I’ve never been a big one for religious art – all those side-lit, mournful, downright spooky figures gazing heavenwards leave me cold. No emotional or spiritual connection. Probably not surprising, given that I’m an atheist.
I can appreciate a good, solid, stone Gothic archway in a church, and maybe a lofty domed ceiling or some jewel-coloured stained-glass windows – the rooftop tour of the Cathedral was amazing – but paintings of angels, saints, Our Lord and His Mother? No, gracias. Give me a Picasso, Klimt or Bridget Riley any day.
However when holy images are combined with something more to my taste, like frocks – well, that’s another matter altogether. Some genius had the idea of reinterpreting a series of works by Zurbaran, the 17th-century Spanish religious painter, as contemporary fashion, thereby opening up the paintings’ appeal to a much wider audience (for example, me). Santas de Zurbaran: Devocion y Persuasion, at a newly-opened art space in a restored convent near the Alameda, is proving popular, with queues round the block at weekends (I went on a Friday; one of the advantages of being freelance).
At the time, the painter was fiercely criticised for depicting these 17 holy women – including a pair of Isabels, Casilda, Eufemia; martyrs, princesses and other unfortunates who met sticky ends, often involving swords and fire – as wordly señoras. In his paintings, the santas virgenes wear rich, extravagant fabrics with gold decoration and exquisite jewellery; they were condemned as “profane”. Many were commissions for the New World, some painted by his apprentices, and were sent to convents in Lima and Buenos Aires.
Zurbaran’s father was a haberdasher, so the painter knew all about how to make the finest, most sumptuous fabrics come alive on canvas: silk, velvet, brocade, the folds, the tones, the drapes. He would have made a fabulous costumer designer. No bland, amorphous, classical shifts for his saints. These are in shades of gold, turquoise and vivid olive green, with voluminous cloaks of shot silk, ruched into bows on their backs. Some said he was immortalizing the nobles of the day in “divine portraits”. Flattery is not ill-advised for a court painter.
Contemporary fashion designers, including Seville’s own Vittorio & Luccino, who designed the Duquesa de Alba’s wedding dress; Cordoban master Elio Berhanyer, who dressed the likes of Ava Gardner and Cyd Charisse; and doyenne of bright colours and hearts, Agatha Ruiz de la Prada (met her once, extremely nice lady), have come up with their own modern-day versions of the saints’ apparel. They’ve used every fabric from heavy brocade (think stately-home curtains) to shiny pink plastic (Barbie doll). The range of tastes is part of the appeal – everyone will love and hate some, but most will emerge with a favourite or two from the 21 creations (which are shown on mannequins, not real models as seen here – in case you were wondering). Before you go upstairs, look at the 1960s pink flower-print silk Balenciaga evening gown: it sports the same cape/train seen on many of Zurbaran’s lady saints. His influence on the worlds of theatre, design and art is undeniable.
The exhibition is being held in Espacio Santa Clara (not to be confused with another nearby previously-religious-now-cultural building, Santa Ana), a historic building which began as an Almohad palace; was then inhabited by Don Fadrique, whose famous tower – built as a lookout/love-nest to canoodle with his stepmother – is in the patio; and latterly was used as a convent until 1998. The space has two long galleries, ideal for hanging paintings (described in the audioguide as “bedrooms”, which leads to the interesting translation: “the Holy Virgins that are exposed in the bedroom” – *adolescent snigger*); the patio is used for flamenco performances and concerts. The ground floor gallery has very dark lighting for this show, with only the works and their accompanying text illuminated, giving a dramatic effect; upstairs, where the gowns are displayed, is lighter.
The stars of the show, for me, were Santa Casilda, with her theatrical, uber-glamorous gunmetal-silver cape – her roses refer to a miracle when the bread she was taking to Christian prisoners, an act of mercy forbidden by her father, turned into flowers; Santa Isabel of Hungary; Pedro Moreno’s angels; and Santa Dorothea (mustard-yellow velvet with little applique flowers on the edges of the jacket’s sleeves and hem), one of a group of creations by Berhanyer’s students at the near end of the fashion gallery. A nice idea, to give the next generation of designers a platform such as this, but most don’t work, a few are downright cheesy, and some of the workmanship is frankly shoddy, with uneven pleats and folds, puckered fabric, and stitching coming undone. I just hope they’re not final year students. Similarly, some portraits by apprentice painters from the school of Zurbaran serve to show just how far they were from their master’s genius, with flat colours, dull textures and unattractive faces.
The audioguide (see below) is well worth it, explaining clearly the background to the exhibition, Zurbaran’s life, and the story behind each saint, what fate befell her and the motive for her “attributes” – the objects she holds which refers to some key event in her life (often her fate): flowers, fruit, a book, a spear, a saw (yes, really. Grisly lot, these 17th-century Spanish Catholics.)
I also recommend the brochure, 3 euros (never can resist a glossy brochure; there’s also a much pricier hardback catalogue), which features colour photos of selected paintings and dresses, and a list of the saints with fascinatingly bizarre information about who/what/where they’re patrons of: Agueda/Agata – wetnurses, breastfed babies and Catania; Isabel de Portugal – the jealous, victims of adultery and false accusations, and social workers; Matilda – lost children, women deceived by their children, queens, women on their second marriage, and widows. Between them, they seems to have all female bases covered, don’t they?
If you stop at the brochure stand, be sure to look out for the shoes – each pair, designed for their outfits, is displayed on a shelf. The lady who sold me my brochure didn’t know why they weren’t with their corresponding clothes, especially since many are mentioned on the audioguide.
Santas de Zurbaran: Devocion y Persuasion is on at Espacio Santa Clara (calle Becas, near the Alameda) until 20 July. Monday to Saturday 10am-3pm and 6-9pm; Sunday 10am-3pm. Expect long queues at the weekend. Free for Seville residents, 6 euros for others. Audioguide 1.20 euros (included in 6 euro ticket).
Watch the video of Eva Yierbabuena dancing in the Santa Casilda dress, in the patio of Espacio Santa Clara.
All photos courtesy of Fernando Ruso/Ayuntamiento de Sevilla