This summer we are wishing "buenas vacaciones” to one of Rienzi’s paintings: Bartolomé Esteban Murillo’s The Nativity is on holiday, loaned to the Museo Nacional del Prado in Madrid, Spain, for the exhibition Murillo and Justino de Neve. The Art of Friendship (June 26–September 30). This three-part blog series discusses The Nativity and its unusual medium, and chronicles the painting’s journey overseas to the Prado with Rienzi’s director, Katherine Howe.
At Rienzi, Bartolomé Esteban Murillo’s The Nativity (c. 1665–70, oil on obsidian) hangs in a lovely little hallway that connects the Foyer with the Mexican Room. The work depicts a New Testament scene in which the newborn Christ is surrounded by Mary, Saint Joseph, and animals, with putti heralding the newborn’s arrival. To emphasize the holy child, Murillo places Christ at the center of a triangle formed by Mary, Saint Joseph, and the putti.
Known as one of the greatest 17th-century Spanish painters, Murillo (1618–1682) specialized in devotional and genre paintings, but he also produced portraits. It is likely that Murillo trained under Juan del Castillo in Seville, and many of his early works display elements of that period’s Sevillian painting style. Murillo’s first large commission was in 1645 for the cloistered convent of S Francisco in Seville. In the 1650s, amidst a plague and political turmoil, Murillo’s skill and style matured. In 1660, the Sevillian painting academy, Real Academia de Belles Artes de S Isabel de Hungría opened in Seville, with Murillo as co-president. As the decade progressed, he began painting major religious commissions as well as devotional pieces such as The Nativity, many of them for his friend and patron, Justino de Neve, the canon of the Seville Cathedral.
Murillo’s early works are characteristically dark and obscure, employing chiaroscuro, the play of light and dark contrasts within a work. However, The Nativity is an example of Murillo’s mature style: like many other of his later works, The Nativity has only a few figures set against a sparse backdrop, emphasizing its purpose as a contemplative, devotional piece. Many of his later paintings are similarly characterized by soft, idealized figures, and a peaceful tenderness. It might seem strange that this work belongs to Rienzi’s collection, which focuses primarily on English painting, but Murillo’s paintings were a well-known inspiration for 18th-century painters such as Thomas Gainsborough and Sir Joshua Reynolds, both of which are represented at Rienzi.
Stay tuned for Part II to read about the unusual medium Murillo used for painting The Nativity.