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A unique painting for its content, with two scenes from the life of the co-patrons of Navarre.

Published in

Diario de Navarra

Ricardo Fernández Gracia

Chair of Heritage and Art in Navarre

Recently, in a Madrid auction, the Parish of San Lorenzo de Pamplona was awarded the canvas, thanks to the diligence of its parish priest Don Javier Leoz, who captured the interest of the work and took advantage of the unbeatable conditions for its acquisition.

The exceptionality of the composition lies in the fact that, on the same canvas, two scenes are represented, the most eloquent of the lives of the Navarrese co-patrons. It is not a question of two isolated images of both, but of passages of their lives, in a context in which the confrontation between Xavierists and Ferminists of the second quarter of the 17th century had already been overcome. To date, it is the first known example, although it may not be the only one.

A visual project to reconcile two models of holiness

From 1657, when the Papal Brief of 1657 declared Saint Fermin and Saint Francis Xavier "aeque patroni principales" of the Kingdom, the images of both coexisted in altarpieces, processions, paintings and engravings, always with the preference of Saint Fermin, due to his condition of martyr. This canvas represents a step forward in terms of visual image, with the reconciliation of two models of sanctity, one more legendary and martyr-like and the other much more historical and in accordance with the post-Tridentine subject , based on the role of works and missions.

For the depiction of the martyrdom, represented to the left of the viewer, or the Gospel side of a temple, the painter relied on accounts from the hagiographies of 1609 and 1693, which highlighted the saint's refusal to sacrifice to the pagan gods, as well as his serenity and peace of heart in accepting martyrdom in that "theater of the city of Amiens". As an authentic theatrical scenography, the scene is represented with the background, not of a prison, but of a great urban space of classical evocations, in which a marble temple, the sculpture of a pagan divinity, soldiers and horses are represented. In the case of Xavier, biographies, sermons and joys had popularized the thousands of baptisms administered by the saint, in a passage that Father Schurhammer called "the great harvest".

For the reading of both scenes

It goes without saying that the painting is not just about form with rich color, contrasting lights and dynamic compositions, but there are a number of background elements, intended to teach and sensitize. In this regard, Velázquez's father-in-law, Francisco Pacheco, wrote: "Let the painter ensure that his figures move the spirits, some disturbing them, others making them happy, others inclining them to pity, others to contempt, according to the quality of the stories. And lacking this, let him think he has done nothing". The artists, as well as different treatises, were aware that it was necessary to be careful to look for the gestures that corresponded to each attitude, the expressions of the faces and hands. The painting we are dealing with gives a good account of all this in its different characters.

In the bishop's martyrdom, the pair of horsemen is striking, one with a spear and the other holding the large flag with the registration S.P.Q.R., as well as the figure of the pagan deity with his followers. Its identification is not easy, because it is accompanied by attributes such as the jar and a container or case that, in principle, do not lead to a clear conclusion, although it could be Pandora, from whose jar -then box- all subject of misfortunes for humanity were released. Among those who contemplate the execution, a child and another character with an eloquent gesture seem to be horrified by the fact.

In the case of Xavier, together with the various characters: oriental prince, Indians with quiver and bow and gentiles who come to be baptized, we find a mother breastfeeding her child, which evokes not only charity, but also hope. Both, together with faith, signified by the saint's Crucifix, place us before the theological virtues. There is also a poor widow with a tired and imploring face, because of Javier's repeated protection of women.

If Fermín is rewarded by heaven with the crown and the palm of martyrdom, Javier is rewarded with tongues of fire, an element that is found in texts from the 16th century to the present day, in allusion to the divine financial aid for his apostolic zeal.

A common element in both scenes is the break of glory with the heraldic emblem of the Kingdom of Navarre, of rich design, supported by angels of Rubensian ancestry. Its form is reminiscent of a painting of the co-patrons of Navarre, made by the painter Ignacio Abarca y Valdés in 1696.

The same outline of the martyrdom, possibly taken as an iconographic loan of the execution of another saint, appears on a much later canvas in the Pamplona City Hall, painted in much colder colors and possibly by Miguel Sanz Benito.

The scene of the baptism is indebted to very widespread prints copied by different authors. In Navarre, the canvases of Vicente Berdusán de Mélida (1682) and Caparroso (1691) are not far from the same model, there are even details such as the way the Jesuit holds the Crucifix, which highlight the existence of the common reference letter .

Boceto or modelino for a larger work?

The restoration and re-draping of the canvas from five or six decades ago make it difficult to analyze the painting stylistically. However, there are data, such as the quick invoice and the sketched details that make us suspect that it may be a composition for a larger work, or a reduction for the satisfaction of some devotee. The painter's regrets, present in the upper areas, together with the coats of arms and other details, lead us to think that it is a modelino or small project that the artist made to present to his client.

The last origin of Madrid leads us to think of one of the outstanding members of the Royal Congregation of San Fermín de los Navarros, as its owner at the end of the XVII century or the beginning of the following century. These were important moments in the diffusion of his cult, with the publication of the hagiography of Juan Joaquín de Berdún in 1693 and the construction of the chapel in Pamplona, between 1696 and 1717, with donations from local people and many foreigners residing in Spain and America. We are carrying out a study of its authorship in order to get closer, through a detailed analysis, without ruling out Vicente Berdusán or his son Carlos or another author of the Madrid court. Regarding the former, it would be good to remember that in Madrid there is a work from his last period (1691) and that he worked for the Dukes of Villahermosa in 1693, which could facilitate a possible commission for the canvas we are dealing with in the villa and court.

With this painting, the Parish of San Lorenzo has another representation of the martyrdom of Saint Fermin, to add to the delicate medallion on the cover of the chapel of the saint (1805), the oval of the silver pedestal (1736) and the stained glass window (1886). All of them works to be contemplated with attention, as Roger de Piles suggested in his Cours de peinture par principes (1708), when he wrote: "The painting must call the spectator... and the surprised spectator must come to it, as if to engage in conversation". For those who want to recall the saint's epic, the contemplation of the canvas is an opportunity to reflect on history, art history, iconography, the use and function of the arts and the dialogue, always necessary in this subject of pieces, between culture and faith.