Works in focus

This is a very good example of the embryonic use of linear or monofocal perspective: a vanishing point on which the gaze of the viewer, motionless in front of the composition, converges. The ordering of the forms and the size of the objects and figures on a plane surface create an illusion of depth and give the scene a sense of verisimilitude. In the Annunciation, the chessboard pattern of the paving enhances the effectiveness of visual perception.



Master of La Seu d'Urgell, Annunciation, circa 1495

August appears in the foreground, while in the second is a triumphal arch. The Latin inscription PROVIDENTIA refers to the divine nature of the Roman emperor. This iconography is the result of combining, on a single plane, the obverse and the reverse of an old coin. The bust was part of the collection of marble sculptures acquired by Miquel Mai, a Catalan notable who was Emperor Charles V’s ambassador to Pope Cement VII in Rome, during his time in Italy.



Pietro Urbano, Augustus, 1515-1525

It seems that the four paintings were part of the same altarpiece dedicated to Christ the Redeemer, whose martyrdom, death and resurrection embodied the symbolic value of a sacrifice destined to liberate humanity from its state of sin. The works were documented in Paris in 1898, in the collection of the painter Carlos Sáenz de Tejada, on whose death they were acquired by José Muñoz Ortiz, who sold them in 1914: the first two to the Museu d’Art i d’Arqueologia de Barcelona, through the mediation of Salvador Sanpere i Miquel, and the other two to Teresa Amatller i Cros, through the intervention of Josep Gudiol.



Bartolomé Bermejo, Resurrection, circa 1475

Bartolomé Bermejo, Descent of Christ into Limbo, circa 1475

Bartolomé Bermejo, Christ in Paradise, circa 1475

Bartolomé Bermejo, Ascension, circa 1475

These canvases adorning the doors of the organ stall of the cathedral of La Seu d'Urgell helped keep out the cold and damp. The use of grisaille had special devotional significance in terms of the liturgical calendar, which restricted the display of brightly colourful sacred images and brightly coloured sacred images and the performance of music during Lent. This is one of the Master’s most emblematic ensembles, both for its typology and for its aesthetic value as the work of a truly original artist who incorporated the language of Flemish painting and tropes from French visual culture in a highly natural way.



Master of La Seu d'Urgell, Paintings from the doors of the organ from La Seu d'Urgell cathedral, circa 1495-1498

From a noble family, Agnes was martyred in the 3rd century for refusing to marry the son of a Roman prefect. The saint, wedded to Christ, appears accompanied by the mystical lamb, a symbol of the Messiah. By means of an the dramatic staging and the ecstatic face of the saint, the painter brings out the link between the two protagonists and symbolizes the saint’s communion with the divinity. Stanzione was a leading exponent of the Neapolitan painting of the mid 17th century, with its fusion of naturalism and a classicism indebted to the influence of Caravaggio and Guido Reni.



Massimo Stanzione, Saint Agnes, 1635-1640

The work of this Dominican monk, mainly active in Toledo, is predominantly classicist in mood, a product of the different stylistic currents that converged in Rome at the beginning of the 17th century. Contact with these Roman models was very fruitful for the artist and this painting is particularly significant in this regard, exemplifying as it does an outstanding episode in the artist’s career and illustrating one of the channels through which Caravaggian naturalism arrived in the Iberian Peninsula.



Juan Bautista Maíno, The Conversion of Saint Paul, circa 1614

The scene represents three beggars in ragged clothes, and is an example of the genre painting in which Ceruti specialised and thanks to which he was given the nickname ‘Pitochetto’ (the little beggar). The figures in his paintings, usually of the humblest social status but represented with great realism and evident respect, ushered in a new way of understanding portraiture, radically transforming a genre that until then had confined its attention to the cultural and economic elites.



Giacomo Ceruti (Pitocchetto), Three Beggars, 1736

The scene represents the sentencing to death of St. John Nepomucene in 1393 for refusing to violate the secret of the confession of Queen Joanna. The painting originally hung in the convent church of the Barefoot Trinitarians in Barcelona, known as Nostra Senyora de la Bonanova, on the site of the present-day Liceu opera house. De Matteis was a Neapolitan baroque painter who worked for various European courts, and the Barcelona origin of the work attests to the international circulation of artworks in the period and the involvement of the city in this trade.



Paolo De Matteis, King Wenceslas IV Sentences Saint John of Nepomuk, 1710

The halo over the head and the dress of a Roman commander are those of a holy martyr-soldier, unidentified due to the loss of the attributes that would originally have been held in the figure’s hands and its unknown provenance. The size of the piece suggests that it was probably carved to preside over the main part of an altarpiece. The sculptor’s technical mastery is evident in the convincing treatment of the anatomy, with the vigour and strength of the muscles conveying a real sense of energy and resolve. The piece is attributed to Andreu Sala, one of the greatest Catalan sculptors of the second half of the 17th century.



Andreu Sala, Warrior saint, 1680-1700

The two panels are from the main altarpiece of the monastery of Sant Cugat del Vallès and constitute one of the most outstanding episodes of the Catalan Renaissance. They are the only known extant works by Ayne Bru, an itinerant Flemish painter influenced by the art of northern Italy. The Maryrdom of Saint Cucuphas was acquired in 1907 and was brought to the museum by the painter Ramón Casas in his car, an incident not untypical of the days when the Junta de Museus was putting together the collections.



Ayne Bru, Martyrdom of Saint Cucuphas, 1502-1507

Ayne Bru, Saint Candidus, 1502-1507

The painting represents a gentleman seated on the edge of a fountain from which his horse in drinking. The character is dressed à l'espagnole, in the Spanish style, an expression that was formerly used to describe a fantastical picturesque costume: in effect it meant being dressed in old-fashioned clothes. The essence of Fragonard’s style is the virtuosity of the rapid and forceful brushstroke, loaded with depth, colour and detail.



Jean-Honoré Fragonard, Portrait of Charles-Michel-Ange Challe (?), circa 1769

The composer and theatre director Manuel Quijano was active in Madrid in the first quarter of the 19th century. In the portrait, brought to life by the vivacious intelligence of the eyes, he is dressed in the fashion of the day, with a high-collared shirt, cravat and fitted coat. This is an important picture, among other reasons, because it is signed and dated, and because it was painted shortly after the end of the Peninsular War. Goya’s style here is direct and spontaneous, no doubt because he was paintng a portrait of a friend.



Francisco de Goya, Manuel Quijano, 1815

The scene depicted is that of Christ carrying the cross on the path to the hill of Golgotha, to be crucified. The action is developed with great theatricality by mwans of the gestures and attitudes of the characters, and of numerous details. Colour plays an important role here, with tone and contrast being usd to create illusionistic effects. In this canvas Tiepolo returns to a theme he had previously painted for the church of Sant’Alvise, in Venice.



Giambattista Tiepolo, Christ on the Way to Golgotha, after 1738

This tapestry is part of a series of six, four of which were acquired in 1557 to decorate the Palau de la Generalitat in Barcelona. They allegorically represent the poem I Trionfi (‘Triumphs’) by Petrarch, written in the mid 14th century, which directs the reader’s thoughts to the practice of virtue, the rejection of evil and a meditation on death. The idea that humanity must make an ideal journey from sin to redemption was rooted in mediaeval culture.



Willem Dermoyen, The Triumph of Fame over Death, 1540-1550

The canvas depicts the festive atmosphere on the San Marco quay in Venice on Ascension Day, an annual event that, with Carnival, is still a central pillar of Venetian tradition. Il Bucintoro, the official galley of the Doge, is docked, with a flotilla of small boats around it. Canaletto is famous for his views of Venice, which celebrate the splendid architecture of the city. Here the Ducal Palace and the Marciana library flank the square overlooked by the Campanile of St Mark’s, with the domes of Santa Maria della Salute in the background on the left.



Giovanni Antonio Canal (Canaletto), Return of 'Il Bucintoro' on Ascension Day, 1745-1750

The picture describes the robbing of a foolish old man who has lost his worldly wisdom in succumbing to female charms. The ill-matched couple whose ages were excessively different was a popular theme in the first half of the 16th century, with the woman presented as a source of sin and perdition. The picture should be interpreted in moralistic terms, given that Cranach was a friend of the religious reformer Martin Luther. The artist included his signature emblem, a small winged serpent or dragon, to the right of the girl’s arm.



Lucas Cranach “The Elder”, The Ill-Matched Couple, 1517

The main scene is the adoration of the Infant Jesus by the Three Magi, a common subject for paintings in the 15th and 16th centuries, in which it was often a pretext for depicting a sumptuous material setting. Here the painter sought to assimilate the early-16th-century Italian model but remained true to the Flemish style, visible in the richness of the clothing and in the landscape in the background. The adoration takes place in an architectural setting that reflects the classical taste of the artist, while the interpretation, with its excess of characters and details, seems to suffer from horror vacui.



Master of the Antwerp Epiphany, Epiphany, circa 1520

The cross that Christ bears is not an instrument of martyrdom but a symbol of his triumph over death. The face expresses not pain but serenity and a radiant faith in eternal life. This iconographic theme was inspired by De Imitatione Christi, The Imitation of Christ, published in the first quarter of the fifteenth century, which sought to instruct the souls of the faithful in Christian perfection. The work is notable for the characteristic brushstrokes with which the painter uses colour to model the volumes and distorts the bodies to reflect the spiritual longing of the characters.



Doménikos Theotokópoulos “El Greco”, Christ Carrying the Cross, 1590-1595

The identity of the young gentleman portrayed here is unknown, but by his clothing, not at all typical of the Venice of the time, he could be a foreign aristocrat passing through the city of the canals. The critics are agreed in attributing the work to the Tintoretto of the 1550s, a decade in which he painted his best portraits. The picture is remarkable for its plastic qualities, with a limited chromatic range yet rich in contrasts, and for the psychological characterization of the gentleman, with his cold and haughty look.



Jacopo Robusti, “Tintoretto”, Portrait of a Gentleman, circa 1554

The scene of the martyrdom of the apostle Bartholomew, who was flayed alive, is a Christian version of the mythological fable of Marsyas, a satyr who suffered the same physical torment. The painting, one of the finest in Ribera’s oeuvre, is signed and dated on the stone on which the saint’s head rests. In 1836 it became part of the collection of King Louis Philippe I of France, who presented it to the gallery of Spanish painting of the Louvre. It subsequently came into the hands of the multifaceted Catalan artist and intellectual Alexandre de Riquer, who sold it to the museum.



Josep de Ribera o Jusepe de Ribera (Lo Spagnoletto), Martyrdom of Saint Bartholomew, 1644

We see a variety of foods set out on a table, from a loaf of bread to a wine bottle in which a window is reflected, by way of fruits of all kinds (apples, grapes, melons tied with twine) and a modest assortment of tableware (a ceramic dish, a napkin, a knife and a jug made in Talavera de la Reina). The painting is a faithful depiction of reality, free of any symbolic intention, very much in keeping with the Enlightenment spirit of the reign of Charles III. A lack of important commissions and the need to make a living led Meléndez to concentrate almost exclusively on this type of painting.



Luis Egidio Meléndez, Still Life with Apples, Grapes, Melons, Bread, Jug and Bottle, circa 1771

A series of vessels, of metal and pottery, are lined up on a shelf or ledge. The other protagonist is the light, thanks to which the objects stand out against the blackness of the background, modelling the volumes and contrasting the colours. This pictorial composition that radiates serenity and silence, in which time stands still, invites a conceptual reading that takes us into realms very close to those proposed by avant-garde art, and a superb example of the still-life genre in the painting of the Spanish Golden Age and of the taste for what is essential in Zurbarán’s art.



Francisco de Zurbarán, Still Life with Vessels, between 1650-1660

The canvas depicts a visit that brought together the families of Jesus and of Saint John the Baptist, who were linked by kinship. This iconographic theme dates from the 13th century and is not found in any the Gospels. Rubens takes his inspiration here from religious paintings made in Renaissance Florence, which frequently include the naked child. A number of different replicas and copies of this picture are known, but this version is one of the finest. Rubens painted it during one of his diplomatic missions to the court in Mantua.



Peter Paulus Rubens, Virgin and Child with Saint Elizabeth and the Young Saint John, circa 1618

This mythological scene is associated with the fable of Cupid and Psyche, as recounted by Apuleius in The Golden Ass. The theme was a pretext for depicting an amorous scene with a manifestly erotic charge. The execution is notable for its technical virtuosity in the all but transparent gauze covering the girl’s breasts and the tenebrism of the play of light and shade. It has been suggested that the model for the figure of Psyche was the Marquesa de Lazán, María Gabriela de Palafox y Portocarrero, though it has also been said that it was the same model who posed for the popular Maja paintings.



Francisco de Goya, Allegory of Love, Cupid and Psyche [?], 1798-1805

This is one of a series of twenty paintings dedicated to Saint Francis of Assisi, illustrates the virtues of the saint from his birth to death. Until the Napoleonic invasion the series hung in the cloister of the great convent of Sant Francesc in Barcelona, next to the sea wall. Antoni Viladomat was the most important painter working in Catalonia in the first half of the 18th century. His aesthetic struck a chord in a society bent on regaining its social, economic and cultural dynamism after the shock of the War of the Spanish Succession.



Antoni Viladomat, Bernat de Quintaval Distributes his Riches to the Poor, circa 1729-1733

The action takes place during Carnival in Venice, an annual event which, in the eighteenth century, attracted visitors from all over Europe as part of their Grand Tour. These two pictures are genre scenes inspired by the Commedia dell’arte of Carlo Goldoni, who ironically debunked the Venetian society of its time in episodes drawn from everyday life, described with a festive narrative air, to which Tiepolo gave a masterful touch with the use of light and colour.



Giandomenico Tiepolo, The Charlatan, 1756

Giandomenico Tiepolo, The Minuet, 1756

The painting depicts a episode from the canonical Book of Tobit, whose main theme is the presence of God in family relations, and was one of a series of twelve canvases, of which the locations of nine are currently known. The series was owned by Pere Antoni de Aragón, viceroy of Naples between 1666 and 1671, a fact that bears witness to the trade in artworks between the Kingdom of Naples and the Iberian peninsula throughout the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.



Andrea Vaccaro, The Healing of Tobit, 1667

The theme of the Dormition represents Mary’s transit from her mortal state to a state of glory, surrounded by apostles concerned about the situation. The style, the materials and and the documentary data all point to the Valencian Damià Forment, one of the finest sculptors of the Kingdom of Aragon in the 16th century. The dating of the group ranges from 1535, when Enric de Borgonya, one of Forment’s habitual assistants, was working there, and 1537, when the Forment left Catalonia. The piece is from the old church of Sant Miquel in Barcelona.



Damià Forment, Dormition of the Virgin, 1535-1537

These two works bear witness to the link between one of the most important Catalan sculptors of the late 18th century and the first half of the 19th, and the latest currents in the international art of his time. From 1797, Campeny spent eighteen years in Rome, where he was in contact with Antonio Canova, arguably the supreme exponent of Neoclassicism. Both Lucretia and The Death of Cleopatra have an unequivocal Romanism, pervaded by a Classical pathos, and communicate a dramaticism and a sense of the ethical dimension of the actions they depict.



Damià Campeny, Lucretia, 1803

Damià Campeny, Death of Cleopatra, circa 1804

These large-format paintings, which decorated the outside of the doors of an altarpiece, come from the church of San Salvador in Toledo and have been attributed to Pedro Berruguete on the strength of similarities with the paintings of the main altarpiece in Avila Cathedral, though the experts are not unanimous on this point. Berruguete exemplifies the transition in the Kingdom of Castile from a Flemish-based artistic culture and the new Renaissance currents.



Pedro Berruguete, Two cloths from the doors of an altarpiece with scenes of saint Catherine's life, circa 1495

The theme depicted allows of different interpretations. Some see it as an allegory in which Beauty observes herself in a mirror and laments the transience of her existence: an erotic argument with a moralistic intention. Others consider it as deriving from a sonnet by Petrarch, which deals with a love triangle comprising a young woman, her lover and the envy he feels for her mirror, as the very frequent recipient of the gaze of his beloved. The painting is a later version by Titian’s studio of a work from 1515, currently in the Musée du Louvre.



Tiziano Vecellio, Girl Before the Mirror, after 1515

On one side we have the bust of Christ crowned with thorns, and the hands and feet blooding from the nails of the crucifixion, symbols of the Messiah, and on the other, the instruments of the Passion: the cock of Peter’s denial, the column of the flagellation and two scourges, the lance of Longinus, the reed with the holy sponge and the bowl of vinegar, the lantern of the taking of Christ, the dice with which the soldiers gambled for his clothes, the trumpet of the cohort, the pincers and the hammer. The knife with which Saint Peter cut off Malchus’ ear is notable for the cloverleaf on the blade: this was the trademark of the blacksmith’s guild and a symbol associated with the Holy Trinity.



Martín Bernat (attributed to), Processional cross with the bust of Christ and the Arma Christi, 1477-1505

Fra Angelico, one of the geniuses of the Early Renaissance, created a highly refined pictorial language which incorporated the new precepts of linear perspective. With a rich chromaticity and expressiveness, he created some of the finest works of his age. The representation of the Virgin Mary seated on a cushion, almost on the ground, is known in the art world as a Madonna of Humility. In spite of the name, mother and child are sumptuously dressed and accompanied by a retinue of angels holding curtains and musical instruments: a portable organ and a lute. The roses and lily that Mary holds symbolize virgin motherhood and purity.



Giovanni da Fiesole (Fra Angelico), Virgin of Humility, 1433-1435

The small size of this piece denotes its private character: it probably presided over a family chapel. The proliferation of portable altarpieces for private use carried over from the Gothic period, as a parallel typology to the much grander pieces that accompanied the public liturgy. The image in the centre depicts the Baptism of Christ, while the panel on the left shows Saint Michael weighing a soul, and the one on the right Saint Francis of Assisi receiving the stigmata. When the panels are closed, they reveal an Annunciation and the coat of arms of the sponsor.



Master of Frankfurt, Triptych of the Baptism of Christ, 1500-1520

Like most still lifes, the arrangement of the basket and the fruit seems random, but the composition is studied. Two factors have a bearing on this. One is relatively habitual: a basket that dominates the axis of the canvas. The other is more innovative: a dark background that contrasts with the strong lighting and the colour of the fruit and the leaves. Due to its formal characteristics, the work is thought to have been painted in Seville in the 1640s. The attribution to Juan de Zurbarán is based on the enormous similarities between this painting and another still life conserved in Finland, one of only three works signed by the artist.



Juan de Zurbarán, Basket with Apples, Quinces and Pomegranates, between 1643-1645

The scene shows the Adoration of Christ, but seen from a particular point of view. The Child Jesus is usually shown being adored after his birth by either the Three Kings or the Shepherds (a shepherd appears here with a lamb over his shoulder in the top right hand corner). Aside from the usual figures, in this case we also find four members of a family that, in the foreground, eclipse the religious theme. Dressed luxuriously, they are making a spectacular offering. Two wolves on a coat of arms that hangs from the jewellery enable us to identify the Ayala family. In fact, it could be Antonio Francisco de Fonseca y Ayala, 1st Count of Ayala.



Patricio Cajés, Adoration of Christ with the Ayala Family, between 1600-1610

The painting is of a lady wearing a dress in the French style, the predominant fashion for virtually the whole of the eighteenth century, with a pointed diadem and a hairband decorated with pearls. This seigniorial appearance is mixed with elements typical of hunting, such as a light leather cuirass, a bow and a quiver full of arrows. It is a curious combination of naturalism and symbolism, halfway between a portrait and an allegory of the goddess Diana, praised for her strength and beauty. The work, which once belonged to the Modernista interior decorator and furniture maker Gaspar Homar, and which was also in the collection of Oleguer Junyent, is dated and signed by Pere Crusells, a Catalan artist who in this case takes his inspiration from the painting of France and northern Italy (Turin and Genoa).


Crusells’s painting clearly shows an excessive reliance on engraved graphic sources, to which he resorted somewhat repeatedly. Despite his technical limitations, that fact that he signed a large number of works suggests that he was an artist with a high degree of self-esteem who took advantage of his commissions to advance himself.



Pere Crusells, Portrait of a Woman with Attributes of Diana, 1725