(Badajoz c. 1515 – 1586(?))
Ecce Homo
Inscribed by a later hand on the reverse: Divino.Morales/fecit
Oil on walnut panel
73.1 x 52.1 cm.

Asking price £275,000

Fig.1: Present Work - Luis de Morales, Ecce Homo, oil on walnut panel, 73.1 by 52.1 cm
Fig.2: Present Work Framed - Luis de Morales, Ecce Homo, oil on walnut panel, 73.1 by 52.1 cm
Fig.3: Infra-red reflectography of the present work
Fig.4: In situ shot of present work

Private Collection, Seville, since at least the mid-19th Century;
From whom acquired by the present owner circa 2000

Isabel Mateo Gómez, ‘Nueva Aportación a la Obra de Morales: Cronología, Soportes y Réplicas’, in Archivo Español de Arte, LXXXVIII, 350, April-June 2015, pp. 133-34, reproduced figs. 2 and 3.

Together with El Greco, Luis de Morales must be counted among the most important devotional painters of the sixteenth century in Spain, and certainly one of the most famous. His work was concentrated within a restricted range of religious subjects, notably the Pietà, the Virgin and Child, the Life of Christ and the Passion. This intense and highly detailed Ecce Homo – the mocked and bloodied Christ presented by Pilate to the people[i] - was one of the themes for which he was most famous. It was probably painted in the mid-1560s when Morales was arguably at the height of his powers and his work had drawn the attention of Philip II and the Royal Court. The highly spiritual nature of Morales’s devotional images such as this evidently answered a fervent spiritual need in contemporary Spanish society and were greatly sought after. The intense pared down emphasis upon the emotive nature of their subjects mirrored well the powerful asceticism of many contemporary Spanish mystics and writers, and their meticulous detail aroused general wonder. According to his biographer Antonio Palomino (1653-1726):
‘He [Morales] was nicknamed El Divino because everything he painted had a sacred subject but also because he painted some heads of Christ in which the hair was executed so finely and so delicately that it made even those who are most versed in art want to blow on it to see it move, for each strand of hair seems to be as fine as a real one’.[ii]

Although Morales painted the related subjects of Ecce Homo or Christ as the Man of Sorrows in numerous versions, both bust-length and at half-length as here, the unusually high quality of the present work is immediately evident. The walnut panel is of larger size than most of the artist’s works on this theme, suggesting that it was painted in response to a specific commission or for an important patron. Morales’s authorship is confirmed by the delicate and relatively finished under-drawing revealed by recent examination of this panel under infra-red reflectography (fig.1). Here we can clearly see the artist adjusting the relative positions of the hands, the rope and the reed cane prior to painting. Similar under-drawing is found in other works by Morales, for example his painting of The Lamentation in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, which dates to around 1560 and is itself also painted upon a large walnut panel. The gaunt figure of Christ is here set against a stark black background, his eyes directed imploringly towards the viewer. He is robed in red, wearing the crown of thorns and the reed staff given to him in mockery by his Roman captors. Obsessive concern with details draws the viewer in: glistening tears pour from his eyes, while bright rivulets of blood descend from the wounds caused by the crown of the thorns and trickle down his neck. Christ’s hair and beard are rendered in extraordinary detail, just as Palomino would later describe. No other exact versions or workshop copies of this composition are known. Other half-length variants of the subject of similar date and also of high quality, in which Christ is clad in blue and the hands are differently disposed, were with Colnaghi in London (fig.2) and in the Museum of Fine Arts in Budapest.[iii] Close parallels have also been drawn with the figure of Christ in the centre of Morales’s Mocking of Christ today in the Museo de la Real Academia de Bellas Artes de San Fernando in Madrid, a very slightly later work of the mid- to late-1560s.[iv]

The origins of Morales highly individual aesthetic are not entirely clear. He lived and worked in Extremadura and was unquestionably the most important painter in that region. Palomino tells us that his teacher was the Flemish mannerist painter Peeter de Kempeneer, known as Pedro de Campaña (1503-1586). He spent nearly all of his working career after 1539 in Badajoz, a town on the Portugese border, and his career thus evolved away from the direct influence of the court or of great artistic centres such as Seville. At its heart his style was essentially a fusion of Flemish and Italian elements: the detailed realism of the Netherlandish school combined with the compositional clarity of Italian painting, in particular that of Leonard da Vinci and his followers in Lombardy, the influence of whose works was keenly felt in Spain. Morales would have been able to see examples of Flemish painting, notably works by Rogier van der Weyden (1399-1464), as well as Italian works in the form of devotional works by Sebastiano del Piombo (c.1485-1547), when he was summoned by King Philip II to the Escorial in 1564. We know that Morales copied Sebastiano, for a replica of his famous painting on slate of Christ carrying the cross of 1532-4 from the Royal Collection is preserved in the Colegio del Patriarca in Valencia.[v] There is however no evidence to suggest that he ever visited Italy himself.

The lack of securely signed or dated works and the lack of stylistic evolution has always made it difficult to establish a clear chronology for Morales’s work. However, Isabel Mateo Gómez has recently plausibly suggested a dating for the present panel to the mid-1560s, specifically around 1564-69. The close correspondence between this panel and those in Budapest, London (formerly) and Madrid cited above would all seem to support such a dating. This was the most intense period of activity of Morales’s career, especially when he was working for Juan de Ribera (1532-1611), the Bishop of Badajoz between 1562 and 1568, and later Archbishop of Valencia. Crucially De Ribera had attended the Council of Trent (1545-63), which had prescribed guidelines for the forms and function of religious images, and his reforming zeal was of paramount importance to Morales’s art. Morales painted his portrait around 1564-5 and thereafter effectively became his official painter, receiving numerous commissions from him. The unsurprisingly austere portrait is today in the Prado in Madrid.[vi]

Whatever the extent to which he was indebted to his patron Ribera, probably the greatest reason Morales’s work is so important to our understanding of the history of Spanish painting in the sixteenth century was precisely the way in which it provided a window on to the nation’s soul in this age of impassioned spirituality. It is not hard to see why his simple, highly detailed and emotive small-scale cabinet pictures elicited such a response from his contemporaries in the Spain of the era of Philip II and the Counter Reformation. What Keith Christiansen has memorably described as ‘the exquisite facture and morbid sensibility’ of Morales’s devotional paintings made them perfect aids to personal contemplation, and their unique importance lies in the manner in which they complemented the practice of ‘mental prayer’ that was at the centre of the spiritual life of the great Spanish mystics such as Saint Teresa of Avila (1515-1582) and the Franciscan ascetic Saint Peter of Alcántara (1499-1562), and which was expounded in texts such as the latter’s famous Treatise on Prayer and Meditation and Fray Luis de Granada (1504-1588)’s Libro de la oracion y meditacion (1554). As one scholar has put it: ‘No Spanish painter was ever to surpass Morales in expressing the passionate, personal faith of the mystical writers’.[vii] The many versions of Morales’s subjects, not to mention the plethora of variants, studio repetitions and copies, all provide eloquent testament to their extraordinary and enduring popularity as private devotional works.

This painting will be included by Isabel Mateo Gómez in her forthcoming catalogue of the works of Luis de Morales. The attribution to Morales has also been independently confirmed by Dr. William B. Jordan following first-hand inspection of the picture.

[i] Literally ‘Behold the Man’, as recounted in the Gospel of St. John 19: 4-6.
[ii] El Museo pictórico y escala optica…téorica de la pintura, vol. III, Madrid 1724. The appellation survives, for example, in a later inscription on the reverse of the present panel.
[iii] Panel, 49.5 x 35 cm. and Inv. no. 99.2, panel, 63.5 x 47.4 cm. respectively.
[iv] See A. Pérez Sánchez, Real Academia de Bellas artes de San Fernando. Inventario de las pinturas, Madrid 1964, p. 58, no. 613.
[v] See I. Bäcksbacka, Luis de Morales, Helsinki 1962, p. 166, no. 37, fig. 76. Sebastiano del Piombo’s famous painting is preserved in the Prado in Madrid. Although as Palomino recounts, the scale of Morales’s works was ill-suited to the King’s decorative plans and he was not employed, Philip II recompensed him and gave a painting of The dead Christ with the Virgin and Saint John to the royal monastic foundation of San Jeronimo in Madrid.
[vi] Tempera on oak panel, 48 x 20 cm. Bäcksbacka 1962, p. 162, no. 21, fig. 57. The sitter was later beatified in 1796.
[vii] J. Brown, The Golden Age of Painting in Spain, New Haven 1991, p. 52.

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