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Juan de Valdés Leal (Sevilla, 1622-1690)

The Naming of Jesus

Circa 1680


Oil on canvas, 105 x 76 cm

Juan de Valdés Leal was one of the strongest personalities of the Andalusian Baroque and ranks among the most prolific and versatile artists of his time, developing a body of pictorial work without forgetting other media such as drawing, copperplate engraving, fresco painting, religious statuary painting and even scenography—he was commissioned to design the temporary architecture for the Cathedral of Seville when St. Ferdinand was canonised. In a sense, Valdés Leal represented the trend opposite to Murillo in the high Andalusian Baroque, yet he was unfairly treated by 19th-century historians as a painter of gruesome, macabre themes, although fortunately this notion was completely debunked following the publication of Enrique Valdivieso's studies.

His early training was probably centred on the monumentality of Herrera the Elder's types, but he learned his most important lessons from the models of Córdoba-born painter Antonio del Castillo, as illustrated by his early works painted for the Poor Clares of Carmona—two of them now held at Seville City Hall—on the history of St. Clare. A crucial influence for him, as for Murillo, was the new Venetian Baroque style imported by Herrera the Younger which literally altered the course of his painting. Another important event was his stay in Madrid, where he became acquainted with the work of Rizi and Carreño, whose influence is so patent in his painting that sometimes their styles are difficult to tell apart. This concomitant, communal use of the forms of the high Baroque meant that, beyond individual pictorial themes, there was a reliance on common sources and styles that gave rise to this stylistic identity.

The Naming of Jesus is clearly linked to the Jesuits given the iconography it represents, and there is no denying the influence of The Circumcision of Christ that Juan de Roelas made for the central part of the main altarpiece at the Church of La Anunciación in Seville, a Jesuit mother house. However, Valdés Leal eliminated the figures of St. Ignatius of Loyola and St. Ignatius of Antioch that Roelas included in the lower register and replaced them with two angels, one facing away and kneeling and the other standing, holding a tray, cloths and the necessary elements for Christ's circumcision. As Pacheco recommended for this iconography in his Arte de la Pintura, he did not add any other characters and made the main theme the centre of attention: "[the Virgin] went to the temple at Jerusalem to be purified, and she circumcised the Babe Jesus with her own hand, and named him in that very place, having no witnesses but her husband Joseph and the angels of heaven. That the Virgin performed this ceremony is the constant opinion of many saints and authors and that which I propose to follow, having heard it preached by many learned men, among them Father Juan de Pineda at the mother house." All of these details lead us to believe that the painting was intended for a Jesuit patron or even connected to the order's mother house in Seville.

In this work Valdés Leal demonstrates his uniquely loose, vibrant draughtsmanship, a product of the dynamic, restless artistic personality that radically distinguishes him from his contemporaries, and uses a gold colouring with rich accents of crimson and darker tones that is highly characteristic of his final output. The divine light bursting through the clouds is a very prominent feature that lends the work a monumental quality and, again in comparison to Roelas's solution, drives home the importance of the triumphant Baroque style in the final third of the 17th century. [Benito Navarrete]