Francisco Zurbaran
Biography of Spanish Religious Painter, Caravaggist.

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Saint Francis of Assisi (1650-60)
Museu Nacional d'Art de Catalunya.
A good example, along with his
still life, below, of the tenebrism
associated with Caravaggism.

Francisco de Zurbaran (1598-1664)


Biography: Early Life and Works
Reaching Maturity in Seville
Decline and Fall
The Art of Zurbaran: A Short Guide
St. Bonaventura referring St. Thomas Aquinas to the Crucifix
Apotheosis of St. Thomas Aquinas


Detail from Still Life with Lemons,
Oranges and a Rose (1633)
Norton Simon Museum.

See: Greatest Paintings Ever.

Biography: Early Life and Works

One of Spain's most devout Old Masters, and creator of some of the most intense images in Spanish painting, Francisco Zurbaran was born in the western Spanish town of Fuente de Cantos, Badajoz Province (Estremadura), the son of a prosperous shopkeeper of Basque descent. In 1614 he became an apprentice to the painter Pedro Diaz de Villanueva in Seville. Three years later he moved to Llerena, the region's most important town, where he married Maria Paez, an heiress nine years his senior. After having three children, his wife passed away, and in 1623 he married another woman from Llerena - Beatriz de Morales, a widow. Zurbaran remained in Llerena for eleven years and during his stay was strongly influenced by Spanish Quietism, a Catholic movement that promoted an understanding of God through submissive silence, and a program of penitential tasks, all of which naturally had a significant effect upon his fine art painting. He remains one of the most active
contributors to Catholic Counter-Reformation Art in Spain.

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In 1626, he accepted a commission from the Dominican monastery of San Pablo el Real, Seville, to paint a series of oil paintings for its oratory chapel. One of these works, Christ on the Cross (1627, Art Institute of Chicago), effectively made his reputation. Influenced by the dramatic light and shade of the Italian painter Caravaggio (1573–1610), the Spanish tenebroso Francisco Ribalta (1565–1628) and the modelling of the Spanish Baroque artist Juan Martinez Montanes (1568–1649), the painting presents a naturalistic Christ whose sculptural impact is enhanced with a dark background and strong illumination. Although the limpid stillness of the body indicates death, dramatic tension is introduced by its downward sag, which causes Jesus's head to fall against his shoulder. A masterpiece of Catholic Christian art, it is a perfect example of the naturalness and clarity demanded by the Counter-Reformation propaganda campaign.

Reaching Maturity in Seville

In 1629 Zurbaran relocated to Seville, where he established himself (until about 1640) as the leading painter in Andalusia. During this time he received commissions for altarpieces, and other religious paintings for monasteries and convents of various Orders (Carthusians, Capuchins, Dominicans, Jeronymites, among others) as well as Cathedrals and other ecclesiastical authorities. Most commissions involved the portrayal of the famous saints of the monastic orders concerned. For instance, for the Monastery of the Merced Calzada, Seville, he produced a series of works (eg. Peter the Apostle, 1628, Prado, Madrid) illustrating the life of Saint Peter Nolasco, the Order's founder.

His early works often show the unadorned simplicity of wooden sculpture. The figures, positioned close to the picture surface, are strongly modelled by dramatic illumination against dark backgrounds. During the 1630s his realistic style - exemplified in his celebrated Apotheosis of St. Thomas Aquinas (1631), one of his best Baroque paintings - gives way to a more mystical expression in works like the Adoration of the Shepherds (1638), influenced by the figuration and rapid brushwork of the great Neapolitan Spanish artist Jose Ribera (1591-1652), and the intimacy of Velazquez (1599-1660).

Painter to the King

In 1634, Zurbaran journeyed to Madrid to complete a royal commission awarded to him on the instigation of Velazquez (1599–1660) - by now the court painter of King Philip IV - who was supervising the decoration of the new Royal Palace in Madrid. For the Hall of Realms in the Buen Retiro Palace, Zurbaran created ten history paintings depicting the Labours of Hercules and a battle scene, The Defense of Cadiz against the English, the latter being part of a series that included Velazquez's Surrender of Breda (1635). Contrary to the 17th century tradition of modelling mythological heroes on classical figures, Zurbaran chose instead to make Hercules an earthy rugged individual of exceptional strength. His success was duly recognized with the honorary title of Painter to the King.

As well as his numerous series of paintings, Zurbaran also executed many single works, including over forty paintings of Saint Francis of Assisi. The mystical ecstasy of these images is perfectly illustrated by the upturned eyes and open mouth of Saint Francis in Meditation (1635–1640). At the same time, Zurbaran produced a number of exquisite still life paintings, such as Still Life with Lemons, Oranges, and a Rose (1633), and his masterpiece Still Life with Oranges (1633).

Decline and Fall

At the end of the 1630s, despite being at the peak of his creative powers, Zurbaran's fortunes nosedived. First, in 1639, Zurbaran was deeply affected by the death of his wife Beatriz de Morales. This was followed by the sudden collapse of the Spanish economy: a recession that severely restricted the income and expenditure of his main patrons, the Spanish religious Orders. At the same time, his austere style of painting was becoming less and less suited to the growing religious fashion for tender piety, which began to favour the soft-focus sentimentality of the Seville-born master Bartolomé Esteban Murillo (1617-82).

In an attempt to offset these losses, Zurbaran began exporting to the South American market, particularly religious centres like Lima and Buenos Aires. He also incorporated more overt emotionalism in paintings such as Christ Carrying the Cross (1653). However, after a third marriage (in 1644) and four extra children to support, he found it increasingly difficult to make ends meet. In 1658, he moved to Madrid, where he imitated Velazquez' style of portrait art such as Doctor of Laws (c.1658–1660). Sadly, his art was no longer appreciated, and he died destitute in August 1664.

The Art of Zurbaran: A Short Guide

The austere aspect of religious realism in Spain is best represented by Francisco de Zurbaran. The ascetic religious orders naturally made him their painter, and his best work is associated with monastic legends. His style is, paradoxically, tight, linear, and yet wholly painterlike. He freely uses the broad, dark shadow of the Caravaggians, but keeps it harmonious with his positive colour. He modulates his smooth surfaces so that they express every sort of texture. His art is both emphatic and reticent, entirely other-worldly even when it seems most specific. He is in his own fashion one of the most uncompromisingly Catholic and serious painters the world has seen, and of all Spanish Baroque painters of the seventeenth century, perhaps the most Spanish.

Champion of Ascetic Monasticism

Francisco de Zurbaran was born in 1598 of a peasant family in the village of Fuente de Cantos in Northern Andalusia. From here he went to Seville, where first he studied under a follower of Morales, later with Juan de Roelas, and an obscure designer for embroidery, Pedro Diaz de Villanueva. Some historians think that the discreet lustre of closely laid silk threads may have furnished suggestions for Zurbaran's very subtle handling of his paint. He soon became the favourite painter of the older and more ascetic monastic orders - Augustinians, Dominicans, Carthusians, Franciscans. It should be recalled that the reforms instituted by the Council of Trent had had a twofold effect upon the forms of Catholic piety. In the monastic orders, which were largely enlisted in the cruelties of the Holy Inquisition, the Counter Reformation produced a new emphasis on faith and a return to severe discipline. Of this regenerated and hardened monasticism Zurbaran is the visual chronicler, unique for his power and veracity.

His Rival Murillo's Pious Sentimentality

But among the laity, particularly among women, the Counter Reformation, ably seconded by the Jesuit Order, fostered a new and highly emotionalized pietism, not to say sentimentalism. The Mother of God, whether in the Nativity or in Her Assumption amid clouds, must be a very pretty and appealing girl, monastic saints cuddle the Christ-child, or passionately clasp the feet of the Crucified Christ. The attack upon the sensibilities is unsparing. Of course, Murillo is the painter who most fully visualizes this sentimental pietism. Zurbaran now and then makes concessions to it, and when he does so, in his Madonnas, Holy Families, youthful Marys in prayer or knitting, he is often sentimental to the point of silliness.

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St. Bonaventura referring St. Thomas Aquinas to the Crucifix

Since there is really little development in Zurbaran's style we may omit relatively unimportant early works and pass to such a masterpiece of his early maturity as St. Bonaventura referring St. Thomas Aquinas to the Crucifix (Berlin). It was painted in 1629, as one of a series for a Franciscan convent. Like all such series it was dispersed when the religious orders were suppressed and the single pictures scattered in many galleries. The legend behind this picture is that the great Dominican master of theology, Thomas Aquinas, visiting the cell of the Franciscan theologian, Bonaventura, at Paris, asked him the source of his divine wisdom. Bonaventura, turning his back on the shelves loaded with the books of the great Church fathers, draws a curtain and points to a Crucifix. Thomas Aquinas raises his hands in amazement. Behind him a group of four Franciscans observe the scene with edification and delight.

This is one of the most dramatic pictures of a time and race that valued the dramatic. But the drama is reserved and noble. Without knowledge of the legend one would feel some kind of a moral emergency. That impression merely deepens when we realize that a too rationalizing spirit is being recalled to the true source of all valid knowledge. Technically there are few finer Zurbarans than this. It is hard, or in painter's phrase "tight," but its tightness is very expressive and precious. Much of the effect depends on the subtle modulation of the apparently hard and uniform edges. Here perhaps lies Zurbaran's technical superiority over Ribera. Compositionally the spotting of dark and light areas - the chair, Bonaventura's books on the table and shelves, the curtains, the crucifix, Thomas Aquinas' hand and white sleeve, the opening of the doorway - is brilliant and even exciting, introducing an element of animation into a generally very static design. Again, the apparently flatly painted, broad areas are very carefully varied to suggest the texture of woolen stuff or silk, flesh, wood, vellum - all this with minimal indications of greatest refinement, such as we expect rather in a Dutch genre painter than in a Spanish painter of religious legends. It is this paradox of a very painterlike exquisiteness in work that offhand seems entirely un-painterlike that constitutes much of the aesthetic appeal of a fine Zurbaran.

Apotheosis of St. Thomas Aquinas

The most grandiose, the most Renaissance in feeling, of Zurbaran's compositions is the Apotheosis of St. Thomas Aquinas (1631, Seville). Below, in a cloister, eight monks or regular clergy look upwards to a vision where St. Thomas with his pen and book stands on a cloud that supports the seated Four Latin Doctors. The arrangement of the five figures is a foreshortened semicircle, which is repeated high up and further away by four holy figures in the upper heaven. In its general lines the composition goes back to some symmetrical composition of the Renaissance, like that of Dispute concerning the Sacrament by Raphael. The Entombment of Count Orgaz, at Toledo, by El Greco might have been the intermediary, though Raphael's compositions were entirely accessible in the form of engraving.

The effect of the Apotheosis of St. Thomas Aquinas rests largely upon the success with which realistic figures are fitted into a composition which would naturally call for stylization of the figures. Few pictures express so much spirituality through earthy elements. Zurbaran locates his vision in a loggia through the arches of which you look out to a Spanish cathedral square. Even the clouds which support his glorified saints seem as capable of meeting the weight as the roof of a limestone cavern. There is none of the conventional poetry which usually characterizes such subjects and compositions; instead, just a manly and sonorous devotional prose.

St. Hugo Entering the Refectorium

The pictures painted in 1636 for a Carthusian monastery are fine Zurbarans, being free from Renaissance influence. The most striking of the series is St. Hugo entering the Refectorium (Seville). Seven stern Carthusians are seated about a table at the moment of saying grace. From the right the aged and decrepit co-founder of the order, St. Hugo, totters in unobserved except by the waiter. The general sternness and stiffness of the composition is enlivened by the big picture on the wall and by the glimpse through a door at the right. The effect depends less on stylistic features than on energy of characterization and those refinements of workmanship which we have already described.

Labours of Hercules

In 1637 Zurbaran was called to Madrid to paint the Labours of Hercules for the royal palace of Buen Retiro. The work, in which assistants doubtless participated, reveals his limitations. He used vulgar models, exaggerated all muscular efforts, and in general did about as badly with the theme as any Italianate amateur of the generation before him. For that matter, has any Spaniard ever painted a classical subject with any conviction - not to say, with any poetry? The sense of a lovelier and grander youth of the world seems simply lacking in the national temperament.

Portrait of Suso

Dr. Kehrer writes that Zurbaran's chief endeavour was to paint the single figure in the most monumental way. This being the case, he is perhaps better represented by his best single figures than by his compositions. Eminent among many ideal portraits is that of the German mystic, Suso, Seville. It is remarkable for the gentleness with which religious ecstasy is expressed, and this tenderness is echoed in an idyllic landscape. Among the few pure portraits none is finer than that of a Reading Carthusian (Hispanic Society, New York). As usual, Zurbaran emphasizes, perhaps a little over-emphasizes, awareness of a spectator. But the painting is of the most soberly sumptuous kind, the modulations of the shadows of the greatest refinement, and everything telling for melancholy yet steadfast character.

Portraits of Female Saints

Probably the most famous and popular Zurbarans are his full-length, ideal portraits of the best-loved female saints. He represents them as great ladies of his own Spain. Thus their rich costumes give him opportunities as a colourist such as his monastic subjects fail to afford. To choose among them is difficult. The most maidenly and decorative is the St. Elizabeth. Even better, for its Spanish pride, is the St. Mathilda at Strasbourg. In order to give the personage and the rich costume full value all the pictures of this sort are painted without accessories and with the simplest background. It should be noted that the effect is as massive as it is rich.

Still Life Painting

Possibly the exquisite technician in Zurbaran is even more apparent in a few still lifes which recent research has restored to him. In representing the rows of metal and pottery vessels arranged in a long oblong, Zurbaran commands the spectral emphasis of our modern surrealists, while, unlike them, he suggests the varying textures reticently but completely. The work shows the pure painter liberated from religious pressure.

Portrait of St. Francis

About Zurbaran's last years there is little to note except an intensification of his religious sentiment and an expression thereof which occasionally departs from his usual plain statement and enlists mystery. Such is the case with the St. Francis (National Gallery, London), where even with the face and eyes almost hidden in shadow there is the fullest sense of passionate prayer. The handling of the edges of the figure is consummately strong and delicate.

In the later years there are hints of an unhappy influence from the youthful wonder, Murillo, in certain highly sentimentalized Madonnas. Perhaps the last and most remarkable memorial of himself is the strange picture in a private collection at Madrid which represents the aged and haggard artist looking up to the Crucified Christ. It is a very painful picture, in a sense a bad picture, but it is also a most impressive picture for its expression of deeply religious compassion. Shortly after he painted it, in 1664, at sixty-six, Zurbaran died.


Upon his own Spain he left a lasting impression. In the Victorian Age Gustave Courbet regarded him as a marvel. When at the end of the eighteenth century the Spanish religious orders were proscribed, the museums of the world were glad to buy his dispersed pictures, with the result that he is perhaps of all Spanish Baroque artists the most accessible to art lovers generally. His incisive religious art is one of plain and complete statement and no painter less needs critical commentary. It is easy to see his limitations. To regard them as defects would be foolish, for of these very limitations he made positive qualities in his really quite marvellous illustration of the theme of ascetic piety.

Works by Francisco Zurbaran can be seen in the best art museums across the globe.


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