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Some representations on monetary almsgiving


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Ricardo Fernández Gracia

Chair of Heritage and Art in Navarre

The topic of almsgiving is closely related, in the figurative arts, with the representation of others such as the charity of St. Martin, when he parted his cloak with the poor and other scenes linked to the marginalized and excluded. On the latter we already wrote in this same newspaper two articles (November 10 and 24, 2017), to which we refer. On this occasion we will focus on the pecuniary alms and its representation in some works of Navarre's heritage, in tune with the aphorism that reminds us: "Hands that you do not give, what do you expect".

Coins and their receptacles, physically represented, to gloss almsgiving and charity, had their greatest echoes in the Counter-Reformation era, where the ideals of holiness were linked to works of mercy and the models to imitate were those who stripped themselves of everything, including money, to help the poor and needy.

St. Thomas of Villanova in Baroque and Romantic painting

At the head of the latter, in Spain, the figure of St. Thomas of Villanova (1486-1555), Augustinian and archbishop of Valencia, stood out, austere and charitable, especially with orphans, maidens and the sick, canonized in 1658. Despite being very alms-giving, he tried to solve poverty by giving work to the poor, thus making his alms bear fruit. In this regard, he wrote: "Almsgiving is not only to give, but to bring the needy out of need and to free them from it when possible".

His iconography, as an almsgiving bishop saint or "saint of the purse", was fixed, as in many other cases, on the basis of the process of ascension to the altars, the banner or tapestry of the ceremony of his canonization in St. Peter's Basilica and the holy cards that were thrown to commemorate the event. Of the five banners that were hung in the Vatican during the solemn ceremony, three came to Spain, specifically to Valencia, Madrid and Zaragoza. The passage of his life chosen as the motif of the banners was that of his charity, one of the works most loved by the Church and so exemplary for the faithful, at a time when justification, not only by faith but also by works, had brought to the altars others such as St. Charles Borromeo in his work with the plague-stricken of Milan, or St. John of God, dedicated to the care of the sick.

Francisco de Quevedo wrote a biographical compendium on St. Thomas of Villanova as summary and report of an extensive history that he was preparing for canonization, which was widely distributed in the 17th century. In it we read: "they made him veils and pictures by order of His Holiness ..... They painted him dressed as a pontifical, with a bag in his hand, which is the true staff of the shepherd who feeds the sheep, and where a prelate can best lean so as not to stumble on the narrow path of his official document. Alms is the staff of the good bishop, where the poor lean, with which the needy are sustained ...".Painters such as Murillo, Carreño and Cerezo seem to have known those pictures and others with the same topic.

The representations with the same content of the XVII century are very numerous. In Navarre we must mention those of the Comendadoras de Puente la Reina and the Augustinian Recollect Nuns of Pamplona. A canvas of the latter is signed by Francisco Camilo, in the middle of the XVII century, emphasizing its loose brushstroke and the coloring, in which green, yellow and red tones predominate, which speak of Flemish influences.


Also worth mentioning for its quality is the painting of his altarpiece in the cathedral of Tudela, the work of Vicente Berdusán, made around 1666, commissioned by Canon Agustín de Baquedano. Regarding his graphic sources, we must point out the engraving that accompanies the biography of Father Miguel Salón of 1651 by Juan Felipe Jansen, as well as a print by Mateo Gregorio Rossi, a Roman artist from the second half of the 17th century. Both show the saintly archbishop distributing his money, which he takes out of a bag and submission to the needy and crippled.

Leaving that century, we will also mention the magnificent painting of the Sevillian painter José María Romero, who in the last stage of his life made a cycle for the Augustinian Recollects of Marcilla, between 1890 and 1891. Again, we find him with the bag, from which he takes out some coins to give them to an orphaned child. If we compare this composition with the previous ones, we observe that the issue of the poor has been reduced, as well as all his episcopal procession, for the sake of simplicity and clarity of the message.

San Lorenzo in the Hospital of Tudela

The figure of St. Lawrence is usually found with the instrument of his martyrdom, the grill. Also, when he is represented in scenes of his life, we usually choose that of his death. However, sometimes we find him distributing among the needy the treasures and goods of the Church entrusted to him by Pope Sixtus, as in the 12th century Romanesque capital of the cloister of San Pedro de la Rúa in Estella. More exceptionally, he appears distributing alms with some coins that he deposits in the hands of the poor and ragged. In the main altarpiece of the Hospital de Santa María de Gracia in Tudela, we find this last one model, in a context of exaltation of the works of mercy, both for the environment of the Counter-Reformation, as well as for the institution itself to which it belongs. The aforementioned altarpiece was contracted by Juan de Gurrea, in 1635, for the amount of 225 ducats, following the traces of Jerónimo de Estaragán. Hernando de Mozos and José de Fuentes were in charge of its gilding and painting in the following years. Later, in 1686, Jacinto de Blancas made the "six new squares" for the bench of the aforementioned altarpiece.

The canvas of the widow receiving alms by José Mª Domenech (1864) in Marcilla

In the refectory of the convent of the Augustinians of Marcilla is preserved a large canvas, whose topic and setting is almost disturbing. It is a work of a markedly realistic character and with such contrasting lights that it seems to be inspired by works of seventeenth-century tenebrism, although the characters are completely nineteenth-century.

Its author, José María Domenech was born in Murcia around 1820-25 and died in La Coruña in 1890. He trained in the shadow of the Economic Society of his hometown, at the Royal Academy of San Fernando and at the Courture workshop in Paris. He traveled to Mexico and upon his return he settled in as a teacher at the Escolapios de Getafe. He participated in several competitions and the National Exhibitions of 1860 and 1864. In the latter he did so with canvases such as "Two Children Receiving Alms" or "A Shameful Poor Man", themes that bring us close to the one that concerns us. Years later, after participating in other exhibitions and writing in different Madrid newspapers, he accepted to direct a second establishment teaching founded in Santa María de Cee, where he died in 1890.

In Marcilla's canvas we find a young and elegant widow, mourning and with her face veiled, with her young son, on the landing of the stairs of a tenement house, asking for alms and receiving some coins from an anonymous hand, as if the painting wanted to make us reflect on the text of Saint Matthew that reminds us: "When you give alms, let your left hand ignore what your right hand does, so that your alms may remain a secret; and your Father, who sees in secret, will thank you for it".

Images limosneros and cajetas

The reproductions of famous images went out of some sanctuaries, in their urns and boxes, to go to the demand. Such was the issue of postulants that the civil authorities reduced, in several occasions, the issue of sanctuaries with authorization to ask.

In the Capuchin nuns of Tudela, several Niños Jesús were kept in their urns for this purpose. A stamp on paper that accompanied them, in the form of a card, to distribute to donors, was engraved with the following registration:

"My dearest wives
from Tudela sent me

and they trust in your mercy.

O tender and merciful loves!

They say all of them

that they have fallen into fatal oblivion

and as I take care of them

as a lover in love

to you that I have given so much

I ask you for alms".

In spite of the fact that the above mentioned stamp is headed by a small Heart of Jesus with all its symbolic elements and in spite of having been the convent of Tudela standard bearer in the new deific devotion, the text of the registration seems to be destined to the benefactors of the Capuchinas of Tudela. Specifically, the stamps of that matrix were destined to be distributed by the brothers and donated of the house in their "paths" throughout Castile, the Basque Country, Aragon and Valencia, where they went to collect fruits and alms for the nuns, always accompanied by the famous Niños Jesús in their little chapels, like alms-givers on a continuous journey. We cannot fail to mention here the famous painting by José María Rodríguez Acosta, graduate "Con el santo y la limosna"(1914), where the petitioner, wearing a scapular and silent, is accompanied by a beautiful sculpture of the Child Jesus.

As for the sanctuaries, several cajetas have been preserved, for example, those of the Virgins of the Remedy and the Miracle of Luquin, Codés, Legarra de Lizasoáin, or San Miguel de Izaga, San Tirso de Esparza de Salazar, San Gregorio Ostiense and Santa Felicia de Labiano. The devotional projection of most of these sanctuaries went far beyond the regional sphere. An example of this is Luquin, where we know that its almsmen went to Berrueza, Valdega, La Solana, Echauri, Yerri, Orba and Araquil and towns such as Lerín, Peralta, Artajona, Andosilla, Sesma, Cárcar, Lodosa, Falces, Milagro, Valtierra, Mañeru and Salvatierra. They always did it, as in other cases, accompanied by the alms basket with the engraved images or in small sculptural reductions of their images.

In the painting of the twentieth century we find as protagonists some sacristans and almsmen with their drawers. Among the most outstanding are the famous "Cristero", a work by Miguel Pérez Torres (c. 1918-1919), which is kept in the town hall of the capital of La Ribera. This painter from Tudela, throughout the twenties, moved away from the influence of the great Spanish artists of the seventeenth century and began to express himself with greater spontaneity, in genre and popular scenes.

Of great psychological depth is the portrait, currently in unknown whereabouts, made by Cristóbal González Quesada, restorer of the Prado Museum, of the sacristan of Fitero, Cristóbal Aznar Latorre "El Poba", with the cajeta de las ánimas, in 1947. The same character had been the subject of an insightful caricature by Fernando Palacios in 1922.