Zurbarán’s Agnus Dei at the Prado

December 12th 2020

“Agnus Dei”, Francisco De Zurbaran, 1635 – 1640, Museo del Prado, Madrid.    You can see this picture in higher resolution at https://www.museodelprado.es/en/the-collection/art-work/agnus-dei/795b841a-ec81-4d10-bd8b-0c7a870e327b

In the verse which follows today’s Gospel passage, John the Baptist sees Jesus coming towards him and says, “Behold the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world.”  (Jn 1:29)  This exclamation just about sums up this painting by Zurbarán.   This is not his only version of the subject, but it is generally thought to be his finest.  In some of the others there is a halo or the inscription “Tanquam agnus” (“like a lamb”, after Isaiah 53:7-8).  This version’s impact relies solely on the artist’s skill in rendering so realistically the various textures of the lamb, especially the thick matted wool.  This naturalistic rendering of detail and the use of bright light against a dark background heighten the viewer’s sense of the physical presence of the lamb.   In this way, Zurbarán conveys the force of the Baptist’s word “Behold!”  In fact,  in the early Christian art, Christ was frequently shown as a lamb, albeit in a rather more abstract form.  This symbolism draws not just on Chapter 1 of the Gospel of John but also the Book of Revelation and is intended to convey not just Christ’s sacrifice on the cross but his victory over sin and death.  In fact, this symbolism continued down the centuries and is found in many 17th Century paintings of the Nativity.  For centuries,  paintings of the Nativity of Christ included elements which symbolised his Passion and death.   These elements ranged from more subtle hints at the Passion such as a particular bird, or piece of fruit, to the rather more direct device of a crucifix hanging on the wall of the stable or cave.   And by the time of Zurbarán, when shepherds are shown bringing a bound lamb as a gift to the Holy Child this same symbolism remains.   In Zurbarán’s Jerez  “Adoration of the Shepherds”, (1638, Grenoble) the shepherds  have brought a bound lamb,  which is very similar to the lamb in this painting.   Here he simply shows the lamb.  Presumably this painting was made for a private patron who as a believer could infer the rest.  To the modern viewer,  this might seem an odd way of showing Christ, but for Zurbarán’s contemporaries this unblemished lamb was a rich symbol of Christ.  It converted his meekness, innocence, purity and his willing acceptance of his sacrifice.  And so the gift of the lamb symbolising our devotion also conveys the reason for it.  He loved us first.  

Zurbarán’s Agnus Dei at the Prado

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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