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). The exhibition will then travel to Fundaćion Focus Abengoa in Seville, Spain (October 11–January 10) and Dulwich Picture Gallery in London. 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.
Seventeenth-century artist Bartolomé Esteban Murillo frequently painted on wood, copper, tin, and other materials for his devotional works, encasing them in splendid frames. Such devices might have been meant to suggest reliquaries. The Nativity was painted in oil, but on a rather uncommon surface: obsidian, a black volcanic glass, was used instead of canvas or panel.
The irregular shape and shiny surface of the obsidian lead experts to believe the slab was a pre-Columbian Aztec artifact called a “smoking mirror.” According to a February 2001 article in Burlington Magazine by Olivier Meslay, "Murillo and Smoking Mirrors," the term “smoking mirror” is a translation of the name Tezcatlipoca, “the all-powerful central American post-classical god of rulers, witches, and warriors.” The Aztecs used black obsidian rectangles as representations of this fearsome god; Tezcatlipoca was often portrayed with a smoking mirror as an accessory. We know that Murillo was repurposing ancient artifacts to create his 17th-century works from a study done on two obsidian pieces he painted that are at the Louvre, Agony in the Garden of Olives and St. Peter Kneeling Before Christ. The two pieces were analyzed with a particle-induced x-ray emission method and compared with unpainted smoking mirrors. As a result, researchers found that the paintings and the unpainted mirrors have compositions that are almost identical.
The use of the smoking mirror allowed Murillo to focus on the figures, and leave the shiny, imperfect surface to imply the open-air, nighttime setting. By using stone in place of canvas, Murillo was required to adapt his painting techniques. For example, in order to get the paint to stick to the glass’s slick surface, he would have needed to treat it with bull’s gall or egg white.
Stay tuned for Part III to see The Nativity’s journey to the Prado, accompanied by Rienzi’s Director Katherine Howe.