Exhibition: Alterpiece of San Benito el Real - Bilbao Fine Arts Museum

The guest work


2006-01-16 • 2006-03-31

Alterpiece of San Benito el Real

Mogrobejo hall

These two beautiful polychrome wood reliefs form part of the altarpiece in the San Benito el Real Monastery in Valladolid and, at present, belong to the National Sculpture Museum of the same city. 

Alonso Berruguete (Paredes de Nava, Palencia, 1489 - Toledo, 1561) was commissioned to do the altarpiece by the abbot of the Benedictine Community of Vallodolid to celebrate various episodes of the life of the founder, Saint Benito of Nursia. Berruguete began work on the altarpiece in 1526 after a long stay in Italy, where he became acquainted with the works of Donatello, Miguel Ángel and Leonardo. For this reason, it combines elements that are part of the medieval artistic tradition with a new spirit deriving from the Italian Renaissance style.

Among the first of these elements may be found expressive dramatism or the symbolic use of gold backgrounds while classicist elements are present in the fluency of the landscape and in the search for verism in the characterisation of the personages  and in the narration of religious fact. The altarpiece, which is composed of a Renaissance architectural structure and a large number of figures, reliefs and paintings, was not finished until 1533. The iconographic programme included representations of prophets and apostles next to scenes of Christ's childhood and, as in the case of these two reliefs, Benedictine themes. 

According to the biography of Saint Benito written by San Gregorio Magno, on one occasion, the Saint envisaged the danger Saint Placid's life was in after falling into the water and he called for the most virtuous of his followers, Saint Mauro, who, walking on the water, went to his aid. In another episode, the saint decided to build a monastery on Mount Subiaco.

In the face of his disciples' disappointment at not finding water in the chosen place, Saint Benito informed them that, miraculously, water was gushing from the mountain peak. In the representation of both chapters, Berruguete situates the saint on one side, where he goes practically unnoticed, which underlines the dignity of the personage. On the other side a tree trunk of great naturalism closes the composition.

In both scenes Berruguete's technical skill bestows on the personages a corporeal nature and a movement which go towards creating a work of extraordinarily expressive intensity.