Zurbarán’s relocation from Seville to Madrid in 1658 is well documented and we know that he arrived in the city in late May of that year. This was his second sojourn there, preceded some 25 years earlier by a visit in 1634-35 when he played an important role in the decoration of the Salón de Reinos at the Buen Retiro, with a team of leading Spanish painters under the supervision of Philip IV’s favorite, the Conde-Duque de Olivares. The impetus for his second visit is not known, but seems certainly connected to his long friendship with the court painter Diego Velázquez. On 23 December 1658, Zurbarán testified favorably on behalf of Velázquez in the preliminary inquiry concerning his admission and knighthood in the Order of Santiago. By June of 1659 Zurbarán appears to have settled in Madrid permanently, and he and his wife are recorded as residing at calle de las Carretas, parish of Santa Cruz.1
As the only known work of this subject by Zurbarán, it is probably identifiable with the one listed in a post-mortem inventory of the artist’s belongings drawn up on 3 September 1664 by Don Roque Antonio de Palacio, clerk of the court, on behalf of the artist’s widow Doña Leonor de Tordera. Among the paintings remaining in the artist’s studio was: Otra nra Señora y el niño y Santa Catalino con marco (Another Our Lady with Child Jesus and Saint Catherine with frame).2 A second likely reference to the painting occurs in a valuation carried out by Don Luis Jimeno (recorded as a maître peintre) of the late artist’s works, drawn up on 11 August 1665 at the behest of his widow: Vn lienço de bara y quartta de Nuestra Señora y Santta Catalina con moldura en cien RS…V100 (A canvas "de bara y quartta" (an old measure approximately 1.2 m.) representing Our Lady with Saint Catherine with moulding some 100 by 100).3 If this is, indeed, the painting that remained in Zurbarán’s studio, it was probably not a commissioned work, but a painting of a popular and appealing subject that the artist had produced for direct sale.4
Of the some 35 surviving works from Zurbarán’s late Madrid period, over half are of Marian themes, and most are painted on a scale that indicates their function as private devotional images. As visible in the present Mystic Marriage of Saint Catherine, the artist’s style is now characterized by a move away from the intense, dramatic lighting of his earlier work towards a softer and more diffused light. The stiffer, more geometric forms of his earlier figures and draperies have given way to a more naturalistic treatment. The Virgin and Saint Catherine are both portrayed as classically beautiful young women. According to legend, Catherine was of noble birth and Zurbarán has depicted her richly robed and wearing a sumptuous brown, brocaded cape. At lower left is her attribute, the broken spiked wheel. Before Saint Catherine's martyrdom, the Emperor Maxentius ordered her to be tortured with an instrument made up of four wheels studded with iron spikes. However, a thunderbolt from heaven destroyed it before she was harmed. The account of her “mystic marriage” is the most often depicted episode from her life. Following her conversion to Christianity she had a vision of the Virgin holding the Christ Child who reached out and placed a ring on her finger, thereby symbolizing her spiritual betrothal to God.
Delenda suggests that Zurbarán’s composition may have been influenced by certain engravings of the subject by the Wierix family (figs. 1 and 2).5 While retaining the position of the central figures, Zurbarán has excluded the celestial figures and any background elements. Interestingly, traces of a small crown can be seen on Catherine’s head as well as traces of a putto’s head in the upper background indicating that the artist may have originally considered including more elements in the overall design. Ultimately, Zurbarán pared down the composition giving it more visual clarity and power, and allowing the viewer to focus on the tender interaction between Catherine and the Christ Child.
1. See M.L. Caturla and O. Delenda, Francisco de Zurbáran, Paris 1994, p. 320, Document nos. 183 and 185.
2. Ibid., p. 324, Document no. 203. The original inventory is in the Archivo Histórico de Protocolos, Madrid, Protocolo 10592, folios 451-2.
3. Ibid., p. 324, Document no. 205. The original inventory is in the Archivo Histórico de Protocolos, Madrid, Protocolo 10592, folios 453-5.
4. See O. Delenda, under Literature, 2011, p. 383.
5. Ibid., p. 384.
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