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Heritage and identity (65). One A pictorial ensemble in the Augustinians of Marcilla


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Diario de Navarra

Ricardo Fernández Gracia

Director of the Chair of Navarrese Heritage and Art

A few months ago we had the opportunity to get to know, in detail, the collection of paintings of the Augustinian Recollects of Marcilla by Fathers Mediavilla, Panedas and Lizarraga. visit I remembered very briefly my visit to the convent on the occasion of the preparation of the Monumental Catalogue of Navarre, several decades ago, when the paintings on the staircase were studied as nineteenth-century works by the Sevillian painter José María Romero.

The Sevillian painter José María Romero (1816-1894)

The knowledge of his biography and artistic personality have made great progress in recent years, thanks to programs of study by professors Valdivieso, Cabrera and Carro. The latter two have clearly established his birth in 1816 and his death in Madrid in 1894. Critics agree that he is "one of the most interesting personalities on the 19th-century Sevillian art scene". Before the middle of the 19th century he taught at the Seville School of Fine Arts and was appointed a member of that city's Academy of Fine Arts in 1850. In 1867 he moved to Cadiz and in 1872 to Madrid, with stays in Seville and Cadiz. 

His great activity and fame revolved around portraiture - generally cold, rigid and academic - with children's portraits standing out for their creativity and delicacy. He portrayed most of the great Sevillian families, thanks to his closeness to the Dukes of Montpensier, the Counts of Ybarra and other notables of the city. In religious painting, he depended on the style and models of Murillo. He also painted highly refined genre scenes, combining a festive flavour with traditional costumes and gallantry. The catalogue of his work is continually growing.

The date of the Marcilla team and its mentors

Although all the paintings are signed, none of them have a specific date. Their chronology is established by the data of the obituary of the prior from 1888-1891, the Arnedan friar Florentino Sáinz. Florentino Sáinz. There it is noted: "He occupied successively the rectorates of Monteagudo, San Millán de la Cogolla and Marcilla, leaving everywhere imperishable memories of his great spirit, of his love for observance, religion and of an insurmountable zeal for the glories of the Augustinian Order. To him we owe a numerous and select collection of paintings which adorn the royal staircase and the cloisters of high school de Marcilla, representing holy heroes and Recollect bishops". A piece of information gathered by Father R. Zugasti, in 1948, provides a more precise chronology, pointing out that the parish priest of Marcilla, Nicasio Albéniz, told him that those paintings did not exist when he studied in the Preceptory (1888-1890), which would lead him to date the collection to the following academic year 1890-1891, at the end of the priesthood of Father Florentino Sáinz, at a time of great spiritual and missionary strength of the convent, with a community of more than forty religious.

link Toribio Minguella (1836-1920), who had been ordained bishop of Puerto Rico in May 1894 and consecrated in August of the same year. Father Minguella was, at that time, the most learned and enlightened religious of the province in history, and at the same time the most influential at court, in political and ecclesiastical circles. His name is associated with the arts, visits to the Madrid flea market and the acquisition in 1879 of an apostolate for Marcilla, which today hangs on the walls of the refectory of the convent of Monteagudo. 

The relationship between Florentino Sáinz and Minguella and his plans was confirmed when the bishop took his companion, as a relative, as a person of the utmost confidence, in 1908, when Minguella occupied the mitre of Sigüenza.

A "deferred" reading of the canvases of the royal staircase

Over the next few weeks it will be possible to visit not only the paintings on the staircase, but also others by the aforementioned painter, such as the excellent portraits of bishops of the order, as well as copies of Murillo, whose originals are kept in the Museum of Fine Arts in Seville, from the Capuchins and the Augustinians.

Focusing on the programme of the imperial staircase, we find eight members of the order, four male and four female religious, together with a pope. This is surprising, a fortiori, more than a century ago, in the context of a convent of the male branch of the order.

In order to read them in the period in which they were painted, we must look at the attributes of each of the saints, because it is through them that we can understand the reason for their presence and their connection with the overall message of the group.

The ideals of religious life in the Augustinian Recollects, at the end of the 19th century, a few years after the commemoration of the XV Centenary of the conversion of St. Augustine (1887), are evident in the selection of the blessed represented there, who want to be exemplars for teachers and disciples. They all wear the Augustinian Recollect habit, as a unifying element and username of their spiritual aspirations. When studying religious iconography, the saying that "the habit does not make the monk" does not work, because the habit makes the monk, since it recapitulates the history and spirituality of a religious institution. It is not possible to present a saint dressed just any old way, and it is enough to recall the heated polemics between the Augustinians and the canons regular.

Presiding over the staircase is the relief of Saint Augustine receiving the strap of the habit from the hands of the Virgin and Child. In reality, it is the transformation of a Saint Bernard with the Virgin, made around 1780 for the old Cistercian monastery of Marcilla, the seat of the Recollects since 1865. The effigy of Saint Augustine alludes to the paternity and charism of the order.

It is flanked by paintings of Saints Nicholas of Tolentino, Thomas of Villanova and John of Sahagún, to which Pope Gelasius I is added. The first is the titular saint of the Augustinian province of the Philippines, to which Marcilla belonged. Although he is represented as the protector of the souls in purgatory, disciplining himself and as the protagonist of numerous miracles, in Marcilla he appears above the orb and the devil, whom he holds with a chain, implying that he defeated both. As attributes, apart from the star on his habit and the Crucifix, we find bread and water, for his continuous vigils and fasts. There is also the partridge, the protagonist of an event attributed to him by legend, according to which the bird that was served to him when he was ill, recovered its plumage and left when the saint ordered him to continue on his way. Its message is to show the saint as penitent and victorious over temptations.

The painting of Saint Thomas of Villanova, archbishop of Valencia and canonised in 1658, depicts him holding a purse and handing out coins to a child. The saint tried to solve poverty by giving work to the poor, thus making his alms bear fruit. He wrote: "Almsgiving is not only giving, but also bringing the needy out of need and freeing them from it whenever possible". His presence with an orphan whom he is helping is a representation of charity. If we compare the composition with earlier ones from topic, we can see that the issue of the poor has been reduced, as has the whole of his episcopal procession, in the interests of simplicity.

Saint John of Sahagún, the peacemaker of Salamanca, does not appear either as a student or in his many miracles, but enraptured before the Eucharist at a time when the cult of the Eucharist was experiencing a great boom, as shown, among other events, by the Eucharistic Congresses held from 1881 onwards. The ecstasy is barely visible, even the head, originally more inclined towards the chalice and the Sacred Form, was corrected to make the composition more restrained. At the foot, a book indicates that science is below experience.

The last of the saints is Pope Gelasius I. His presence is due to the orthodoxy with which he conducted himself, always in the Augustinian orbit. He appears reading De civitate Dei, with a beautiful tiara, at a time when the pontifical infallibility, declared at the First Vatican Council in 1870, was being lived with intensity. At his feet, two books that speak of his struggle against the Manichaeans and the Apocrypha.

The four blessed Augustinian nuns are Monica, Clare of Montefalco, Rita and Agnes of Beniganim. The first is depicted as a reminder of the value of prayer, particularly in religious life. As usual, she appears with tears in her eyes, recalling what her son St. Augustine wrote: Do you not remember that in narrating my conversion I stated very clearly that what prevented my perdition were the ardent supplications and daily tears of my good mother?

Saint Clare of Montefalco, mystic, visionary and participant in the Passion of Christ, is shown conversing with a Nazarene, evocative of Seville. As a devotee of the Trinity, she carries as an attribute the scales with the three stones that always weighed the same, despite their arrangement in the saucers. sample also her heart with the arma Christi

Saint Rita - canonised in 1901 - and Blessed Inés de Beniganim complete the group. The former with the thorn in her forehead and carrying the palm for having participated in the sufferings of the Passion. Three crowns encircle the palm, alluding to her sufferings in her three states, as a married woman, a widow and a nun, in keeping with her litanies. Her presence in the ensemble is to place her as model in the acceptance of suffering every day with love, the focal point of her spirituality. Agnes of Beniganim, recently beatified in 1888, is presented as the ideal of the humble, hard-working nun. A similar canvas, painted in 1891 by the same José María Romero, is kept at the Encarnación in Madrid.

Through these painted images, the superiors, religious and novices of Marcilla were made to reflect on many other ideals of religious and Augustinian life: their own charism, penance, the Eucharist, orthodoxy, charity, prayer, suffering, union with Christ and simplicity.

A skilful painter and calm depictions

Romero sample is indebted to the fine and delicate aesthetics of Romanticism with its deep roots in Murillo, using soft forms, ethereal atmospheres, with a predominance of colour over drawing. The oils are applied lightly, to the point of resembling watercolours in some parts. The subject is so fluid, without thick impasto, that it allows the granulation of the canvas to show through. The expression is achieved through the physiognomies of the faces, which are extraordinarily accomplished, and the attitudes of the bodies. The backgrounds, dark grey and black in places, gradually dissolve as they merge with the outlines of the figures and objects depicted. The different pigments are not cut out directly, but melt, still wet, passing from one to the other without any hardness.

Iconographically, we find ourselves far from the iconographic types of these same saints, popularised in the Baroque period with theatrical, triumphant, visionary and grandiloquent connotations. Rather, we can speak of restraint, gravity, sobriety, serenity, individual intensity and sparing colouring. The symbolic nature of some elements, such as the attributes, is very palpable and provides the necessary keys to the interpretation and iconographic-iconological reading of the whole, which is none other than to sing of all those represented as examples, reminding those who contemplate the whole of the well-known aphorism that states: Nihil recte sine exemplo, docetur, discitur aut vivitur -nothing is taught, learned or lived correctly without example-.