Nov 29, 2010

Valdes Leal "In Ictu Oculi" & "Finis Gloriae Mundi"

Juan de Valdés Leal 
“In Ictu Oculi” & “Finis Gloriae Mundi”
The Brotherhood of Charity (La Caridad) was founded in Seville in 1565, one of many religious confraternities active in Spain. Its goal began as the provision of proper Christian burial for the poor, but they eventually established a hospital for paupers. There were groups of men who gathered for social and charitable functions, much like today’s Knights of Columbus or Rotary Club. Patron of the Brotherhood Don Miguel de Manara commissioned these artworks to decorate the hospital that his confraternity established. Members of the confraternity would pool resources, and were therefore able to commission such wondrous works as this pair of paintings by Juan de Valdes Leal.

The Brotherhood commissioned a series of work within an overall theme—the way to Salvation through Christian charity. This pair of paintings, as intriguing as they are macabre, show the futility of earthly vanity. The second part of the series shows the way to salvation through the Seven Acts of Mercy, six of which can be seen in paintings by the celebrated Bartolome Murillo (1617-1682), also on display. The seventh, burying the dead (the specialty of this Brotherhood) is shown in the altarpiece Entombment sculpture group by Pedro Roldán. The final element of the series, on the lateral altars, comprises two other painting by Murillo, showing Saint John and Saint Elizabeth, exemplars of charitable goodness.
The location of the works of Juan Valdes Leal (1622-1690), just by the entrance, means that visitors are first confronted by the grim warning they provide against earthly vanities, before walking along the “path to salvation” past the Seven Acts of Mercy. This gruesome pair also must be passed on the way out of the chapel, a stern reminder not to forget the lessons learned inside.

But why so gruesome and macabre? The 17th century saw a worldwide fascination with witchcraft, inspired by the most popular book of the era, Malleus Maleficorum (“The Hammer of the Witches” published in 1487 and republished in countless editions), which was essentially a handbook on how to recognize and prosecute witches. Spanish and Italian artists fed this popular interest by incorporating supernatural elements into their allegorical paintings. It was an era in which skeletons, crypts, and occult implements found their way into paintings that, a century earlier, would have settled for less dramatic allegorical attributes. This was, to some extent, a reaction against the strict demands on how art should look, imparted by the Counter-Reformation (particularly after the Council of Trent in 1545). Artists enjoyed expressing themselves in a particularly unorthodox manner when the opportunity presented itself. The revolution that Caravaggio’s work inspired throughout Europe, with his heavy chiaroscuro (figures emerging out of darkness into dramatic spot-lighting) and his unidealized, often shocking naturalism, gave artists of the Baroque period a licence that more traditional, academic contemporaries and painters of earlier periods did not enjoy.

The painting labelled Finis Gloria Mundi (“The End of Earthly Glory”) is meant to be both a warning and of some comfort. The scene is a charnelhouse (a bone respository in a crypt) with the open coffin of a bishop and a decomposing corpse beside it. Hanging on scales held by a disembodied celestial arm are items associated with the occult (a goat, a human heart), balanced out against holy Catholic objects (including a heart topped with the coat-of-arms of Christ, the IHS). The occult objects are labelled with “NIMAS” (“no more”) while the Catholic objects bare the label “NIMENOS” (“no less”). An owl lurks in the back, is an ancient symbol of night and witchcraft. The canvas labelled In Ictu Oculi (“In the Twinkling of an Eye”) shows Death as a skeleton, carrying a scythe and lugging a coffin under his arm, standing in triumph atop attributes of earthly glory: a globe, armor, fine garments, architectural books, missals, gold crowns, even a bishop’s staff and headpiece.

Don Miguel, patron of these works, was an ardent adherent to a life against vanity. In his Will, he describes himself as not only as a sinner, but also as an adulterer, thief and servant of the Devil. The epitaph carved, at his request, on his tomb reads: “Here lie the bones and ashes of the worst person who ever lived on earth." He must have been an awkward guest at dinner parties. The moral for this allegory of death? Everyone dies, the highly moral and the highly immoral, the bishop and the sinner. We all become bones, we all decompose: all are equal in death. Cold comfort for hospital decoration.