In 1646-52, the bubonic plague hit Seville. The city had warning and could have gone into lockdown earlier, like nearby Cádiz. But whether through economic need or negligence, Spain’s largest city remained open for business. Within a year, a quarter of the population had died and many others fled the city. Floods and famine compounded the crisis, and it was clear that God was punishing Seville. But from calamity came opportunity. As penance, merchants deployed their vast wealth for the glorification of God. Murillo gained.
Alongside Murillo’s many grand commissions for churches and cathedrals was an intimate narrative cycle of paintings depicting the Parable of the Prodigal Son. The story in Luke told the tale of a wilful younger son who demanded and Received His Portion of Inheritance and left home to live a life of luxury. He squandered it all and was reduced to working as a swineherd in a bitter famine. Alone and hungry, he understood his folly and returned to his father to beg for work and forgiveness. Despite the resentment of his older, more obedient brother, his father welcomed him back with open arms.
The tale of suffering, repentance and forgiveness clearly appealed to a Seville-based patron in the pandemic. While the subject was already popular in northern Europe, this series was the first of its kind in Spain. Yet the 6 important works long languished in relative obscurity. After an 8-year restoration campaign, finally see the results in an exhibition at the National Gallery of Ireland, until late Aug 2020.
The paintings were lit to reveal Murillo’s signature vaporous brushwork and vibrant palette. The display was intimate, reflecting the likely setting of the works in the house of an unknown patron. Note the contextual material, especially Jacques Callot’s engravings from 1635, which Murillo reinterpreted for some of his works.
The artist set the story in C17th Andalusia, and the unknown patron would have seen much he recognised. The elegantly dressed prodigal in The Prodigal Son Feasting closely resembled those New World heirs who spent lavishly in the brothels and bars of Seville.
See The Prodigal Son Driven Out. The man, impoverished and clothes in tatters, was cast out of a brothel. The furious courtesans wielded brooms and pikes, and the wizened madame cursed him from the doorway. While rare in art, the prodigal son story was a firm favourite among Spanish Golden Age playwrights.
Murillo, The Prodigal Son Feeding Swine (1660s).
Hunger reigned and the barefooted wretch in The Prodigal Son Feeding Swine, an imagine of gloom and desolation that would have been a common enough sight during and after the plague.
The conservation work, according to the experts, was a great success. Much of Murillo’s fine sfumato and fluid brushwork remained intact. Technical analysis has uncovered a significant pentimento in Feeding Swine. Behind the son’s head, Murillo had painted a ruined castle. Its ominous presence filled the horizon, but Murillo clearly didn’t care for it and opted instead for a desolate landscape. Such a major alteration was unusual for the artist, and the exhibition illustrated this by including a full-size display of the X-rays.
In fact the entire cycle was a morality play in oil, each scene coming together to reveal the story and the folly of the prodigal’s actions. Early in the paintings’ history the final scene, The Return of the Prodigal Son, was separated from the group. When the Earl of Dudley bought the other five for a fortune, he was determined to reunite them. Unfortunately for him, the missing picture had been acquired by Queen Isabella II who in 1856 presented it to Pope Pius IX.
Murillo’s cycle ended in the tearful return of the prodigal. Murillo may have chosen to emphasise the charitable aspect of the parable because of the nature of the commission during an active pandemic. The Return of the Prodigal Son was one of the huge canvases painted for the Church of the Hospital of Saint George in Seville, a hospice for the homeless and hungry. Murillo's model was the life around him; part of the appeal of this canvas lay in its human touches, even in terrible times.
The National Gallery of Ireland concluded: The series started when Murillo’s style had quite softened from its early stages. One of the founders of the Spanish Academy of painting, Murillo initially used Zurbaran’s dark Caravaggesque art. Murillo's great talent for dramatic painting was apparent in this monumental Prodigal Son series, an allegory of repentance and divine forgiveness. And to underscore the drama, the images were reminiscent of a well-staged theatre piece. So what is the connection with the current coronavirus pandemic? The parable of the Prodigal Son was a cure for despair. The story could bring a spark of light to the imprisoned criminals, for after their period of feeding the swine, they could live a new life in the love of Christ. Presumably, so could we moderns.
All images are from the National Gallery Ireland, Dublin.