Exhibition: Child Madonna Asleep - Bilbao Fine Arts Museum

The guest work


2013-07-10 • 2013-09-15

Child Madonna Asleep

Room 9

First launched in 2001, the Guest Work programme presents artworks on temporary loan from other institutions that are infused with new life and meaning by being displayed in the context of the Museum’s permanent collection. The Banco Santander Foundation has sponsored this initiative since 2004, and its generosity has enabled the Museum to organize several Guest Work loans every year; the Foundation also occasionally provides artworks from its own collection. There have now been 42 editions of the programme to date (including this latest loan), which have given visitors to the Museum the opportunity to view 49 artworks in this unique format. Guest Work loans have included artworks by Berruguete, Morales, Van Dyck, Tintoretto, Artemisia Gentileschi, Canaletto, Fortuny, Monet, Sorolla, Picasso, Chillida, Hockney, Freud, Rubens, Turner, Magritte  and, most recently, Friedrich.

On this occasion, the guest work is an oil painting by Francisco de Zurbarán (Fuente de Cantos, Badajoz, 1598–Madrid, 1664), one of the great artistic figures of Spanish painting during the country’s Golden Age. Part of the Banco Santander Collection, the painting dates from 1630-1635. In 2004, the Banco Santander Foundation made available another masterwork by Zurbarán, Ram, an oil painting on canvas from the Plandiura Collection in Barcelona, signed and dated in 1632, which synthesizes many of the most significant features of the artist’s body of work.

The Bilbao Fine Arts Museum also holds a group of magnificent works by Zurbarán, including Saint Catherine of Alexandria, c. 1635-1640, Saint Elizabeth of Thuringia, c. 1635-1640, The Holy Face, c. 1660 and Madonna with the Child Jesus and the Child St. John the Baptist, 1662. The first two are currently on loan until 20 July in an exhibition called Saints by Zurbarán: Devotion and Persuasion, mounted at the Espacio Santa Clara in Seville, and will be travelling afterwards to the Carmen Thyssen Museum in Malaga. The other two paintings are on display in Museum room 11. According to Benito Navarrete, Madonna with the Child Jesus and the Child St. John the Baptist “is one of the most important works painted by Zurbarán just two years before his death […] Here Zurbarán expresses himself in his own hand and gives of his very best.”

Child Madonna Asleep is a key work in the Banco Santander Collection. In it, Zurbarán gives full rein to his abilities as a portraitist, while displaying consummate mastery in the expressive intensity of the child Madonna’s face. He also revels in his prodigious capacity to render fabrics and materials, allied here to a highly personal conception of colour. On show in room 9, this magnificent painting by Zurbarán can now be viewed in the context of the Spanish Baroque paintings in the Museum’s permanent collection, which features major artworks by the great masters and schools of the age, such as Herrera the Elder, Orrente, Ribera, Zurbarán, Murillo, Carreño, Ribalta, Roelas and Castelló. The painting’s arrival at the Bilbao Fine Arts Museum makes this edition of the Guest Work a must-see for anyone interested in art in general and for lovers of the Baroque in particular.

Child Madonna Asleep is a remarkably faithful version of another well known painting in Jerez de la Frontera Cathedral. When the work was introduced to the public in 1996, much was made of the delicacy, tenderness and profound spirituality that informed the painting, in which Zurbarán, with admirable simplicity, presents the Madonna as a child asleep. Portrayed in a pause in her prayers, the book she was meditating on is still in her left hand. As the Madonna leans against a modest bulrush chair, she might well be dreaming of her extraordinary destiny. On the right, on a small rustic table, is a metal salver with an Oriental  porcelain bowl containing three flowers whose symbolic significance is quite clear: a rose (love), a lily (purity) and a carnation (fidelity).
At the painting’s presentation, the condition of the work gave cause for concern. The surface was covered in a thick layer of yellow varnish that quite hid the delicacy of execution, while also veiling the colour. This impeded the proper interpretation of the painting, particularly in relation to the Jerez version.
Happily, careful cleaning –carried out in 2002- has now revealed the painting as it should be seen, reviving and confirming the accuracy and incisiveness of the folds and painstaking rendering of the details. Old retouches have been lifted away to lay bare hidden particulars, such as the ornate finish to the back of the chair and the velvety texture of the red cushion at the foot of the table. Freed from the yellow varnishes, the original tones of the colouring have been restored: a violet-hued pink for the tunic and an intense blue for the cloak that has slipped down off the seated figure’s back.
The halo of small angels’ heads that glows around the Madonna’s head was brought out during restoration and enables us to date the painting to around 1630-1635, perhaps produced immediately before the Jerez version, although slightly softer, with mass and volume less distinguished and the chiaroscuro less accentuated. Another version of this Madonna Asleep, produced by a modest imitator of Zurbarán some time in the late 17th century, is now in the Casa Teresiana in Madrid. Tentatively executed with loose brushstrokes, it is however a world away from the other two signed versions.

Text: Alfonso E. Pérez Sánchez

Child Madonna Asleep, c. 1630-1635
Oil on cavas. 110 x 93 cm
Banco Santander Collection