Murillo’s Martyrdom of St Andrew

November 28th 2020

“The Martyrdom of St Andrew”,  Murillo, 1675 -82, Museo del Prado.  You can see this picture in higher resolution at

At first sight,  the gaunt figure of St Andrew  dominates the scene.  But as you look you begin to notice one by one the figures in the crowd who like you are looking at this scene of martyrdom.  It is as if you were there among them.   This painting is characterised by Murillo’s  later “vaporous” style and yet no swirl of cloud obscures his detailed observation of the individuals who witness the saint’s martyrdom.  Each one can be seen clearly and individually.  We see their various reactions to the martyrdom too.   Murillo captures the faces of several as if he were pointing portraits.  For example, we can clearly see the features of a man of colour behind the cross and those of the one who looks back at him.  Notice the face of the young boy behind both of them as he stares upward.  On the left,  a woman’s face is hidden in shadow as she turns away from the spectacle weeping, but another looks on intently and holds up her child to see the grim show.  Behind them a figure points to the martyr as if commenting on his fate to someone behind him.  There is a group of Roman soldiers on the right.  Two of them are mounted on horseback.   One is carrying the Roman standard.   The other, who is clearly the one in charge of the execution,  is mounted on a white horse.  Visually,  the white back of the horse is quite significant.  It draws the light which descends from the sky above down to the earth, above which the martyr has been raised.   In the very centre and beneath the cross, the tools of the executioner’s trade are visible.  In this work, Murillo combines the realism of his earlier works with the idealism of later works.  We see real people caught up in a sea of emotional responses  to the saint’s martyrdom.   But we also see the cherubs descend with the palm of martyrdom bathed in the golden light of heaven.  Another artist might have shown the crowd in shadow and the saint surrounded by such a light. Indeed, the legend of the martyrdom St Andrew told of the saint being enveloped in a bright supernatural light.   But the legend also said that despite his advanced age St Andrew took three days to die and that throughout his ordeal he preached the gospel to the thousands who came to hear him.   Perhaps this is why Murillo makes the crowd so integral to this work as a whole.  These are real people among whom the eye can move.  It is as if the viewer were in the crowd.  Colour is used to great effect.  It draw the eye from one character to the next and also  hold the scene together.  For example,  the red cloth wound around the woman’s waist on the left is picked up by the Roman standard and then again in the caps of the soldiers.  The white border of her dress, the saint’s loin cloth, the horse and the dog all form an arch of white which complements the red.   To my eye,  it is as if you were in a darkened theatre watching the scene and then suddenly someone turned on the house lights,  so that you now see not just the scene on stage but your fellow spectators.   Tomorrow, we celebrate the Solemnity of St Andrew, Patron of Scotland.  St Andrew pray for us.  

Murillo’s Martyrdom of St Andrew

Edinburgh Catholic Chaplaincy

The Catholic Chaplaincy serves the students and staff of the University of Edinburgh, Edinburgh Napier University and Queen Margaret University.

The Catholic Chaplaincy is also a parish of the Archdiocese of St Andrews and Edinburgh (the Parish of St Albert the Great) and all Catholic students and staff are automatically members of this parish.

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