Gothic Art in Spain V, Painting

The “Grande e General Estoria”, is a universal history in Old Spanish written and illuminated beginning in 1270 by Alfonso X “the Wise” and his collaborators of the School of Translators of Toledo. The work intended to narrate the world’s history from the beginnings (Creation, as narrated in the Bible) until the time of Alfonso, but it was never completed. Here is reproduced a folio of the manuscript known as Escorial Codex (Library of El Escorial, Toledo, Spain).

In Spain, the Gothic painting was also influenced by foreign artists coming from France, Italy, and even Germany. However, we will initially deal with a group of genuinely Castilian works: the miniatures of the codices produced during the reign of King Alfonso “the Wise”. Don Alfonso organized a seminar and research institute similar to the modern institutes for scientific cooperation. For this purpose he surrounded himself with collaborators; he chose some of the most prominent scholars of his kingdom (Castilians, Jews and Arabs), but then he called, or were attracted by his reputation, several artists from France and Italy. All gave their artistic contribution for the decoration of the manuscripts. These texts reveal the cultural variety of their origins; for example, the Grande e General Estoria (the Great and General History), which was a history of the world, collected legends of the sacred history that didn’t appear in the Bible and popular sayings from antiquity that were not recorded by classical authors; it was the oriental folklore transmitted by Arabs and Jews, although the miniatures were clearly Castilian in style. These codices of the reign of Alfonso the Wise included foreign texts, but the miniatures were purely Hispanic. The miniatures of the Cantigas manuscripts formed a complete picture of the Spanish society of the time, and although they reveal knowledge about Eastern and Gothic styles, in the end they were translations done in an Iberian style.

The “Cantigas de Santa Maria” (“Canticles of Holy Mary”) are 420 poems with musical notation written in the Medieval Galician language during the reign of Alfonso X El Sabio (“The Wise”) often attributed to him. It is one of the largest collections of monophonic (solo) songs from the Middle Ages. The Cantigas have survived in four manuscript codices: two at El Escorial, one at Madrid’s National Library, and one in Florence, Italy. The E codex from El Escorial is illuminated with colored miniatures showing pairs of musicians playing a wide variety of instruments. This Codex is also richly illuminated with narrative vignettes. The picture includes miniatures representing the different medieval musical instruments used in the court of Alfonso X (E Codex, Library of El Escorial, Toledo, Spain).

This style of the Spanish miniatures is also observed in the XIV century paintings of the altar of the funeral chapel of the chancellor Pedro López de Ayala in the porch of the Tower of Quejana (known as Ayala altarpiece). It is an altarpiece of great dimensions, rectangular, with multitude of scenes. The chancellor and his wife, Doña Leonor de Guzman, are both represented twice along with their sons and minstrels. In this altarpiece the background architectures, the landscape interpretation, gestures and even the color, all appeared in the most clear Castilian fashion. Another well recognized painter of the time was Jorge Inglés, the portraitist of the Marquis of Santillana.

The Altarpiece of the Life of Christ and the Virgin (also known as the Ayala Altarpiece), ca. 1396, tempera on panel (Art Institute of Chicago).
A portrait of the donor Don Íñigo López de Mendoza, Marqués de Santillana from the Altarpiece of the Gozos de Santa María, ca. 1455, by Jorge Inglés (Museo del Prado, Madrid).

The lack of curiosity about medieval painting coming from the center of the Iberian Peninsula was due to the lack of documentation because their actual archives burned. In contrast, the Archives of the Crown of Aragon, miraculously preserved, include several documents that contain references to artists of the XIV and XV centuries.

The first widely recognized Catalan painter was Jaume Ferrer Bassa from Barcelona. Ferrer Bassa must have traveled through Italy, as he knew the artistic repertoire of the Italian cities of Florence and Siena. Using these styles, particularly the Sienese, he painted in 1346 the frescoes of the cell of the abbess of the monastery of Pedralbes. The influence of the pictorial school of Siena in the Catalan painting on account of the works of Ferrer Bassa lasted more than 40 years.

Detail of the frescoes (ca. 1343 or 1346) at St Michael’s Chapel in the monastery of Pedralbes (Barcelona). St Michael’s Chapel is decorated with a magnificent series of murals commissioned to the painter Ferrer Bassa by the Abbess Francesa ça Portella, who wanted to make the room her private cell. The paintings are the earliest example in Spain and Portugal of the Italian Trecento style. The iconography is inspired by the Marian devotions and represents the Passion of Christ, the Joys of the Virgin Mary and various figures of saints.

The school led by the painters of the Serra family seems to have had more influence than the one of Ferrer Bassa, because to them are attributed several paintings that previously were adjudged to other authors and that now are considered with no doubts to be the work of the Serras, like the great altarpiece of the Saint Spirit in Manresa,  and that of All Saints in San Cugat del Vallés, both works by Pere Serra. The art of the Serra family was fresh, lush; they still preferred the fine and soft tones typical of the Siena school; their Madonnas were young and tender with their mantles full of flowers. Light blues, transparent greens and reds predominate over the golden backgrounds.

Left: The Arrival of the Holy Spirit by Pere Serra (1394) in the cathedral of Manresa (Catalonia) considered his masterwork. Right: The altarpiece of All Saints (1375) in the Monastery of Sant Cugat (Catalonia) also by Pere Serra.

Thus during the XIV century, Catalan painters continued to be dominated by Italian influence, but their paintings were characterized by their gold-plated backgrounds and the typical composition of their altarpieces, which at the end didn’t depend on any other artistic influence to the extend that even some of them were exported abroad. It was not only Sardinia and Sicily who received paintings from Barcelona, but also the city of Pisa.

Chronologically, the first Catalan painter of the XV century is Lluís Borrasà. The works of Borrassà fulfilled a typical necessity of the Europe of the time: the taste for all things legendary and the chivalrous spirit. This fashion was developed by the so-called International Gothic* style, in love with nervous, almost calligraphic compositions, and flat and vibrant colors different from those of the Italian or Sienese styles.

The International Gothic style of Borrassà was characterized by its anecdotal details and by the abundance of sentimental scenes. As a reaction against this trend are the works of Bernat Martorell. For example, the altarpiece of Saint George, in the Art Institute of Chicago, or the great altarpiece of the Transfiguration, with its beautiful painting of the Weddings of Cana, in the cathedral of Barcelona.

Saint George Killing the Dragon (1430-1435) by Bernat Martorell, tempera on panel (Art Institute of Chicago). The fine details of this painting were not present in Catalan art before Martorell. Saint George was the patron saint of Catalonia and Martorell’s painting probably once formed the center of the altarpiece of the chapel of the Palace of the Generalitat of Barcelona (see below).
The central panel pictured above was probably flanked by smaller narrative panels, now in the Musée du Louvre in Paris, illustrating the martyrdom of Saint George. Four Scenes of the Legend of Saint George by Bernat Martorell (Louvre, Paris).
Left: Altarpiece of The Transfiguration (1445-1452) by Bernat Martorell (Barcelona Cathedral). Right: The Cana Wedding, right panel of the Altarpiece of The Transfiguration by Martorell.

Other Catalan painters of the XV century were Jaume Huguet, author of the altarpiece of the saints Abdon and Senen (in Tarrasa), of that of San Antonio Abad (in Barcelona), of the altarpiece of San Agustín Viejo (also in Barcelona), and that of Sarriá. Huguet knew the works of some of the best Flemish painters of the XV century  and their influence is seen in his painting of St. George and the Princess, that reflects the traditional Catalan style of golden backgrounds that placed the characters in an abstract and plane space which excluded any attempt of representing perspective. However, Huguet obstinately refused to follow Flemish and Italian painters who represented a deep, three-dimensional space.

Left: The altarpiece of the Saints Abdón and Senén (1460), tempera on panel, by Jaume Huguet (Church of San Pedro de Tarrasa). Right: The altarpiece of San Antonio Abad, by the Master of Rubió active in Catalonia towards the third quarter of the 14th century, tempera on panel with gold leaf (Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya, Barcelona).
Left: The Consecration of St Augustine, panel from the Saint Augustine Altarpiece in egg tempera by Jaume Huguet and Pau Vergós (1462-1475), (Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya, Barcelona). Originally there were several more panels than the eight that now survive and they would have been framed in an elaborate gilded wooden setting as a retable behind the main altar. The grandeur of the work makes it the most important painting of the XV century in Catalonia. Middle: Panel with the image of Saint Vincent before the prefect Dacia, part of the Altarpiece of Saint Vincent de Sarria (1455-1460) by Jaume Huguet; temple, stucco and gold leaf on table. It tells the story of San Vicente deacon in the IV century (Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya, Barcelona). Right: Saint George and the Princess (1459-1460), by Jaume Huguet. This panel was the central part of a triptych, whose side panels were part of the collection of the Bode Museum in Berlin and disappeared during World War II in 1945 (Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya, Barcelona).

The Catalan altarpieces usually had a rectangular shape, with the central panel elongated by a high attachment with the scene of the Crucifixion or the image of the Virgin surrounded by angels. If the altar was dedicated to the Virgin, then in the central panel was again Her portrait but painted on a larger scale; in case that the altarpiece wasn’t dedicated to the Virgin, the central panel was occupied by the figures of the patron saints of the Church, and around them the other panels represented legends of the Gospel, with the details of the apocryphal or the life of the saints; all this iconography followed the texts of the Golden Legend by Vorágine, a book that the Catalan painters represented with great accumulation of domestic details.

In the middle of the XV century the Catalan school, affected by the repetition of the same themes, experienced some renovating airs. The Valencian Lluís Dalmau, who had been commissioned to paint the altar for the chapel of the Municipal Council of Barcelona, traveled to Flanders by order of King Alfonso V and there he was enthusiastic about the great works of the Van Eyck brothers, who would revolutionize the artistic world of the time. His “Virgin of the Concelleres”, painted in 1445, is a Flemish style Virgin with blond wavy hair and dressed with large robes. Behind an architecture in grisaille * (a feature typical of the art of the Van Eyck’s) are some singing angels imitated from the singing angels of the polyptych* of the Adoration of the Mystic Lamb, also by the Van Eycks. Behind these central figures, the windows of the background reveal, for the first time in the Iberian painting, a real landscape under the fresh sky of dawn. The councilmen of Barcelona portrayed on their knees, devoutly worship Mary here a Flemish Virgin so different from the ones painted in other Catalan altarpieces. The artistic influences from Flanders would reach Catalonia through Castile.

Left: The Virgin of the Consellers (1445), an oil painting by Luis Dalmau. It is considered as one of the most important Flemish Gothic style paintings in Catalonia. The altarpiece consists of a single panel, with figures of natural size, representing the Virgin and Child, sitting on a throne in Gothic style supported on four lions, said throne has sculptural ornaments and is crowned with a high canopy with a pinnacle in the center and two smaller ones on both sides. The Virgin has long wavy hair falling over both shoulders and is covered with a large blue mantle, bordered with gold and pearls, which is fastened on her chest by a jewelry brooch. The Child is covered with a transparent white veil and has an amulet of a coral branch hanging from His neck. The scene is located inside an interior with flamboyant style windows in the background, where there are singing angels and behind them a landscape. On both sides of Virgin’s throne are in first term San Andrés and Santa Eulalia, who bear the attributes of their martyrdom and introduce the five city councilors who commissioned the altarpiece kneeling with their hands joined together in prayer. The floor copies Valencian tiles with the coat of arms of the city of Barcelona and in the ceiling the architecture represents a ribbed vault with the coat of arms of the city (Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya, Barcelona). Right: The Martyrdom of Saint Cucuphas (in Catalan Saint Cugat) (1504-1507) by Aine Bru, the central panel of the Altarpiece of the monastery of Sant Cugat del Vallès. The highly realistic painting shows the executioner cutting the saint’s throat while Cucuphas remains tied to a tree trunk. Nearby there’s another knife (in a basket) and a dog sleeping peacefully. The dog from this Bru’s painting was later borrowed by Salvador Dalí for a painting called “Dalí Contemplating Nude” or “Dalí Dalí Dalí”. The vast countryside that serves as a background anachronistically includes the actual monastery of Sant Cugat (Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya).

This attention and admiration for Nordic styles manifested without reservations by the works of Lluís Dalmau were also felt in the rest of the Iberian Peninsula, and from there works and artists arrived to Catalonia. In the territories of Salamanca and Leon, the style of painter Fernando Gallego showed assimilation of the Flemish pictorial style. The great painting of the Degollation of San Cucufate, initally attributed to Alonso de Baena, is the work of a German master (Ayne Bru) and painted in the monastery of San Cugat (because the facade of its church is seen while under construction) in the early years of the XVI century. This painting is an exceptional masterpiece with a dose of veracity and idealization of reality that can also be appreciated in some contemporary Venetian paintings.

Another artist influenced by Flemish painting was the Cordovan Bartolomé Bermejo. Bermejo painted in 1490 a large Pietà*, with an intense portrait of his client and a pathetic naturalistic landscape background. At the moment a dozen of paintings are attributed to Bermejo, some even are signed. The Aragonese Gothic painting, like its sister schools of Catalonia and Valencia, gave at the end of the XV century its most important authors: Martín Bernat and Miguel Ximénez.

Left: The Pietà by Bartolomé Bermejo, also known as the Piety of Canon Luis Despláís, was painted for the cathedral of Barcelona and commissioned by the archdeacon Lluís Desplá (portrayed at the left of Mary) in 1490 and is now in the Museum of the Cathedral of Barcelona. It is considered one of the masterpieces of Bermejo. It has been highly praised by its landscape, wide and deep, and the masterly characterization of the personages, whose realism makes them look like portraits. Right: The Battle of Puig (ca. 1410 or 1420), detail of the great altarpiece of St. George by Andrés Marzal de Sax (Victoria and Albert Museum, London). In this altarpiece was represented the fight of Saint George, blessed by God, against the dragon; His participation in the battle of the Puig next to the king Jaime I the Conqueror, as well as the martyrdom of the saint. In the panel with The Battle of Puig, the crowned king wears insignias with the Royal Sign. Saint George, in the background, with blond hair, wears the Cross of St. George.

In Catalonia, however, from the end of the XV century, Nordic styles were not assimilated with equal ease. Catalan pictorial art followed the same styles for four long centuries…

On the other hand in Valencia, at the end of the XV century and during 50 years, were produced wonders of color and beauty in the elaboration of altarpieces, all works still Catalan by their iconographies and general design. But Flemish themes appeared everywhere: the new interpreted figures of the Virgin and the Eternal Father, created by the Van Eyck, were repeated in the paintings of Valencia. Perhaps the most admired of these Valencian altarpieces, today in the Museum of South-Kensington in London, is the work of a so-called Marçal de Sax. It is dedicated to the legend of St. George; in the central panel it shows a battle between Moors and Christians in which a king of Aragon protected by the saint who fights at his side pierces a Moorish king with his spear.

The diffusion of the Flemish pictorial art spread all over Europe at the end of the XV century; but this influence had its special accents in each country. In all the Spanish schools of painting, the Flemish influences (as we have just seen) took on forms that tended to accuse severity, and the result of this influence led to paintings that were, in general, strong and realistic. This is what occurred in Portugal with its greatest painter, Nuno Gonçalves, who in 1463 was in the service of Alfonso V the African, and authored the six wonderful panels that constitute the polyptych of the Veneration of St. Vincent, each one of which constitutes in itself an exceptional work of collective portraiture elaborated with a sense of almost tragic realism.

The Polyptych of the Veneration of Saint Vincent, also known as the Saint Vincent Panels, considered the highest peak of Portuguese antique art. The polyptych consists of six panels that were perhaps painted in the 1450s and attributed to the Portuguese painter Nuno Gonçalves. The original retable contained “over twelve” panels, as a source from 1767 states. The panels are now housed in the Museu Nacional de Arte Antiga (National Museum of Antique Art) in Lisbon, Portugal. Here depicted form left to right: Panel of the Friars, Panel of the Fishermen, Panel of the Prince, Panel of the Archbishop, Panel of the Knights, and Panel of the Relic.
The third panel or Panel of the Prince from the Saint Vincent Panels.


International Gothic: A period of Gothic art which developed in Burgundy, France and northern Italy in the late 14th and early 15th century. It then spread very widely across Western Europe. It was initially a style of courtly sophistication, but somewhat more robust versions spread to art commissioned by the emerging mercantile classes and the smaller nobility.

Grisaille(meaning “grey”), a term for a painting executed entirely in shades of grey or of another neutral greyish colour.




Polyptych: (from the Greek words “poly meaning “many” and ptychē meaning “fold”) is a painting (usually panel painting) which is divided into sections, or panels. Specifically, a “diptych” is a two-part work of art; a “triptych” is a three-part work; a tetraptych or quadriptych has four parts; pentaptych five; hexaptych six; heptaptych seven; and octaptych eight parts. Polyptychs typically display one “central” or “main” panel that is usually the largest of the attachments, while the other panels are called “side” panels, or “wings”.

Pietà: A subject in Christian art depicting the Virgin Mary cradling the dead body of Jesus, most often found in sculpture. As such, it is a particular form of the Lamentation of Christ, a scene from the Passion of Christ found in cycles of the Life of Christ. When Christ and the Virgin are surrounded by other figures from the New Testament, the subject is strictly called a Lamentation in English, although Pietà is often used for this as well, and is the normal term in Italian.