Murillo’s Virgin of the Rosary at the Prado

May 8th 2021

“The Virgin of the Rosary”,  1650 -55, Bartolomé Esteban Murillo, Museo del Prado, Madrid.  
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A young mother and her child hold each other close.  Both engage the viewer with the same solemn and serious gaze.  This mother and child are entirely credible. It would be hard to believe that the models are not a real mother and child.   It is as if the presence of the viewer has  made the child seek out the security of his mother’s lap, as young children sometimes do.   The woman is beautiful but not so beautiful as to seem unreal.   Seated on a stone step, she and her little boy are very much of this world.   Her striking red dress,  the blue mantle and the delicate  headdress all serve to  enhance her quiet dignity and beauty.   The child holds up a rosary beads between them as if it were a play thing.  But with the hand with which she embraces the child, the mother holds it too.   In an earlier painting of Our Lady giving the Rosary to St Dominic, which Murillo painted in 1640, the Virgin is seated on clouds and and crowned against a background of heavenly gold.  The contrast is telling.  Here Murillo is picking up on the naturalism of Flemish artists, to which he would have been exposed in Seville’s collections.   However,  in a work such as this one, Murillo  champions a shift in Counter Reformation art away from scenes of martyrdom and  penitent saints to gentler subjects such as the hidden life of the Holy Family, set in a seemingly charmed domesticity.   When this was painted life in Seville was anything but charmed. The city was emerging from the latest  outbreak of plague, which was particularly catastrophic.   In this context of suffering  and loss, devotion to the Rosary was encouraged and went from strength to strength.  Murillo himself was a member of the Confraternity of the Rosary and this work was probably intended as an aid to praying the Rosary.  It is notable that Mary and Jesus are not praying the Rosary.   Rather, they contemplate the viewer who prays.  They do not finger the beads, but rather hold it up for the viewer.   As the viewer mediated on each mystery of the Rosary his or her eye could linger on the painting’s details and,  finding in these the natural human intimacy of a mother and child,   be enabled to engage more fully with the joys, the sorrows and glories of each mystery.  For example, the white cloth might evoke a shroud and the heartbreak of a mother watching her son enfolded in death.   With great subtlety, Murillo has the beads make the shape of a cross just above it.   The solemn and serious stare of this mother and child then might easily become for the viewer one of the will to save or an acknowledgement of suffering and its toll.   The great mystery of salvation is to be found intimated by a mother seated on a stone step with her child  in a quiet corner of their home. 

Murillo’s Virgin of the Rosary at the Prado

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

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