Friday, January 6, 2012


Francisco de Zurbarán, "Still life. Bodegón" (1632-42)

Look at these objects. Simply placed next to each other on an anonymous surface, against a dark background. Vessels that were quite mundane in the middle of the 17th century when Zurbarán lined them up and made light shine in from the left. To us they are more exotic, but we can still sense the ordinariness that imbue them.

This simple, little painting was the one that made the strongest impression on me when I visited The Prado almost 20 years ago. That must have been because it communicates so clearly and directly. There are no allusions, no allegory that needs deciphering, just each object presented in its own right, all of them on equal terms.

And then there is the notion that these mundane objects carry a spiritual potential. - Through their simple beauty? - By the light that they reflect? Zurbarán's contemporary, Saint Teresa of Ávila said that "God may be found even among the cooking pots".

Francisco de Zurbarán, "Agnus Dei" 

- Or as a lamb. On a slate. Ready to be butchered. According to the title, this lamb is the Lamb of God, Jesus: "Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world" (John 1:29). 

Again, Zurbarán's simple and direct rendering makes his message all the more powerful. Like the vessels above, this lamb is powerfully illuminated. Its tangled wool shines, and it retains its dignity, even when it lies there with all four legs trapped together.

How fitting to look at this painting today, at Epiphany. Later this evening I will remove my Christmas decorations and thus fully be on my way onwards in the new year. Hopefully, Zurbarán's elevation of everyday objects may inform my daily life to come. I wish to develop my ability to see beauty in the small things.

Francisco de Zurbarán, "Still Life with Lemons, Oranges and a Rose", 1633. Photo from Agricola

Against the backdrop of the top two paintings, this final still life looks almost too extravagant. But here, too, there is stillness and mystery. As cited at Agricola

[. . .] its astonishing realism: every detail in every object is perfectly rendered without the objects losing their strong human quality, especially the basket which is truly exquisite.
[. . .]
It is this precise balance of solid, beautiful objects in empty space that creates the deep sense of stillness, purity, and mystery. And standing receptively in front of this painting evokes the same within the viewer.