Art+fashion+religion=a richly textured show in Seville

The modern interpretations of Zurbaran's saints.

Contemporary Spanish fashion designers’ interpretations of Zurbaran’s saints.

Zurbaran, Seville, SEvilla, Santa Clara, Santas de Zurbaran, Elio Berhanyer

Santa Casilda and a sketch of her modern-day modish equivalent by octogenarian Spanish fashion legend Elio Berhanyer.

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).

The finished version of Santa Casilda V21 - the flowers on the net underskirt relate to a miraculous story about her life.

The finished version of Santa Casilda V21 – get that glorious silk cape. The flowers on the net underskirt relate to a miraculous story about her life.

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.

This is how Vittorio y Lucchino interpreted Santa Isabel de Hungria.

This is how Victorio y Lucchino interpreted Santa Isabel de Hungria – dig the ruched leggings.

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.

Zurbaran, Espacio Santa Clara

The upstairs gallery has the frocks – fashion heaven. On the left are two angel outfits, in celestial yellowy-orangey-gold.

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

A to Z of Sevilla: Part One, A-F

The Alcazar, Seville’s Mudejar delight: a perfect example of the synthesis between Spanish kings and Moorish craftsmen.

What defines a city? What is that essence which gives it an identity all of its own – the strange, arcane customs? The architectural and historical span of its buildings? The eccentric characters? The flashes of colour at a local celebration? The mournful tones of music in a procession? Noone can capture a city like Seville, which has the strongest identity of any city I’ve ever lived in, but I’ve tried to single out the aspects which I think are unique to southern Spain’s main metropolis.

At first I was only going to choose one aspect or characteristic of Seville for each letter of the alphabet, but then I realised that would be unfeasibly limiting and would omit far too many integral features of my adopted home city. (How could you mention tapas, but not Triana?) So, instead, I’m splitting it into several parts. Here goes with the first section…

Abril, Feria de – The main social event of the year in Seville, when men and women in frilly dresses and horse-riding outfits drink and dance (sometimes at the same time – see photo above), day and night, for a whole week. You need serious amounts of stamina, something the Sevillanos are never lacking.


Alcazar - the fortress-palace built by King Alfonso the Wise and his son, Pedro the Cruel, in the 14th century. With its dramatic castle walls (see picture above), beautiful gardens, hidden grottoes, and extraordinary Salon de las Embajadores with its gold-domed ceiling, Seville’s Alcazar is impossibly romantic. It’s also a UNESCO World Heritage site.


azulejos - glazed ceramic tiles, as seen in the Alcazar and countless other palaces, museums, pavilions, churches, offices and private houses around Seville. These ceramic tiles are made in Triana, and have been for centuries. Some of the more recent ones were made at La Cartuja (see below). The word, like many in Spanish, comes from the Arabic – zellige, meaning polished stone.


Betis - the Phoenician name for the river Guadalquivir was Baits, later Betis. Hence the name for the Roman province of Hispania (Spain) – Baetis, within which Hispalis (Seville) was located. (Three Roman emperors were born in the city of Italica, outside Hispalis – look out in the next section, G-L). The city’s second (in longevity) football team adopted its name – fans are Beticos.

There’s also a lively bar-lined street by the river, in Triana, where everyone ends up at some point, on a night out, whether they like it or not. Note: don’t say Be-tiss, noone will understand you; say Be-teee.


Casa de Pilatos – This is a palace in the eastern part of the old city, with Roman statues, exquisite tiling and peaceful gardens.

So-called because it is thought to resemble Pontius Pilate’s house in Jerusalem, where the Marques de Tarifa had been before setting about his magnificent mansion, the Casa has been used as a film location many times, including the mediocre 1492 (about Columbus), and The Kingdom of Heaven (about the crusades). Don’t hold that against it, though.


Cartuja, La – A former Carthusian monastery (full name: Monasterio de Santa Maria de las Cuevas) which has enjoyed a strange and varied history: Columbus stayed there before setting off on his voyages (his tomb is in Seville’s cathedral); Napoleon’s occupying troops set up camp in its cloisters during the Peninsula War.

Then, in the mid-19th century, an Englishman called Pickman built the now-iconic tall, conical chimneys and turned it into a tile and porcelain factory;  La Cartuja de Sevilla tableware is still going strong, though now made in another location, and a set is still a sought-after wedding present for some.

3-D sculpture from BIACS 3, the contemporary art biennal held at La Cartuja in 2008.

Restored for Expo 92 (see below), for which major event it served as headquarters, the complex of buildings now houses a contemporary art museum and held three major art biennales in the 2000s. Sadly, the crisis put a stop to this welcome influx of cutting-edge creation. You can still visit the art exhibitions and permanent collection; chapels, refectory, patios and other rooms; outdoor concerts are held here in summer; and its outside spaces are a welcome haven from the city all year round.


Duquesa de Alba, one of Seville’s most famous, and beloved, residents; she adores flamenco, bullfighting, Semana Santa and Feria. Could she be more Sevillana?

Duquesa de Alba  – one of Seville’s most popular and enduring (literally) characters, the twice-widowed Cayetana wed for the third time last year, to the suspicion of her family and the delight of her public. She has a priceless art collection, including a Goya of her antecedent, as well as works by Rembrandt, Titian, Renoir, Picasso and Dali; a good number of palaces; and about 50 titles (including Duchess of Berwick). I’ve interviewed her once, and seen her on two other occasions: at her wedding, and at a flamenco performance in honour of the Duchess of Cornwall.

Adoring fans – and the equally besotted press – wait outside the Palacio de las Dueñas, the Seville residence of the Duquesa de Alba, on her wedding day in October 2011.

Cayetana’s sense of dress is original, her sense of humour is sharp, and her sense of fun is irrepressible. Which is why this octogenarian is still the darling of the media, the fashion world, and everyone in Seville.


Expo 92’s Pabellon de Europa, with the EU members’ 12 flags. Somehow I doubt they’d all fit on now.

Expo 29 and 92 - Both of these Exposiciones Universales (Universal Exhibitions, or Expo for short) left fascinating but sadly under-documented, under-publicised, and in more recent cases, under-utilised legacies.

Mudejar Pavilion in Parque Maria Luisa, from the Expo 29: now the Museo de Artes y Costumbres Populares.

On each occasion, countries from around the world (Ibero Americano in 1929, with Europe and Asia  as well in 1992) built pavilions which represented their history, architecture or artistic heritage. Many are extraordinary buildings, a microcosm of their culture with amazing decorative detail, such as the Pabellon de Peru, now the Casa de las Ciencias. The city was modernised before each Expo, with whole areas being razed or radically cleaned up of undesirable elements. The 1929 Expo was located in Parque Maria Luisa – most of its pavilions now have a second life as museums or offices – and the 1992 on Isla la Cartuja. Some of the latter’s pavilions are still used, and tours of the site have recently started to celebrate its 20th anniversary this year.


Flamenco – who can visit Sevilla without thinking of dark-eyed, foot-stomping gypsies in swirling dresses? The music, with its anguished wailing, makes your hairs stand on end, sends chills down your spine, and a host of other cliches. Its passion and pain, its staccato rhythms, its strong but graceful movements, make flamenco one of the most rewarding performances you’ll ever see (if it’s authentic), while its inestimable importance made UNESCO list it as “intangible cultural heritage” in 2010. Toque (guitar), baile (dance) and cante (singing) are the elements of this art form, whose roots go back to Morocco, India and Arabic countries. Everyone should experience it live at least once.

Our Jubilee in (occasionally) sunny Suffolk

I might as well admit it now: I come from a family of staunch, conservative monarchists – ex-armed forces, Conservative Thatcherites. While I – and my brother – reject most of their political beliefs (which inspires some good, heated debates round the dinner table), one aspect of their Britishness has stuck with me: royalty-watching.

I can put this down to early immersion: my late aunt worked for the Queen, and used to take me and my brother as children to “Buck House” for the big occasions, while our parents either watched with the crowds or stayed at home. We would hang out in my aunt’s office and then go upstairs to watch the state carriages arriving in the palace’s inner courtyard from the balcony. There are plenty of family anecdotes from those visits, including Prince Andrew bumping into my brother as he ran along the corridor.

The Silver Jubilee in 1977 was one such occasion, so I find it hard not to think about these extraordinary experiences when British royal events approach. My children are thoroughly immersed in Andalucian culture, so I decided to balance out their cultural self-identity with a dose of Englishness. And what could be more English than a bunting-draped, cake-festooned, flag-waving Jubilee village party?

My brother lives in a little village in Suffolk, which joins with the next-door hamlet for such occasions. He helped organise this party – he also raised funds to build their excellent playground (can you tell I’m quite proud?). It was one of thousands held across Britain to celebrate Queen Elizabeth II’s Diamond Jubilee – 60 years as the British sovereign. That’s a long time for anyone to be in the same job, even if you do live in a palace and have lots of servants.

The proceedings started off with the arrival of “The Queen” and “Prince Philip” in a coach and horses. Her Majesty (take note, BBC presenters) inspected the bicycles and then made her way to the field – with its bunting-ed tents, trestle tables heaving with red, white and blue-decorated cakes, hog roast, and drinks tent with beer barrels and Pimm’s – to make her speech, which was hilarious, in her inimitable accent.

Everyone had brought along a salad, and I’ve eaten far worse at restaurants. After a delicious lunch (my carnivorous son loved his hog bap), we troughed out on cakes, tarts and other sweet delights. The paper tablecloth was even printed with a red and white crown motif, a home-made potato print. These Suffolk people do things in style.

The next excitements were the best-dressed wheelbarrows and silly hats. Big Ben won, from an impressive field, and the pompoms were pipped at the post by a corgi.

Then we had the tug(s) of war – men’s and ladies’ – between the two villages.

My son is heaving-ho in the stripey Tshirt, just behind his uncle (in red).

Lastly, after the various five-a-side games (my brother was goalie in the adults’), was the sing-song.

The weather was typically schizophrenic – sun out: jumper off; sun out for more than five minutes: outer T-shirt off; sun in: jumper and other layers back on again; rain: coat on, brolly up, etc.

That night we went to see a firework display on the Deben river, followed by the lighting one of 4,000-odd beacons around the UK.

The following day, we went to the street party in my parents’ village, but all felt a little partied-out so we just made a brief visit, plus the weather wasn’t great. Here are few pictures from it.

We all had a wonderful time – especially my children playing with their cousins, whom they don’t see that often, at the Jubilee jamboree. They understood that the parties were in honour of the Queen, which was all you can expect at their age. I threw myself into watching all the celebrations on TV, and via Twitter comments – the regatta on Sunday (though I fell asleep – blame the BBC’s rubbish coverage, of which Fearne Cotton was the nadir) and the concert, of which hula-hooping Grace Jones and Robbie “Let Me Entertain You” Williams were the highlights.

Prince Charles came off extremely well from the proceedings – his personal memories accompanying the Queen’s home videos shown on the BBC, of him and his sister rolling down a grassy bank at Balmoral; his speech to his Mama after the concert; and his surprise visit with the Duchess of Cornwall to a street party in London. My view, anyway, has changed; he seemed to be relaxed, enjoying himself and at ease among all those showbiz legends (Tom Jones, Shirley Bassey, Elton John). Maybe he is no longer as stuffy and spiky as he’s always been portrayed, or perhaps he’s just mellowed with age. A more human prince.


How was your Jubilee, if you celebrated it, whether in the UK or elsewhere? Did you eat too much cake as well? Is there such a thing as too much cake?

Updating a classic

This week, the Alfonso XIII hotel in Seville reopened after a major refurbishment. This landmark luxury hotel, one of the most famous in Spain, had been closed since the end of May last year.

When I first heard about the refit, I wondered if they would go all designer minimalist, with bare rooms accented by statement lamps and crazy artwork. Many hotels with old facades here in Seville – the EME and Fontecruz in Seville, for example – have chosen to go down the largely monochrome with jewel-coloured velvet sofas, metallic lamps and bold patterns road, with mixed success.

The Alfonso XIII has trod a careful path – the majority of their clients are people who prefer traditional decor and comfortable rooms, rather than a rustic wooden four-poster and a clothes rail.

All the famous tiles of the public areas remain – notably, the entrance hall and public areas on the ground floor, and the staircase.

As you can see, the colour palette is neutral, but with modern accents such as the square lamp, graphic rug and studded square leather pouffes. The studded theme is repeated throughout the hotel, a nod to Seville’s medieval era as seen in the Alcazar.

Some fabrics are a little more interesting print-wise – among the fabrics used are Ralph Lauren. Quite bold, but in a conservative way, if you know what I mean. Classic contemporary.

The new tapas bar, formerly the  Bar Alfonso, has a bold red theme (popular with hotel tapas bars, as it’s such an Andalucian colour – passionate and fiery: the EME’s is similar).

With the imposing portraits it feels appropriately regal. While the serious-looking aristocratic gentlemen (when your hotel is named after a king, you can’t very well not have a likeness of hhim) were not to my personal taste, I loved the oak bar, embroidered leather sofa – made in Spain – hurrah! – and the studded wooden panel down one edge of the bar.

The outside terrace is one of my favourite spots (until the much-anticipated new American Bar – turquoise Art Deco, no less – opens), with its gauzy curtains and shady hideaways.

But of course the most important feature for most guests is their own personal space – the bedrooms. These come in three themes: Andalucian, Castillian and Moorish. The first is the photo shown at the top of this post. Here is the Castillian.

What stood out most in these newly decorated rooms, for me, where the shaped headboards, and the white walls, which replace the fancy silk wallpaper and give a much more clean, modern look. Furniture is either specially commissioned for the hotel, or reconditioned antique, with original wood and new leather, such as this chair.

Walls are hung with black and white historic photographic prints, and contemporary art. But they also have chandeliers, which I thought looked totally out of place.

The Moroccan ceiling lamps were much more in keeping.

Most interesting, for me, were the Mudejar rooms, which have retained their elaborate plasterwork mouldings around the beds, and have brass Moroccan wall lamps on either side. Mudejar is the Arabic style which was employed by Moors who stayed behind in Spain after the Inquisition, outwardly coverting to Christianity, and using their traditional skills to create countless beautiful structures around Spain.

These, along with the inlaid tables and mirrors have the Mudejar rooms a much more tangible character, although I wasn’t too keen on the upholstery fabrics.

Other details I liked included the wardrobes, which are fitted out in black and red with handy (studded) drawers, and look (to my mind) like Louis Vuitton trunks – of which I have 15, naturally. They’re also inspired by Morocco, the hotel group’s regional president told me.

The bathrooms are the same as ever, with the metallic tiles, but with new taps.

All in all, I think the design company, Hirsch Bedner, which did the Landmark in London and Mandarin Oriental in New York, have successfully updated the Alfonso XIII’s look, giving it a fresher feel but without putting off the purists.

Personally I had hoped to be rather more blown away, but then it doesn’t cater to my taste. I’ll leave you with one of my favourite touches; those studded leather pouffes and gorgeous wool rugs.

The Wedding of the Year: the view from la calle

The entrance of Palacio de las Dueñas, the Duquesa's Seville home and venue for her wedding today.

The palace is the Duquesa's favourite of her many properties.

Today was the Wedding of the Year in Spain. The Duquesa de Alba, Spain’s richest woman, who has one of the finest private art collections in the world, married her third husband. She is a very popular figure in Spain for her openness, her lack of pretension and her love of popular pastimes such as bullfighting and flamenco.

The Duquesa’s favourite palace (she has a wide selection – or did; she had to give them away to her children in order for them to approve of the union) is the Palacio de las Dueñas here in Seville, and it was there where she married her sweetheart, civil servant Alfonso Diaz, this afternoon. Yours truly braved the crush and the heat, both of which were extreme, to bring you some photographic evidence of what went on. ( I couldn’t make Will’n’Kate’s, so this was my replacement posh-celeb nuptial fix.)

Some people had dressed up for the occasion.

One person expresses affection for this most popular of bluebloods.

Others sent cheeky messages - eat your heart out, Twitter:

This TV presenter, from "Otra Movida", got the crowd going from a balcony...

and we all cheered when this TV cameraman panned across the throng of people below in the street.

The Duquesa's neighbours, opposite the palace entrance, had enviable views of the proceedings...

and these lucky people had an even better view. That parasol was very necessary - we were sweltering down in the throng...

so some used the traditional Sevillano means of cooling off - an abanico...

but the press pack were even hotter, in full sun (we had shade, at least).

At last the newlyweds made their appearance - and the roar that went up was deafening, while the surge forward was kind of scary. She danced for the people - and the cameras.

Two people looking very happy, holding hands while the world watched.

And then it was all over.

But they were kind enough to send out some liquid refreshment for the parched fans who had waited patiently for hours.

Me at the palace - time to go home now. What an atmosphere, what an experience. Ever since I interviewed her, I've been fascinated by the Duquesa, so I couldn't miss this. And it was worth the heat, the standing for hours, the shoving and pushing, and the claustrophobia. Seville at its best with high spirits, humour and great affection for a much-loved lady. ¡Viva los novios!

This was day 5’s post a day (one post every day for the month of October) – I just didn’t get to post it till 6 October, unlike my fellow post-a-dayer Digamama. So today you get two for the price of one.