At first glance, another scene of the crucified Christ, fairly typical of 17th century art, with maybe a patron or religious dignitary in attendance. But look more closely at that figure. Yes, he may display his hand on his heart- a gesture of fervent devotion- but in his other hand he's grasping an artist's palette. That's right; it's a representation of an artist with his paints at the foot of the cross.
If we're seeking iconographical explanations, we could argue that the elderly man is meant to be St Luke, who is often shown painting the Virgin and Child. But St Luke has nothing to do with the representation of Christ. We might try to trace the source of this original picture in debates about the appropriateness of artists portraying Christ. I remember reading about some legend in Byzantine times in which God is graciously supposed to have given artists permission to portray his own son- but although that idea is certainly germane, I think it has little to do with Zurbaran's painting.
Consulting Victor Stoichita's highly recommended Visionary Experience in the Golden Age of Spanish Art, I'm offered a variety of explanations, as follows:
- It's a representation of an imaginary dialogue encountered in contracts of 17th century Spanish art.
- The artist has projected himself into the painting for some reason or other.
- The artist is empathizing with the suffering of Christ, by painting himself at Golgotha.
- The painter is having a vision.
- The painter is standing before a canvas in the picture.
All of these theories could fit the fact of the painted canvas, but I find the last the most suggestive, especially as in the last post I wrote about Velasquez standing before his canvas. Could Zurbaran's artistic worshipper, or Zurbaran himself- is it a self-portrait with saviour-be visualizing the disegno interno of their painting. In other words, is the painted Christ a vision in the artistic sense? Is this what the artist has imagined in his mind's eye? Or, looking at this from another direction, is this a representation of an artist surveying a picture he has finshed? If that's the case, then why has he stepped into pictorial space disrupting the silent communion between spectator and artwork?
Could Foucault with his jaw-dropping analysis of Las Meninas help with an investigation into the problems of representation and meaning in Zurbaran's perplexing work. It occurred to me that what Foucault said about the "system of feints' or deceptions around Velasquez's studio, are applicable to the problems here.
".but when, in a moment, he (Velasquez) makes a step to the right, removing himself from our gaze, he will be standing exactly in front of the canvas he is painting; he will enter that region where his painting, neglected for an instant, will, for him, become visible once more, free of shadow and free of reticence. As though the painter could not at the same time be seen on the picture where he is represented and also see that upon which he is representing something. He rules at the threshold of those two incompatible visibilities."
In the case of Zurbaran, he- if we accept the self-portrait emphasis- has crossed over that threshold between the canvas and the space in which he has painted/is painting. OK. These are two entirely different situations- Zurbaran painted for monasteries and Velasquez for the court- but these issues of meta-painting, art which goes beyond its usual cultural and artistic limitations- seem to me to linked in terms of 17th century representation.
As for the "reality effect", the details that, according to Barthes, introduce something resembling the real, then what about Zurbaran's trick of painting signed cartellinos- cards- on the surface of his pictures. With this device, Zurbaran ensured that the artist was on the canvas, as well as looking at it.