Zurbarán’s Virgin of Mercy of Las Cuevas

October 9th 2021

“The Virgin of Mercy of Las Cuevas”, Francisco de Zurbarán, c.1644-55, Museo de Belles Artes, Seville.  

In the Counter Reformation period,  sacred figures were often shown as real people in order to foster devotion.  How this was done varied from place to place. For example, in Rome Caravaggio carefully posed ordinary people as saints and painted what he saw.  In Spain,  this realism had its own particular character.  Wooden painted sculptures of the saints were very popular, but  unlike so many statues with which we might be familiar as Catholics, these figures were extraordinarily life-like.  Sculptors used a variety of materials to show what looked like real blood, tears or hair.  There are those who now hold that inlaces like Seville, painting and sculpture were closely connected and some artists learned their craft from painting gesso covered wooden sculptures.  This may or may not be true of Zurbarán, but in his “Virgin of Mercy of Las Cuevas”  the Carthusian monks beneath our Lady’s mantle do seem to be extraordinary life-life.  I first saw this image at an exhibition at the National Gallery in London  entitled “The Sacred made Real” in 2010.   When I stood before this picture the effect was quite startling.  Zurbarán was a master of the trompe de l’oeil. Earlier in his career he had painted Christ on the cross, and when that painting was hung in a darkened space and viewed through a grille, it  did indeed look as if it were a sculpture rather than a painting.   The effect is similar in this work. The monks’  faces and hands seem to be real flesh and and their habits look so real you could almost feel the texture of the heavy cloth.  Indeed,  the contrast between the skin and the cloth is not only visually delightful, but suggests that these are real men of flesh and blood who have become Carthusians.  The effect is accentuated by the fact that the figure of the Virgin is elongated and the golden heavenly backdrop has no depth. It is as if she opens her cloak in heaven to reveal those for whom she has special care in this world which we inhabit.

Zurbarán’s Virgin of Mercy of Las Cuevas

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.

Read more