This powerful and moving depiction of the Ecce Homo is a rare work by the Madrileñan painter Juan Martín de Cabezalero, whose bold design and use of dramatic lighting seen here is echoed by the words of the contemporary Spanish biographer Antonio Palomino:1
There are some scenes of the Passion of Christ painted in fresco by his hand in which one can recognize his great mastery, the boldness of his invention and his very beautiful chiaroscuro.
These effusive words by Palomino refer to Cabezalero’s work in the Chapel of the Holy Sepulchre in San Plácido, which alas was demolished in 1908. Indeed the artist’s extant oeuvre is remarkably small, which may account for his relative obscurity outside of Spain today, despite his high reputation during his own lifetime.
Relatively little is known about Cabezalero’s early life. Palomino tells us that he was a native of Almadén on the border of the province of Córdoba and that he moved to Madrid to study under Juan Carreño de Miranda, in whose house he was still living by 1666. In keeping with many of the Madrileñan painters of the mid-17th century, Cabezalero’s paintings display a strong debt to the work of Van Dyck, demonstrably visible here in the highly Flemish treatment of the muscular torso of Christ and His skin tones, which are rendered in soft brushstrokes of warm brown, reddish hues, that recall directly the work of Van Dyck (and Rubens), as also that of the great Diego Velazquez in whose shadow Cabezalero and his contemporaries worked.
Cabezalero is likely to have known Van Dyck’s work at first hand through the presence of a number of outstanding works by the great Flemish master within the Spanish Royal Collection, acquired at the behest of Philip IV. Indeed the present painting shares certain affinities with the depiction of Christ in Van Dyck’s Christ Crowned with Thorns, which was acquired by the Spanish King from Rubens’ estate, between 1640 and 1645, for 1,000 guilders and was brought to the Alcázar in Madrid, before being transferred to the Escorial some time before 1656.2 As in the present work, Van Dyck’s figure of Christ from his great canvas is likewise depicted seated, with his hands bound before him, draped in a scarlet robe and starkly lit within a dark setting to heighten the drama of the scene as his detractors mock him. The strong Flemish influence to be found in Cabezalero’s work is also visible in his painting of Saint Jerome, signed and dated 1666, today in the Meadows Museum, Dallas.
1. A. Palomino, Lives of the Eminent Spanish Painters and Sculptors, trans. N.A. Mallory, Cambridge 1987, p. 223.
2. See S. J. Barnes et al, Van Dyck: A complete catalogue of the paintings, New Haven and London 2004, pp. 38-39, no. I.23, reproduced.