The idle ramblings of a Jack of some trades, Master of none

Andrew Graham-Dixon, the genial host of brilliant art programmes on BBC Four, stands before the Escorial Palace [photo by Mike Autry] outside Madrid, and marvels at the hauteur and austerity of the king who commanded it built. This is no romantic fairy tale palace to delight and enchant...It is the very emblem of Philip the Second's determination to rule through fear and control. The Catholic monarch, despite his power and wealth, was struggling to rule an empire that was in a state of religious emergency, attacked by Muslims in the east and the Protestants in the north. The Escorial, a vast building with its state apartments and magnificent library, however, was a defiant statement of Spanish invincibility, and the nerve centre of Philip's reign.

But at its heart is a tiny set of chambers: Philip's private apartments. Four spartan rooms: a writing room where he would pore over the affairs of state; a slightly larger, but still modest, drawing room; a four-poster bed with an uncomfortable mattress in a simple bedroom of the most powerful man in the world. And from that little bedroom, a door leads into his prayer room.

Straight into the high altar of one of the most fantastic basilicas ever built! It is a muscular declaration of Philip's faith, a direct appeal to God's help in difficult times. He wanted a new Jerusalem, and founded a monastery here to pray continuously for his soul. That monastery is the key to Philip's Spain, with religion at the centre of everything. When one entered the basilica, one walked towards the east, towards Jerusalem and the rising sun; the sun was associated with Jesus, and so one was symbolically walking towards Christ. Even the architecture was, therefore, a testament of theological doctrine.

Philip wanted to unite his people with piety, but that piety had to conform to the strictest rules of the Catholic church. He wanted to spread the One True Faith, but also to control it. And what better tool for that than art? New rules were laid down for artists: their art should depict true, unambiguous stories, without distraction and unnecessary details. The images of the saints were to be direct and humble calls to prayer. Philip rigorously enforced these criteria that judged the value of art.

One artist who passed the test was Juan de Navarrete, whose paintings fill the basilica. Nicknamed El Mudo for his congenital deafness and muteness, he had studied in Italy before returning to Spain in 1565. In vivid, colour-saturated portraits, such as this one of the Baptism of Christ, he created straightforward aids to devotion, exactly as Philip wanted. But another artist, a Greek named Domenicos Theotokopoulos, did not comply with Philip's strictures. The painting he made for the king would become one of the masterpieces of 16th century Spain.

His subject is St. Maurice, an early Christian martyred by the Romans. The painting shows his arrest and execution. Theotokopoulos hadn't reckoned with the king's austerity. While Philip praised his flair and originality, he took exception with one cardinal error - the placement of the martyred saint's head in the middle distance. As far as Philip was concerned, it should have been centre-stage for everyone to see. The painter had failed one essential criterion: religious clarity. The king dismissed him, and the artist never worked for him again. What Philip didn't realise was that he had sent away the greatest artist of the age, El Greco.

El Greco's creativity was too ambitious for the king. There was only one place left in Spain for him to try his luck. Toledo. At the time he arrived, it was a beacon for Catholics across Spain, as it is to this day. Madrid may be the political capital of the country, but Toledo is its religious heart. In a deeply Catholic country, this is the closest you can come to being in Rome. And everyone was in on the business. The selling of blessed artifacts, statuettes of saints, graces and the like, has been a long-standing business in Toledo. El Greco encountered much the same thing; in his case, at the heart of the city's Cathedral.

[Toledo by Chris J Fry]

The great altar here is a floor to ceiling explosion of colour, a tapestry of saints and myths, a doll-house, much as one encounters in a gift shop. Created by an army of anonymous sculptors, it is a three-dimensional representation of Christian messages, art for the masses, just what Philip II would have wanted. The craftsmen were always secondary to the message, and it was in this milieu that El Greco would have to find a way to distinguish himself.

In 1577, he got the chance to prove that Spanish art could be more than pious folksiness. The Cathedral authorities commissioned him to paint on the subject of the disrobing of Christ, Jesus about to be stripped before his crucifixion. He produced a a marvel: a vertical composition of crowded figures, in which one finds virtuoso realism (as in the armour of Herod, and the old man dramatically pointing at the viewer, disclosing El Greco's mastery over perspective), and a simultaneous dismissal of realism (as in the scale of Christ, the way he appears to be pushed towards heaven). Hard to believe, but the authorities disapproved: they didn't want any figures above that of the Messiah: nothing should separate the Lord from heaven. Once again, El Greco had broken the rules to display his artistic vision. He'd never work in the Cathedral again.

Ironically, it is this rejection of El Greco by the two main patrons of art in Spain that enabled him the freedom to demonstrate the full scope of his imagination. Away from the cathedral, a group of priests and others were practising mysticism, a devotion to God so extreme that it became a physical experience. They embraced El Greco, deeply appreciating the way he brought his eastern, Greek, character into his art, simultaneously absorbing the culture of Spain. In his pictures (such as this one of St. Sebastian), the figures yearn towards heaven and writhe with energy, as though bursting out of the frame. And when he turned his attention to Toledo itself, he painted it with brooding, mystical energy, the overhead clouds signalling the Apocalypse, the impending showdown for which all of Spain, all of Christendom, was preparing. The city's buildings quiver with spiritual energy, reflecting El Greco's spirituality, as though the whole place, holiest of holy places, were about to be whirled up to heaven.

People at the time had a deep, abiding faith in visions, spirits, angels, and saintly grace and protection. At times, this belief could become extreme, contagious, breeding obsession. El Greco captured this brilliantly in his painting of the burial of the Count of Orgaz. It depicts the moment that two angels descend to take the soul of the devout count to heaven. The forms are flickering, ascending, radiant with colour. It's as if the whole wall's on fire. "Below, we have flesh and blood human beings, witnessing solemnly the miracle. As the miracle takes place, as the soul is transported into heaven, all of the forms dissolve. The Count of Orgaz becomes pure spirit, and as that happens, El Greco's style becomes pure spirit, so that the forms become more fluid... The body of John the Baptist is like an emanation..." There is tenderness in the painting, in the way that the saints are lowering the count's body into the tomb, as though they were placing a newborn infant in a cradle. And that is the essential message of this picture, that death is a form of rebirth, that death is what you live for, that death is the beginning of the great adventure that will take your soul into the world of the spirit.

El Greco could not have thrived in Spain were it not for the prevalence and influence of the mystics, and the deep faith among the people in the favour of saints. One of the most famous of the mystics was St Teresa of Ávila. She was born in that town in 1515, and was so caught up in her faith that she ran away to the south to attain martyrdom at the hands of the Moors. Luckily for her, her parents managed to save her. As she grew older, she became a nun, and founded convents across the land. Five hundred years later, Ávila is a centre for pilgrimage.

She was a saint who understood the tribulations of ordinary people, but in her writings, she openly talked about her own struggles with her faith. To those of her followers who despaired of their short and difficult lives, she said consolingly, "Life on earth is no more than a night in a cheap hotel."

At her convent, Teresa stripped Christianity to its basics: love, poverty, chastity. She demonstrated her faith in a rare form of performance art. Having seen the lack of piety among her sisters in the nunnery, she staged her own enactment of the crucifixion of Christ. She crawled on all fours, had herself dragged on muleback in a sack full of stones, and got one of the nuns to lead her around the convent on a halter.

Teresa saw visions, vivid images of Christ being scourged. The power of the Holy Spirit took hold of her so strongly that she shook, and her body began to levitate. Then, the strangest experience of all - a transverberation of her heart, where she felt an angel thrusting a spear of fire into her heart. She was infused with the Holy Spirit. Her binding with God was so intense that she experienced Him within her.

Forty years after her death in 1582, she was canonised. The question then arose: how best to depict her story? The answer was art. Santa Teresa had become a folk hero and an inspiration to thousands. She was depicted in many paintings, including those by the Flemish master Peter Paul Rubens, and the Spaniard, Claudio Coello (whose Communion of St Teresa appears here). But paintings were not enough for Teresa's followers. They would demand something far more graphic.

At the convent of Alba de Tormes, where Teresa died and was buried, is a gold-trimmed casket above the altar, designed to receive her body. It is strangely incomplete. Nine months after her burial in 1582, her body was exhumed and conclusive proof found of her purity: not only was the corpse perfectly preserved, but - some witnesses said - it smelled of perfume. And devotion to Teresa became a cult. Her body was exhumed several times over the centuries. On each occasion, parts of her were removed for relics. At Alba de Tormes, you can see her arm encased in crystal. Most precious of all is her heart, preserved in a wonderful reliquary. These are superb manifestations of the mystical in the Spanish Renaissance, thrusting to the core of religious devotion, and, in their mood of morbidity and obsession, evoking St Teresa's divinely inspired life.

The conjunction of pain and piety that gripped 17th century Spain found its highest artistic expression in the art of Juseppe de Ribera. He specialised in martyrdoms, which he painted with extraordinary realism. The Martyrdom of St Philip, captured in the moments before his crucifixion, doesn't show the saint on the cross. Instead, he depicts Philip's agony as he is winched slowly into place. In his painting of St Andrew's martyrdom, the saint is shown as a stoic, calmly awaiting his binding. But Ribera's favourite subject was the hideously tortured St Bartholomew, who had been skinned alive. In all these paintings, there's an emphasis on the sheer visceral pain of being a saint. They are religious depictions, but they show real flesh and blood, and demonstrate the immediacy of being human, bodies appallingly tormented, all sweat and blood and straining sinews. There has been violent religious art before, but in the Spanish Renaissance, everything is far, far more intense.

The darkness in this time could very black indeed. Martyrdom was used to justify many atrocities inflicted by the Spaniards. In the territory of Extremadura (literally 'very hard'), a hot, parched land, dwelt a particularly hardy people. Hardy and hard, as they confirmed to a petrified New World during the sixteenth century. And in this hardy land, in that architectural jewel of a walled city, Trujillo, was born one of the darkest figures of Renaissance Spain.

[Trujillo by JMM Pereda]

In the 16th century, an illegitimate swineherd named Francisco Pizarro, set out from Trujillo to make his fortune in the New World. What he discovered there, and what he did next, resulted in the extermination of an empire and the enslavement of a people, the glory of Spain, and the enormous wealth that transformed Extremadura from a backward outpost to an awe-inspiring powerhouse. The empire that Pizarro destroyed was that of the Incas, and the wealth that fell into the hands of the conquistadores was beyond their wildest imaginings.

The trickle of gold that began the transformation was soon followed by a torrent of silver. A fifth of the amassed riches fell to the king, fuelling the Spanish empire. The conquistadores who returned to Trujillo determined to show off their newly found money, and they built an idealised Renaissance city here in miniature. Streets of palaces were put up, entirely disproportionate to the size of the town, and without regard to the economy of the region. At first sight, these buildings look like the usual displays of nouveaux riches. But a closer look shows that something entirely different is going on... An owner of one palace built his chimneys to resemble Incan temples. On the Pizarro palazzo, the parapets are decorated with statues in the Incan style. At the centre of his coat-of-arms, groups of Inca prisoners are bound with chains [photo by batigolix]. It is the architectural equivalent of a head on a stick, the triumphal architecture of conquest.

Thousands of Incas had perished during the conquest, many from European diseases that they had no immunity to, but many others because of Spanish butchery. Pizarro was one of the more brutal of the conquistadors, pillager and rapist, conning the Inca king into surrendering all his wealth in return for his life, and then garrotting him anyway... The blood of the Incas, Graham-Dixon says, is the cement that holds these magnificent buildings together.

The conquistadors were no mere murderers, however. They were also missionaries caught up in the religious convulsions of 16th century Spain. To understand their mentality, it is important to realise that there was a widespread belief in the country at the time that God Himself had given the New World and all its treasures to Spain, precisely so that the Spaniards could combat the enemies of Catholicism, the Protestants and the Muslims. They genuinely believed that God was on their side. And in the twisted logic of the Catholics, the brutality of their conquest became a manifestation of their piety.
[Monastery of Guadalupe, by Cuellar]

Before setting out on their adventures, the conquistadors made a public display of their piety at one of the fulcrums of the faith: the Monastery of Guadalupe. Three hundred or so years earlier, the Virgin Mary was supposed to have appeared to a shepherd and guided him to a statue on the very site the monastery now stands. The Virgin of Guadalupe became one of the most sacred treasures of the Catholic world. High above the altar, blackened with age, she is so small that one can barely see her. For a better view, one has to go to a small chamber behind the altar, which the monks use to change her elaborate clothes. A swivel-door opens up to reveal the Virgin, up close and in full regalia...For years, Catholics believed that she was no ordinary Madonna, but that she was the image of the Mother of God herself, carved by the Apostle St Luke. The intensity of that veneration can be seen in the splendour in which she is housed today.

But the Virgin is only the centrepiece of a vast complex of piety and prayer. In the 17th century, the task of looking after her fell upon a group of Hieronimite monks. Inspired by the 4th century monk, St Jerome, this order was one of the most powerful and influential in Spain. To assert the authority of the order, they turned to art. In the 1637, they commissioned the greatest religious artist of the time, Francisco de Zurbarán, to paint eight pictures depicting the way that they strove to keep alive the teachings of St Jerome. They adorn the walls of the convent and are rarely open to the public, and are the only place in the whole of Spain where an entire cycle of religious art appears in the place they were meant to reside.

Contrary to expectation, these paintings do not show St Jerome; instead, they depict contemporary brethren of the order experiencing religious ecstasy, visions... In one, Brother Pedro of Salamanca has a vision of a great fire in the sky that portends a great battle to come. It is a simple painting of two men in the dark, one gesturing at the vision. There's almost nothing to look at but their awestruck faces. In another, a monk has a vision of Jesus. Even more magisterial is the painting of a twenty-five year old brother who has just learned in a vision that he is to die this very day. He has gathered to him his brethren, and they are all around him, praying, and Zurbarán has captured the moment just before death seizes the young man. Zurbarán is a master who understands the austerity of monastic life, and he rejects in his art all that a monk has rejected, all that is extraneous in this world. It is religious minimalism, all black and white, because it is clear that to these people, black and white are all there is. Either you are in God's favour, or you are cast out into darkness.

Zurbarán's paintings in the convent of Guadalupe represent the last great flowering of religious art in Spain. Increasingly, this was a society in crisis. The monks of Guadalupe may have been models of piety, but elsewhere people were asking awkward questions. The black-and-white doctrines of the Church were being tested by some of the sharpest minds in the country.

In Salamanca, one of Europe's most beautiful towns, is the glorious University, the oldest in Spain, and in the 16th century, its premier seat of learning. It's openness to inquiry would attract the attention of the most draconian of religious overseers - the Spanish Inquisition. The results were devastating. Fray Luis de Leon (the cover of whose book of poems appears here to the left) was one of the greatest of Spanish intellectuals, a leading light of the University. A revered theologian, his work was in the mystical tradition that supported El Greco, a deep and personal engagement with the Bible and God. He came to the attention of the Inquisition when he published his own translation of one of the most erotic passages in the Holy Book, the Song of Songs. This dangerous text was being sold in vast numbers on the streets outside his lecture hall, and the Inquisition determined that it needed to be stopped immediately. So on 15 March 1572, the officers of the Inquisition dragged him away from his lectures and imprisoned him for five years. In a climate of increasing paranoia, the Inquisition had managed to suppress one of the most humane voices of religion in the land.

Censorship was the mildest of the Inquisition's actions. All over the country, common people were being asked to provide proofs of their Christian bloodlines. In the great squares of towns, elaborate rituals were conducted - Trials of Faith. People accused of heresy were brought to Salamanca's Plaza Mayor to be tried by priests in front of a bloodthirsty crowd. Inevitably, the defendants would be found guilty and sentenced to death by burning at the stake, a lengthy death that gave them plenty of time to scream their repentance and beg for forgiveness in their last moments. A rare picture of a public trial of faith is by Francisco Rizi showed a square crammed with priests and inquisitors and avid crowds. Heretics in tall hats were dragged around, urged to repent. This is religious persecution painted as though it were a spectator sport. An earlier painting by Pedro Berruguete shows the condemned at the moment of execution. Flames lick around the feet of the heretics, while for the executioner it's just another tedious day at work. Burning at the stake had clearly become part of quotidian life.

While Spain consumed itself in religious bigotry and the cruel enforcement of Church doctrine, its vast empire was beginning to unravel. Philip had spent millions prosecuting war in Spanish territories in Northern Europe - Holland, for example - but the campaigns had failed disastrously. His Armada against England had collapsed. The people were exhausted, and their silent protests manifested themselves in an unsung artform: still-life pictures. Traditionally, they reflect on mortality, but in Spain, they became a cry of despair. In Zurbarán's Agnus Dei, for example, the Divine Lamb is a dead sheep on a slab, all trussed up ready for the butcher's block.

While the country imploded in an orgy of violence, there was a last stirring moment of brilliance. Philip IV was the man who was to lead the empire into its final moments. He spent lavishly on making Madrid a glittering capital, the envy of any in Europe. He established grand palaces and monuments to his own glory. But while he indulged in his self-aggrandisement, his country was on its knees. The Gold Rush from the New World had dried up, the empire was shattering, and the galleon foundered while the captain twiddled his thumbs. The beliefs that had kept Spain together were unravelling. And into this scene of twilight strode Diego Rodríguez de Silva y Velázquez.

He found his inspiration not in themes of faith or protest, but in the scenes of daily life on the streets of Madrid. He painted ordinary working people in simple settings. In taverns and kitchens, he captured moments of humanity with immense wisdom and sympathy. There are no religious mysteries here, no symbolism, no arcane codes.

But this painter of the common was also destined to become the greatest court artist of the age, and in Philip the Fourth, he found the perfect patron. The king collected art with astonishing enthusiasm and in a continental scale. At one time he had half the studios in Rome working for him. It was as though he wanted the beautiful illusions of art to fill the power vacuum developing during his reign. His favourite artist, though, was Velazquez, who painted every occasion, such as a rare victory at Breda, and Philip himself resplendent on horseback. He rides through the landscape, his horse symbolising the unruly populace that he keeps firmly under his control (far from the truth!) Velazquez paints the heir-apparent, also on horseback, but here one can see that Velazquez feels that the sickly boy may not live much longer, which turned out to be the case. Here is what make Velazquez great - he shows the king that he can see the deeper reality behind the official propaganda, and he sees it all with empathy and respect.

But there is one painting by Velazquez that shows all the brittle glory and grandeur of 17th century Spain and eventually sounds its death-knell. It's often been described as the world's greatest painting. It is Las Meninas, or the Ladies in Waiting. People have reacted variously to this masterpiece, claiming it to be mysterious, tender. But there is no riddle in it. Velazquez has painted it from the viewpoint of the king who is sitting for his portrait. What does Philip see while he sits? His lovely little golden-haired daughter lit up by a brilliant shaft of light in a rather dark room. His court entertainers, a dwarf, a dog. He sees Velazquez himself with a paintbrush in his hand. He sees himself in the mirror, and he sees his queen. But they appear as ghosts in the reflection. Everything in the picture is about transience. The fabrics, the textures, the skin, the hair, the dwarfs, everything is hovering on the brink of disappearance. Some of the figures are so light that if they moved, the scene would disperse, the moment would pass. No matter how powerful one is, the experience is in the end transitory...Spanish power, Spanish might, Spanish glory, it's all come down to these figures. They will pass, they will die. Everything will come to an end.

[This is a paraphrased transcript of Andrew Graham-Dixon's The Art of Spain, episode 2. The Dark Heart.]


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