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Prado opens exhibition dedicated to one of the most significant Renaissance masters
Photo of the exhibition galleries. © Museo Nacional del Prado.

MADRID.- The Museo del Prado is presenting ‘The Divine Morales’, an exhibition intended as a testament to the work and life of Luis de Morales the ‘Divine’ practically a century after the Prado hosted the first monographic exhibition devoted to the artist.

Although Morales’s most representative creations were widely disseminated thanks to the existence of his own studio and through the versions produced by other painters and followers, this show brings together a careful selection solely of works that display the high quality standards of Morales’s extraordinary painting technique, including a sculpture by Alonso Berruguete from the Museo Nacional de Escultura in Valladolid which is closely linked to Morales’s Passion themes on account of the spirituality it conveys and the sculptural values found in this master’s painting.

This selection of works by Morales, mostly small-format paintings and half-length figures, illustrates the images he used throughout his career: the Virgin and Child, such as the popular Virgin Suckling the Child in the Museo del Prado; Christ crowned with thorns, such as the Man of Sorrows in the Minneapolis Institute of Arts; tied to the column, carrying the cross or already dead in his mother’s arms, such as the Pietà from the Museo de la Real Academia de Bellas Artes de San Fernando. They make up a small repertoire of images that are usually devoid of temporal or spatial references in order to provide perfect conditions for immersing the viewer in religious contemplation.

‘The Divine Morales’
Luis de Morales was born in 1510 or 1511 and probably died in 1586, possibly in Alcántara (Cáceres), where he is known to have lived in 1585. It is not known where he was born, but he lived and painted in Extremadura. For more than fifty years he was the most prolific and important painter of that vast region, where he produced many altarpieces and religious paintings, broadening his clientele to Portugal, especially the towns of Évora and Elvas near Badajoz. He established himself in Badajoz in 1539, after working in Plasencia and the surrounding area, where the combination of artists and influences from Flanders and Castile explains an essential part of Luis de Morales’s painting. Knowledge of works by other artists, especially Alonso Berruguete and Sebastiano del Piombo, helped shape the style of this painter, who soon earned fame for his small religious panels. With a keen commercial sense, Morales adapted a painstakingly executed artistic and devotional product, based on a combination Flemish traditions of the late 1400s–early 1500s and Italianate elements and models, to suit his clientele of the period. Furthermore, he subtly conveyed the spiritual atmosphere of the period in these religious images. Simply composed and very familiar to believers, they were visually highly effective with an unmistakeable emotional charge.

This exhibition carefully surveys the work of the ‘Divine’ Morales, who was so called because, as painter and treatise writer Antonio Palomino wrote in the eighteenth century: ‘He was named the Divine, because all he painted was sacred things, and because he made heads of Christ with such exquisiteness and subtlety in the hair, that it causes those interested in art want to blow on it so that it moves, because it appears as subtle as that which is real.’

Sections of the exhibition
Lasting icons

This section introduces visitors to the painter’s best-known iconographic creations – fairly small works with bust- or half-length figures silhouetted against black backgrounds by contrasting lighting to bring them closer to the spectator. Designed for oratories and private chapels, these compositions attest to Luis de Morales’s complex artistic affiliations – his connection with Italian painting and with a few Flemish and Northern European artists.

Del dulce pintar . Around the Virgin and Child
Morales reworked a few well-established iconographies of European Christian art. Characterised, like his entire output, by a religiosity centred on the Passion aspects of Christ’s childhood, they were extremely successful with the clientele of the period. His small panel paintings of devotional images featuring the ‘Virgin and Child’ enjoyed widespread popularity. His main creations revolved around the Gypsy Virgin (also known as the pilgrim Virgin or Virgin with the hat), in which Mary wears a striking wide-brimmed hat, and the so-called Virgin with the spindle, a type of depiction in which the Child holds this instrument for winding yarn in imitation of the cross. A careful selection of variations on these two themes attests to Morales’s ability to achieve works that are delicately constructed but with an effective emotional charge.

As a contrast, this section also features three masterpieces by Morales in large format.

Painting for very close up. Images of the Passion and Redemption
The Passion of Christ became a key motif for reflecting on and emulating in the society of the period. Morales’s panel paintings of the suffering Christ, executed in small format with intense backgrounds against which the images of Christ enduring the redeeming Passion (preferably bust- or half-length figures) are silhouetted with sculptural force, were highly convincing for that mid-sixteenth-century society, as proven by the many known versions of the master’s originals.

This group of works is centred around the full-length Ecce Homo in the Museu Nacional de Arte Antiga in Lisbon and a sculpture by Alonso de Berruguete in the Museo Nacional de Escultura in Valladolid, as an iconographic reference that also suggests Luis de Morales’s undeniable aesthetic relationship with sculpture.

Complex stories: altarpieces
Like most sixteenth-century Spanish painters, Luis de Morales produced a large number of altarpieces for which he was assisted in particular by his workshop. Archival documents show that Morales’s output of ensembles of this kind, which were so characteristic of the art of his time, was abundant; however, the conflicts with Portugal in the seventeenth century, the Peninsular War and the Civil War led to the disappearance of most of these altarpieces. Works of significant quality have been recovered for the exhibition to help illustrate this aspect of Morales’s output and compete the survey of his complex career.

In keeping with the theme, this section also features the only two drawings attributed to the artist: Lamentation over the Dead Christo and Noli me tangere, both from the Museu Nacional de Arte Antiga in Lisbon.

Saint Juan de Ribera and Counter-Reformation spirituality
Of the group of prelates assigned to Badajoz, the most prominent was undoubtedly Saint Juan de Ribera. His family background and intellectual grounding and the spiritual environment of his tenure in Extremadura (1562–69) make Ribera an essential reference in the life and paintings of Luis de Morales, who came to be considered court painter to the prelate.

The fundamental work in this last section is the altarpiece with the Judgement of the Soul of Saint Juan de Ribera, from the Real Colegio Seminario de Corpus Christi in Valencia – Museo del Patriarca.

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