A Saint Bartholomew for Velazquez’s Apostolado
This work by the Spanish master’s followers belongs to a religious cycle that he conceived. Its reappearance on the market is an event in the history of 17th-century painting from Seville.
The portrait with Caravaggesque lighting, which lay dormant in a collection in Eastern France, long raised many questions that have now been partly answered. The subject, an old bearded man draped in an austere cloak, was easy to identify. An abbreviated inscription in the upper right-hand corner, “Bartol”, indicates that he is Saint Bartholomew. His large sword confirms the hypothesis: it was common practice to depict martyrs with the instrument of their torture. Bartholomew evangelized the eastern reaches of the Roman Empire around the year 50 until his martyrdom in Armenia: according to The Golden Legend, he was flayed alive, crucified and beheaded in the capital, Artashat. Identifying the artist is a more complex matter. According to Turquin firm, it was painted by the young Diego Velazquez in Seville for a now-fragmented cycle called an apostolado.
Velazquez’s father had Portuguese roots and belonged to the petty nobility. Diego grew up in early 17th-century Seville, then Spain’s most populous city and the gateway to the New World, from which gold and riches flowed. The arts were encouraged by a clientele of connoisseurs who sought Italian and Flemish paintings as well as works by the city’s many Spanish artists. At age 11, Diego entered the studio of Francisco Pacheco, whose daughter Juana he later married. In March 1617, just shy of his 18th birthday, he joined the painters’ guild in Seville, where his fame grew. In 1623, he moved to Madrid to enter into King Philip IV’s service. The period between those dates was marked by Caravaggio’s influence. Velazquez became steeped in the new aesthetic by looking at Roman works that Jusepe de Ribera sent from Italy to Andalusia. Its hallmarks are starkly-lit genre scenes with humble figures, such as the sculptural Waterseller of Seville (Apsley House, London). Velazquez also applied the style to religious paintings commissioned by ecclesiastics and congregations, such as The Adoration of the Magi (Prado, Madrid). A particular cycle fell into this category: the apostolado, a series of 12 to 14 easel paintings of the apostles, sometimes supplemented with the figures of Christ, the Virgin Mary or Saint Paul. The genre found special favor with artists on the Iberian Peninsula. The first was Ribera, who painted one in Rome between 1605 and 1616 (to which Saint John the Evangelist, now in the Louvre, belongs), followed by El Greco and the version he began in 1610 (El Greco Museum, Toledo) and, around 1633, Francisco de Zurbarán, whose series can be seen in Lisbon’s National Museum of Ancient Art. Foreign artists were also asked to paint these groups: Peter Paul Rubens sent his painting to Spain from Antwerp (also in the Prado).
In Search of the Lost Apostolado
Painting an apostolado had several advantages. They were made up of realistic, often half-length portraits without an elaborate background and, therefore, not requiring any particular effects. Because they were so easy to paint, they were often early works: Velazquez made his c.1620–1621. Much of it is lost, but what remains has become better known since the exciting “Sur les traces du Saint Thomas de Velazquez” (“In the Footsteps of Velazquez’s Saint Thomas“) exhibition at the Musée des Beaux-Arts d’Orléans from June to November 2021, which brought together the vestiges of the mysterious apostolado—five previously separate paintings—around a brilliant Saint Thomas. Listed in the museum’s collection since 1843, the painting was attributed to Velazquez by the great art historian Roberto Longhi in 1920. The others were Saint Paul (loaned by the Catalonia Museum of Art, Barcelona), a fragment of an apostle (Seville Museum of Fine Arts) and two recently discovered works: Saint Philip (Bishop Auckland Spanish Gallery, United Kingdom) and Saint Simon (private collection). “Our Saint Bartholomew,” says the Turquin expert Jérôme Montcouquiol, “has the same subdued colors, facial expression painted from life and book at knee level.” However, it would appear to be by the expert hand of someone close to Velázquez rather than his own. In any case, the client is unknown. Spanish scholar and painter Antonio Ponz (1725-1792) may have provided a hint in his book Travels in Spain of 1772: according to Ponz, paintings of the apostles at the Nuestra Señora de las Cuevas charterhouse in Séville are from the master’s early period. The research has only just begun.
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