Diego Velasquez's Christ Crucified

The name Diego Velasquez (1599–1660), painter to the Spanish court, usually calls to mind portraits, both formal and informal, of the royals and their courtiers, theatrical mythological scenes, genre scenes of Spanish life, and only a smattering of rather operatic, Baroque religious subjects. Therefore this stark and uncompromising Christ Crucified is rather a surprise from Velasquez, or for that matter, from anyone. Here there is no landscape, no other people, no action or expression of emotion, just empty space, blackness, and a Christ, up close and already dead. How to account for such a startling image?

Sometimes the circumstances of a painting's origins offer clues, but unfortunately, there is little to be found here. It is conjectured that Jerónimo de Villanueva, a highly placed official at court and the founder of the Convent of San Plácido in Madrid, may have commissioned it for the Benedictines there. In 1630, Villanueva had come under scrutiny by the Inquisition for alleged irregularities at the convent. At the same time, an incident involving the desecration of a sculpted crucifix in Madrid prompted an outpouring of pious devotions to Christ crucified, of which this might be one.

The painting would have served a double purpose: as an enhancement of the convent and as a public statement of orthodoxy and devotion on the part of Villanueva and the Benedictines. The painting is rather like a statue, perhaps like the one that was disfigured. (The careful carpentry of the cross, too, might be a reference to the Benedictines' emphasis on work.) Inquiries into the convent's activities were suspended.

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Mary Elizabeth Podles is the retired curator of Renaissance and Baroque art at the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore, Maryland. She and her husband Leon, a Touchstone senior editor, have six children and live in Baltimore, Maryland.


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