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Some Spanish Art, and How it Reflected Spanish Society

Oil painting on canvas of an old woman sitting in a kitchen frying eggs in a red pot in front of her and holding another egg in her hand. A young boy holding a package and a bottle stands next to her.

Diego Velázquez, Vieja friendo huevos (Old Woman Frying Eggs), 1618. Oil on canvas. National Gallery of Scotland, Edinburgh.

Reader question: “My question is what does the Spanish art from the late Middle Ages and early modern period tell us about Spanish culture and society at that time period. Thank you!” —asked by Kaylie

It’s a very broad topic but I’ll do my best to give an overview! Let’s start with some definitions:

Late Middle Ages = generally understood to be ca. 1300 to 1500.

Early modern period = there are various definitions of where the early modern period starts, but let’s say roughly the mid-1400s to the 1700s.

That means that the time period we’re looking at here is between 1300 and the 1700s. Before we get to the juicy bits—the art—I just want to take a few paragraphs to look at what happened in Spain during this period (which wasn’t even really “Spain” until the end of the 1400s). Let’s start by looking at a brief timeline (borrowed from BBC) to help us:

1492—The Christian Kingdoms of Castile and Aragon conquer the Emirate of Granada, ending nearly 800 years of Muslim rule in the south and founding modern Spain as a united state.

Christopher Columbus arrives in the Americas, heralding the conquest of much of South and Central America. Jews and later Muslims are expelled from Spain during the Inquisition.

16th-17th centuries—Spanish Empire at its height, with Spain the predominant European power. The rise of Protestant states in northern Europe and the Ottoman Empire in the Mediterranean begin the country’s gradual decline.”

So, we can see the trajectory of Spain during this period. It became the unified Spain that we know today, it became established as a Christian nation, and grew to a great empire that invaded other countries overseas. This period of overseas conquest is known as the Golden Age of Spain (ca. 1492 – 1659).

I also want to highlight the year 1516, when the different kingdoms of Spain were unified under Hapsburg rule, forming the powerful state of Hapsburg Spain. This is important, because the Hapsburg family were very big patrons of the art.

With that very brief background, let’s move on to the art:

Late Middle Ages until Golden Age of Spain (1300 – late 1400s)

A courtyard of gravel with concrete paths leading to a fountain in the centre. The fountain is sitting on top of a circle of stone lion sculptures. The courtyard is surrounded by low buildings fronted by numerous horseshoe arches.

The Court of the Lions in the Alhambra, the Arabic Islamic palace completed in 1333. The arches in the back are great examples of horseshoe arches.

During the 1300s, there was a split between Muslim and Christian “Spain” (before Spain was a unified nation), meaning that there were essentially two different strands of art in the region.

First of all, we have Al-Andalus. Al-Andalus was “Muslim Spain”; the Arab-Muslim territory that, at its peak, occupied most of what we today know as Spain and Portugal. The most famous artistic achievement of Al-Andalus is the Alhambra, a beautiful palace that was completed in 1333 by Yusuf I, Sultan of Granada. It contains a lot of features that are considered to be typical of Al-Andalus art and architecture, such as the horseshoe arch and the Almohad sebka. It was also covered in calligraphy and arabesques, two iconic features of Arabic Islamic art.

A hall inside a large ornate building lined with columns. Between the columns are double rows of red and white striped arches.

The Mosque-Cathedral of Córdoba – which was originally a mosque until it was converted into a cathedral – is another beautiful example of Al-Andalusian architecture.

Meanwhile, the Christian parts of Spain, made up of various kingdoms, had recently transitioned from Romanesque to Gothic art and architecture. This followed the trajectory of the rest of Europe, with Gothic emerging out of France and spreading in the 12th century. Let’s look at, for example, the Toledo Cathedral, which begun being constructed in 1226 and was completed in the 15th century.

A large cathedral with a tall pointed tower on the left and a smaller domed tower on the right. A large pointed arch marks the main entrance in the middle.

The Toledo Cathedral in present day. Note that this isn’t what it would have looked like in the 1300s, but the gothic style is still visible, especially in the pointed arch above the entrance.

So, during this time, the art of the area that is today known as Spain reflects the differences between the cultures and religions of Al-Andalus and of the Christian kingdoms to the North. The former was generally influenced by Islamic art and architecture, and the latter by European Gothic styles. Many of the Al-Andalus examples of art and architecture were destroyed or converted from mosques to churches when the Christians took over, but a lot of famous examples still remain.

(Before moving on, I just want to mention that it wasn’t an even split and there was definitely mixing of Arab-Muslim and Iberian Christian influences. The Mozarabs, for example, were a population of Iberian Christians living in Al-Andalus. Their style of architecture was a mix of Christian and Muslim influences, and can for example be seen in the Sant Quirze de Pedret in Catalonia, which among other things features the previously mentioned Islamic horseshoe arch. Check out more info here.)

Spanish Golden Age (1492 – 1659)

Oil painting on a vertically aligned canvas depicting Jesus Christ in a bright red robe, hand against his chest and gaze directed upwards, surrounded by a crowd of people. A man to our right is pulling at Christ’s robe.

El Greco, El Espolio (The Disrobing of Christ), 1577–1579, oil on canvas. Sacristy of the Cathedral, Toledo.

This age of Spanish art history coincides with the Spanish Renaissance, and comprises the late Gothic style, Mannerism, and finally Baroque. It also involves, of course, the Spanish inquisition.

The Spanish Golden Age was a paradoxical time. It was a period of intense cultural flourishing of art and literature, but also a period in which Spain went through crisis after crisis (armed conflict, famine, epidemics) and started losing power and territories, especially in the 17th century.

First of all, the cultural flourishing. The expanding of the Spanish empire through overseas conquest and the new Hapsburg rule had a few key effects on Spanish art during this period:

  1. Although religious scenes still dominated, there was a huge increase in commissions from wealthy patrons, such as the Hapsburg family, to celebrate the new empire.
  2. Seville, which was the “gateway to the New World”, became a flourishing artistic centre in the 16th century and attracted artists from across Europe, bringing with them new artistic influences. Madrid, Toledo, Valencia, and Valladolid also became active artistic centres.

Both of these things led to a period in which Spanish art flourished, and the Spanish Golden Age saw the rise of some of the most famous artists in Spanish history, most notably El Greco (Mannerism) and Velázquez (Baroque). The abundance of commissions from royal and aristocratic patrons meant that artists from all across Europe came to stay in Spain, influencing the artists there and connecting them to art movements happening across Europe.

Five human figures on a rocky landscape in front of a city under a stormy sky. The two middle figures are outstretched on the ground and one of them is wrestling with a snake. The figure on the left is also holding a snake in outstretched arms.

This painting by El Greco can be identified as Mannerist through the elongated, exaggerated poses and flatness of perspective. El Greco, Laocoön, 1610–1614, oil on canvas. National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.

The main art movements of this period were Mannerism and Baroque. Mannerism emerged around the middle of the 1500s, and lasted until it was mostly replaced by Baroque in the 1600s. It was a reaction against the perfect balance and realistic qualities of the Renaissance, with figures that had elongated and unrealistic body shapes and lack of clear perspective.

Baroque, meanwhile, returned to realistic body proportions. Baroque encompasses a variety of styles, but the easiest way to differentiate it from Renaissance art is that Renaissance art depicts the moment before an event took place, while Baroque shows the most dramatic moment during the event itself. Baroque is emotional, extravagant, and often full of movement.

In the beginning of this section, I mentioned the Spanish Inquisition: one of the most well known parts of Spanish society during this period. There were other inquisitions in Europe from the 12th century onwards, but the Spanish one was started by King Ferdinand II and Queen Isabella in the 15th century. It was intended to create religious unity in Spain—as you might remember from the timeline I brought up at the start of this post, there were both Jews and Muslims in Spain at this point, but they, along with other Christians, were either expelled or forced to convert to Catholicism during the Inquisition (in violent ways, sometimes involving torture).

Did the art reflect the social context of the Spanish Inquisition? Well, there was the obvious continued dominance of religious scenes in art, as the Catholic Church was one of the biggest patrons of art. In addition, Baroque art was also championed by the Catholic Church as an alternative to the more reserved and austere style favoured by Protestantism. The rise of Baroque art was linked to the Catholic Counter-Reformation, the general rise of the Catholic Church in response to Protestantism.

Oil painting on canvas depicting Jesus Christ, dressed in a loincloth, sitting against a dark background. He is embracing a man in white robes standing below him, who leans his head against Jesus’ arm with a smile on his face and closed eyes.

Francesco Ribalta, Christ embracing St. Bernard, 1625 – 1627. Oil on canvas. Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid.

Royal patrons favoured artists who shared their views on religion. Francisco de Zurbarán is a good example of this religious strand, painting nuns, monks, martyrs, and other religious scenes in a Baroque style with lots of dramatic lighting effects.

Oil painting on canvas of a man in monk’s robes on his knees, looking upwards with a reverent expression. His hands are clasped around a golden urn and his face is cast in sharp shadow.

Francisco de Zurbarán, Saint Francis in Meditation, c. 1631–1640, oil on canvas. National Gallery, London.

In addition to Mannerism, Baroque, and religious scenes, I also need to mention some of the other art movements and trends coming in from Europe: the genre scenes and still lifes coming from the Netherlands and Belgium. Baroque artist Juan Sánchez Cotán painted still lifes that were called bodegónes, from the Spanish word bodega, meaning pantry. Bodegónes are Spanish still lifes that depict items commonly found in the pantry, and were much more austere than their Baroque Northern European counterparts, which often depicted extravagant feasts.

Oil painting on canvas of five separate food items on a shelf against a black background. From left to right hangs an apple and a cabbage, and then lies a half-eaten melon, a melon slice, and a squash.

Juan Sánchez Cotán, Quince, Cabbage, Melon and Cucumber, 1602, oil on canvas. San Diego Museum of Art, San Diego.

Genre scenes also became increasingly popular around this time, as they did throughout the rest of Europe. (For a refresher on what genre scenes are, check out my blog post here on the subject.) The uniquely Spanish style of genre painting is sometimes said to be influenced by the picaresque novel (from pícaro, meaning ‘rogue’ or ‘rascal); stories about the adventures of roguish, lower class, likeable but dishonest heroes. The novels often contained elements of satire and wit. Likewise, picaresque paintings depicted observational scenes from the everyday street life of the lower classes.

Oil painting on canvas of two women dressed in old fashioned dresses in a window. The woman on our right is leaning on the wooden windowsill with her head leaning against her hand, and the women on our left is peering out from the behind the wooden window cover, holding her headscarf against her mouth to hide her giggles.

Bartolomé Esteban Murillo, Two women at a window, c. 1655–60, oil on canvas. National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.

Since we’re talking about Spanish Baroque, we need to quickly talk about Velázquez. Velázquez is by far the most famous artist in early Spanish modern history. Velázquez was born in Seville, learning from artists there and traveling to Italy multiple times during his career. He served as court painter for Philip IV, who was King of Spain in the mid-1600s and the second-to-last ruler of Hapsburg Spain. You might recognise Velázquez as the guy who painted this:

Oil painting on canvas of a large room in the Royal Alcazar of Madrid during the reign of King Philip IV of Spain, in which several standing figures, most identifiable from the Spanish court, are captured as if in a snapshot. Some look out of the canvas towards the viewer, while others interact among themselves. In the foreground to the left is a large canvas. An artist is paused in the act of painting on the canvas, looking out towards the viewer. In the background of the room, a large mirror can be seen, in which the figures of the king and queen can be seen.

Diego Velázquez, Las Meninas, 1656, oil on canvas. Museo del Prado, Madrid.

This is Las Meninas (1656), one of the most well-known Spanish paintings of all time. It reflects Philip IV’s patronage of Velázquez, as most of the subjects in the painting are recognisable members of the Spanish court. Velázquez himself is also visible, painting on a large canvas and looking out at the viewer. Is he painting us? The mirror in the background shows the king and queen, standing in the place of the viewer. It’s an intriguing composition that has fascinated viewers for centuries.

But a closer look at the patron of Velázquez, King Philip IV, brings us to the whole “Spain was in crisis” thing. 

Oil painting on canvas of king Philip IV standing against a dark background, dressed in an ornate red and silver jacket. He is holding a black hat in one hand.

Diego Velázquez, Felipe IV en Fraga, 1644, oil on canvas. The Frick Collection, New York.

King Philip IV was rapidly losing power and territories. This means that a lot of art from that he commissioned could be seen as political propaganda, aimed at projecting power and authority and simulating the illusion of stability. For example, he commissioned works that overemphasised the few military successes of the period, such as the Siege of Breda, one of Spain’s last victories in the Eighty Years’ War:

Oil painting on canvas of a crowd of soldiers holding spears, divided into two armies facing each other. Two men stand in the middle in front of each army. One of them has his hand on the other’s shoulder and the other is handing him a key. Smoking buildings are in the background.

Diego Velázquez, La rendición de Breda (The Surrender of Breda), 1635, oil on canvas. Museo del Prado, Madrid.

End of the Spanish Golden Age (1660 – 1700s)

Oil painting on canvas of a man holding a paintbrush in one hand and a painting on paper of a nude man in the other.

Self portrait by Luis Meléndez. Luis Egidio Meléndez, Portrait de l’artiste tenant une académie, 1747, oil on canvas. Musée du Louvre, Paris.

This all brings us to the end of the Spanish Golden Age around 1660 – 1700s, and the end of the early modern period.

In the beginning of the 1700s, the Hapsburg dynasty ended, and the Bourbon dynasty began with Philip V as king. This led to a big change in royal patronage. The House of Bourbon came from France, and favoured French artists and styles, employing almost no Spanish painters in the court. The new French styles like Rococo and Neoclassicism are not as easy to recognise in Spanish painting (although more present in decorative arts and architecture). Many Spanish painters continued to paint religious and still life subjects. Luis Meléndez, above, was one of the Spanish artists working with still life in the first half of the 18th century.

Spanish art continued to flourish way beyond the period we’re looking at here. Some later Spanish artists you might recognise are Francisco Goya (late 18th and early 19th century), Juan Gris (late 19th and early 20th century), Pablo Picasso (late 19th and early 20th century), Joan Miró (20th century), and Salvador Dalí (20th century). But, those are other blog posts for other times.

Conclusion

Oil painting on canvas of food items on the edge of a white wall against a black background. A bowl of fruits sits on the top left part of the shelf, and a plate of grapes sits below it on the right. Two fruits and an open melon sit on a separate shelf below to the left.

Juan van der Hamen, Still Life with Fruits and Glassware, 1626, oil on canvas. Museum of Fine Arts, Houston.

The period outlined in the question—the late Middle Ages to the early modern period—takes us through some major events and shifts in Spanish art history, from the unification of Spain, the end of Al-Andalus, the rise of the Spanish empire, and its eventual decline in power. The art was influenced by religion, royal patronage, international artists and movements, and the development of Spain as a nation. There are so many ways in which the art of the time reflected these shifts, most of which I haven’t even touched on, but hopefully you can get at least a bit of an idea from this brief overview.

As always, when tackling such huge and broad topics, I welcome input from my readers. Any Spanish artists from this era you think should be mentioned, or provide a particularly good example of how art reflected Spanish society? Let me know and I’ll add it to the post!

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1 Comment

  1. Farah Ahmed

    Once again, such an incredibly informative and well researched post. Thank you!!

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