The Sacred Unveiled: Part 5, Francisco de Zurbarán

August 21, 2020

By Géranne Darbouze

Another artist known primarily for his religious works, whose art also speaks volumes about the artistic entanglement of painting and sculpture, is the Spanish Baroque painter Francisco de Zurbarán (1598–1664). A passionate follower of the Catholic faith, Zurbarán crafted his images from a combination of real-life models and the stories about religious figures so integral to Catholic practice. Picked up during his training in the studio of Pedro Díaz de Villanueva—a pintor de imagineria who was specially educated to bring wood sculptures to life—this method of working was no doubt integral to Zurbarán’s formation as an artist, as it demanded perfection in marrying religious devotion and artistic technique, lest the maker weaken the significance and power of sacred figures.[1] As a painter, Zurbarán earned his nickname “the Spanish Caravaggio” due to the strong contrasts of light and shadow in his work. Zurbarán’s penetrating attention to detail was born not only out of his Carravagist tendencies but also the tradition of polychromed wood (see my preceding blogpost on Luisa Roldán). His paintings project such a convincing three-dimensionality that not only do they appear to pop off the canvas, but the flat canvas background appears to be a deep space, the void, filler within which is hidden the other dimensions of the figure’s body.

Francisco de Zurbarán, “Christ on the Cross,” 1627. Oil on canvas, 114 5/16 × 65 3/16 in. Art Institute of Chicago

Zurbarán’s Christ on the Cross displays this exact quality. It not only invites viewers to see Christ in his final moments but also suggests that beyond the shadowy background, he exists in all his fullness. He is present for us to reach out and touch, and if we do touch Him, we will be satisfied. Beyond the dexterity with which Zurbarán paints Christ’s human form including his skin, he lends texture to all elements in the composition: The body of Christ is realistically rippled and dimpled, but the white sheet around his gaunt waist falls as though it is truly bed linen, haphazardly draped over the body of a martyr in agony. In this image, Zurbarán amplifies the Biblical message of death and rebirth through Christ’s incarnate body, which seems to spring forth from the canvas itself.

Francisco de Zurbarán, “The Flight into Egypt,” c. 1638–40. Oil on canvas, 59 1/16 × 25 5/8 in. Seattle Art Museum, Seattle

Zurbarán once again displays his ability to make flat images appear three dimensional in The Flight into Egypt. Here he presents the Holy Family and a donkey as incredibly lifelike figures set against a dark background. He depicts them, as well as the landscape enfolding them, with great fullness. Thanks to the artist’s skill, we are tempted to imagine what they might look like from other angles. Just behind the donkey’s hoof, we see a rock that begs us to pluck it from the canvas and chuck it across the desert. But what does this image mean? As in works by El Greco, Luisa Roldána, and Valdés Leal, does there exist a distinct message within Zurbarán’s? Yes, there does, and it largely echoes Roldán’s. Christ and Christian devotion are highly accessible. Zurbarán makes them positively tangible, enhancing his message with the three-dimensional quality of his work, so three-dimensional in fact that it bears comparison with sculpture. He manipulates the atmosphere surrounding his figures to create an image that, like those of Roldán, appears at the same time both hyper-real and steeped in personal religious experience.

Religion has long exerted a huge impact on society, and 15th-to-17th-century Spain was no exception. As people adopted new customs of religious devotion, reverential practices became synonymous with much of artistic practice. Artists began producing more and more religious subjects, which presented not only their personal religious beliefs but also those of their benefactors and commissioners. What can we learn from this blogpost series? That much like the relationship between sculpture and painting, the relationship between religion and art is cyclical. We also learn that Spanish artistic masters are also Spanish religious masters, who urge viewers to become their own religious masters.

For me, the most intriguing part of my findings has been uncovering how artists used particular aesthetic elements and other methods of creation, in and of themselves, to send and interpret religious messages. Choosing to produce a sculpture—or a painting that exerts the lifelike, three-dimensional quality of a sculpture—to convey a message is a powerful tool. How an artist uses the possibilities of a medium reveals a great deal about how they interpret their subject matter. I was especially amazed to discover how simply lending a lifelike quality to a work of art can make something that can feel distant—such as religion—incredibly close and accessible. What El Greco, Luisa Roldán, Valdés Leal, and Zurbarán all accomplish, each in their own way, is a deeply psychological form of engagement, one that reassures viewers that they are no further from Christ and righteousness than they are from the works of art they are viewing.


[1] Véronique Gérard-Powell, “The Sacred Made Real. Spanish Painting and Sculpture 1600-1700” Accessed July 16, 2020.


Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4

Géranne Darbouze is an undergraduate intern at the Grey Art Gallery who is majoring in Film and Television Production and minoring in Art History and Religious Studies. She expects to receive her BFA in January 2021.