Piece of the month of May 2013


Ricardo Fernández Gracia
Chair of Navarrese Heritage and Art

From the extinct monastery of Santa Clara de Fitero, a half-length canvas of Santa María Egipciaca (110 x 85 cm), signed by Vicente Berdusán in the early 1970s, whose exact date cannot be read exactly due to the deterioration of the lower part of the canvas, is kept at the Poor Clares of Tudela. The artist's name and surname are perfectly legible, as are the first figures of the date.

The canvas arrived in Fitero in 1940 together with a good issue of objects from the convent of the Poor Clares of Calatayud which moved with its belongings and community to the town of Navarre, officially inaugurating its headquarters in the house of the famous local industrialist Gervasio Alfaro y Octavio de Toledo, on 12 August 1941. In 2009, the lack of vocations, as well as the circumstances of the meagre community, led to the reestablishment of community life and the transfer of part of its furnishings to Tudela.

Although the work is very deteriorated and dirty, a good hand can be seen in its invoice. Vicente Berdusán was active in Tudela, with an open workshop, from 1655 until his death in 1697. In addition to the sketching, the illumination also leads us to the formulas used by this master, the best of his time in these lands. The play of light, in the Tenebrist tradition, was used by the painter in other works, skilfully handling the resource which gives intensity and emotion to topic.

Santa Maria Egipciaca

Saint Mary Egipciaca
Vicente Berdusán

With regard to the iconography, although at first glance one might think of Saint Mary Magdalene, a careful examination leads us to the true topic which is Saint Mary Egipciaca due to the presence of several loaves of bread on the back of the painting, as an identifying attribute, lacking the knob of perfumes that would identify the Magdalene.

As is known, the Egipciaca was a courtesan from Alexandria who, after nineteen years of dissolute life, repented after being touched by grace. After her conversion she withdrew to the desert of Transjordan, where she is depicted in the attitude and manner of a penitent. A stranger placed three denarii in her hand with which she bought three loaves of bread that would serve as food for the rest of her life, sixty years. As in other representations, she is depicted with long hair, half-naked and naked. She is the patron saint of repentant women. In the upper right-hand margin we find a Crucified Christ looking at her in an attitude of supplication and with a certain rapture.

The cult of this saint and the Magdalene in the convent of the Poor Clares was also present in two paintings on the altarpiece of the Virgin of the Pillar in the now disappeared convent church of the Poor Clares in Fitero.

As is well known, the depiction of penitent saints and anchorites in the 17th century was a clear allusion to the value of the sacrament of penance, so reviled by Protestants and extolled by the Catholic Church with new iconographies, as evidenced by the weeping saints, in themes as abundant as the tears of Saint Peter himself. For popular devotion and for many religious communities, these saints, and particularly Saint Mary Magdalene, were the prototype of the repentant sinner and contemplative of Bethany, which is why they inspired the saint as subject of conversion, of contemplative life, of following Christ.

The painting does not preserve framework of the period and is a sample of the expansion of Berdusán's works in Aragon, in this case in Calatayud. What we cannot say is how it came to the Poor Clares in that Aragonese town, whether it was donated by a nun, commissioned by the nuns themselves, or whether it came from the extinct convent of the Franciscans in Calatayud, occupied by the Poor Clares between 1835 and 1940.

In the atmosphere of the community in those years of the third quarter of the 17th century, a very penitent nun, Sister Margarita Virto de Espinosa, stood out, a nun of whom certain prodigious events are mentioned in different convent chronicles, baptised in the parish church of San Pedro de los Francos in Calatayud on 12 April 1632, she took the habit in the Poor Clares of Calatayud in September 1646 at the age of 14, and lived in the same convent for 51 years, dying on 10 April 1697. Curiously, the nun was born and died in the same years as the painter Vicente Berdusán. Although it is not yet possible to make a direct connection between the canvas of Santa María Egipciaca and the nun, it is a fact that Sister Margarita was the protagonist of some visions that were transferred to images, specifically to some paintings that are still preserved today. The atmosphere in favour of the penitent saint was a proven fact in the community of Poor Clares in the Aragonese city.

The Bilbilitano monastery of the daughters of St. Clare had been founded under the protection of James I in plenary session of the Executive Council 13th century, in 1235. Father Gregorio Argáiz in his Soledad Laureada... (1675) states that it was originally dedicated to Saint Agnes and was located outside the city, with the nuns living in extreme poverty and humility. In 1336 they received the protection of Alonso IV of Aragon and Doña Leonor. During the War of the Pedros it was destroyed in 1362 and, after the conflict, the King of Aragon rebuilt it inside the city, under the invocation of Saint Clare between 1366-1368. Its advanced Gothic church was built between 1395 and 1398 and was paid for by Pope Luna, who had two sisters in the community, one of whom became abbess. It consisted of a single nave and its titular saint was San Lorenzo. In 1675, the time of the painting that we know as the work of Vicente Berdusán, the convent had 50 nuns. In 1834 it was demolished and the site and part of the convent of La Merced were used to form the place del Fuerte.