Virgin and Child and Portraits - Bilbao Fine Arts Museum

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Virgin and Child and Portraits

Bocanegra, Pedro Atanasio

Granada, 12/05/1638-Granada, 17/04/1689

Oil on canvas

146.5 x 135.5 cm

Second half of the 17th century


Donated by Blanca, Begoña and Aranzazu Alzola de la Sota in 2010

One prototypical work by Bocanegra, The Virgin and Child and Saints, providing support for claims of a measure of originality in his way of resolving narrative in painting. As with most of the artist's production, the basic reference point for the work is Alonso Cano, as the group comprising the Virgin and Child (which dominates the canvas) is of a typology arising out of Bocanegra's personal views on Cano's iconography. The Virgin of Bethlehem, in the Curia Eclesiástica, Granada has been signalled as a crucial antecedent. Although Mary is shown as the throne of God, interaction with the Child is unhindered, Our Lady being represented from a fairly low viewpoint to give the painting a more monumental feeling. Bocanegra kept this image close, in works like Virgin and Child in the Parish of Colomera (Granada). But to get a full understanding of the Bilbao picture, and other similar ones, we need to bear in mind Cano's Virgin of the Rosary, in Malaga Cathedral. Here, Our Lady appears on high holding the Child, with her gaze lowered to permit communication with a group of saints in the lower part of the painting receiving the rosary from angels. This, one of the most important works from the artist's late period, is very likely to have been familiar to Bocanegra, to whom a similar painting in Granada Cathedral is attributed. The painter used these models to develop his own types with some very characteristic facial features, narrowing the Virgin's face, while conserving the broadness of the eyes, sharpening the nose and reducing the size of the mouth. He also made the body more corpulent. Bocanegra also introduced variations in the models of the Child Jesus, adding to the distinctive character of many of his paintings with the same theme.

Besides being an example of the way Bocanegra's models developed from those of Cano, the Bilbao painting is a splendid example of the painter's skills, and is undoubtedly on a par with his finest works. His acknowledged mastery in the handling of colour is once again demonstrated, for example, in the highly effective combination of the different tones of red, the factor that orders the entire composition, particularly through the large lateral curtains and the Virgin's robe. The painting also provides a good illustration of how volume is constructed through the variations produced by light on colour, as well as through forms. But at the same time, while the proportions of Mary's body are slightly distorted (something that occurs in other paintings by Bocanegra), this is, in compositional terms, a measured, well-balanced picture; the artist appears to have taken special care over its execution, displaying an appreciable sense of drawing and a clear desire for detail that leads him to portray characters, robes and textures with great precision.

Although from the topological perspective, as we shall see, the painting comes within the tradition of Virgins with donors, his approach to narrative is quite unusual. To solve the problem of including a group of characters from different levels of reality in a relatively small area (146.5 x 135.5 cm), the artist opted to isolate the religious group from the portraits by means of a double curtain, which thus serves to separate the two realities. The device creates a very ambiguous zone, allowing Bocanegra to play with the double idea of a virtual presence of the Virgin and Child (curtains were often used to suggest this kind of thing) and the possibility of the group being in fact a "picture within a picture", as at this time, to judge from contemporary inventories, it was not unusual for paintings to be protected by curtains.

Close observation of the children leads to similar conclusions. To judge by their clothing and the earrings, the youngsters on the edges are girls. The one on the right has very short hair, possibly as a result of illness, which could mean the work was votive in nature. Judging by the coat he is wearing, the child at the centre is a boy. His hair is long in the fashion of the period. But although the idea appears to have been to represent three people of a certain age and sex and who are a reflection of three real children, the fact is that they have virtually no individualizing features. Indeed, they bear a curious resemblance to the features attributed to the Virgin. (Javier Portús)

Selected bibliography

  • El retrato español : del Greco a Picasso [Cat. exp.]. Madrid, Museo Nacional del Prado, 2004. p.180. (con el título 'La Virgen con el Niño')
  • Portús, Javier. "Ama Birjina Haurrarekin eta erretratuak : Pedro Atanasio Bocanegra, bere sormenaren testuingurua = Virgen con el Niño y retratos : Pedro Atanasio Bocanegra, su contexto creativo = Virgin and Child and portraits : Pedro Atanasio Bocanegra, the creative contex", B'05 : Buletina = Boletín = Bulletin, n° 1. 2006. pp. 43-66.
  • Antigüedad y excelencias [Cat. exp.]. Sevilla, Junta de Andalucía, Consejería de Cultura, 2007. pp. 210-211.
  • González Rodríguez, Pedro Javier. "Sobre el cuadro, atribuido a Pedro A. Bocanegra, de la ”Virgen y el niño con santos” conservado en el Santo Hospital de Caridad de Ferrol", Estudios Mindonienses, n° 33. 218-219. pp. 300, 313, il.