / putti in the lower left of the painting holding a plaque and flowers are seen decorating the bottom of the picture.
    This painting is a depiction of an Old Testament heroine who prefigures the Christian Eucharist. The bread in Sara's hands and the Chalice in the upper left corner refer to the bread and wine (body and blood of Christ) consecrated by the priest in the Catholic communion service.

    Zubaran, as noted above, was an effective painter in the cause of the Counter Reformation. As the Church fathers sought to renew faith in the doctrines of Church, as well as correct abuses of the clergy they used religious art as aids to devotion and meditation. Scenes of martyrdom and miracles were very popular in this regard and the work of Zurbaran and his Circle were surely effective in building the desired sense of awe and mystery in the religious feeling of Spanish Catholics - and therby keeping Spain from the danger of Protestantism.