Colnaghi Foundation Journal 02 - Page 46

Francisco Ribalta’s Vision of Father Simó: British taste and the legacy of Sebastiano del Piombo in Spanish painting
It was then ascribed to Morales, probably
because he was the only artist of the
Peninsula whose name had yet reached
Oxford. With more justice it has since
been attributed to one of the Ribaltas.50
The British tendency was always to associate such
pious subject matter with the names of certain artists
in particular; but what the Oxford painting in fact
demonstrates is the popularity of this subject matter
throughout the Iberian Peninsula. The origins and
dating of this particular painting are still disputed but
it is probably Andalusian, of the seventeenth century.
Currently it goes by a longstanding attribution to Juan
de Valdes Leal – although that appears to me unlikely.51
What the Oxford painting also demonstrates vividly is
the increasing pietism and drama of these Spanish
versions of Christ Carrying the Cross compared to
their Italian predecessors. This might be because the
various artists involved would have been able to draw
inspiration of a different kind – unknown to Sebastiano
Francisco Ribalta’s Vision of Father Simó: British taste and the legacy of Sebastiano del Piombo in Spanish painting
– that would have involved the pious audience more
deeply in the subjects depicted. This was the tradition
of the Pasos, elaborate processions of images such as
Christ Carrying the Cross and other similar events
from his Passion. These processions wound their
way through the streets of contemporary cities on
important feast days and became a prominent feature
of Spanish religious practice, which continues to this
day.52 Indeed, the composition of the Vision seems to
recall these processions quite deliberately. Ribera, as
archbishop, had encouraged their expansion; this was
one means of inspiring popular devotion and, as such,
he played, a prominent part in them himself. Besides his
annual participation in the Corpus Christi devotions, for
example, the patriarch carried the Holy Grail, Valencia’s
most revered relic, through the streets of the city in 1588
to ensure the success of the Armada sent by Philip II
against England.53 After his death, on 13 June 1612 the
Butchers’ guild held a grand procession and included
among the floats was one of: “mosen simo ab manteu y
sotana vestit y descubert lo cap” “(mosen simon dressed in his
mantle and cassock and with his head uncovered).” 54
Simó’s cause was raised in word and image both at
the royal court in Madrid, and at the papal court
in Rome, although the odds were always against
his canonization. Besides competition from other
would-be saints in Rome, in Valencia the mendicant
orders, the Inquisition, and even the new patriarch,
the intransigent Dominican Isidoro Aliaga (whose
powerful brother, Luis, was confessor to Philip III and
would become Inquisitor General in 1619) were all
opposed.60 Worse was to come in 1618 when the chief
supporter of the “Simonistas” at court, the royal valido,
the Duke of Lerma, fell from power. The previous
year he had donated various images of Simó for his
private cell in the Dominican house he had founded at
Lerma.61 Nonetheless unsuccessful attempts to ensure
Father Simó’s canonization continued in both Madrid
and Rome for a further half-century.62
In 1619, the brief flourishing of Simó’s cult at Valencia
was successfully prohibited by Archbishop Aliaga and all
images of the visionary priest were explicitly forbidden.
Religious imagery of holy men and women before their
official canonization was considered scandalous by many
clergy such as Aliaga. Such images had technically been
prohibited in a decree promulgated in December 1563
at the last session of the Council of Trent, although,
as in the instance being discussed, they had clearly
continued to be produced.63 Simó’s public cult enjoyed a
brief flicker of a decade or so before it would appear to
vanish without a trace (although this was not in fact so),
and he failed to be included in the canonization of no
fewer than four Spanish saints that took place in Rome
on the 12 March 1622.64
The Vision of Father Jeronimo Simó is not the only example
of Archbishop Ribera’s commissioning works celebrating
the visions of local religious figures in Valencia. There
are at least three surviving images, all now in the Collegio
del Patriarca, commissioned from 1600 onwards, that
depict Sor Margarita Agullona. Two of these are by
Ribalta, one of them his first commission from the
patriarch, while the third is by Juan Sariñena (fig. 14).55
Sariñena had also made an image (now lost) of the holy
woman as she lay on her deathbed. Sor Margarita
was a Franciscan nun, author and mystic – and, like
Jeronimo Simó, Sor Margarita too had visions. 56
Fig. 14 / Juan Sariñena, Sister
Margarita Agulló, 1605, oil
on canvas attached to panel,
151 x 93 cm, Valencia, Real
Colegio Seminario de Corpus
Fig. 15 / Unknown Artist,
Father Jerónimo Simó’s Vision
of Calvary, 1612-1616, oil
on canvas, 187 x 129 cm,
Valladolid, Museo Nacional
de Escultura.
Her visions, celebrated in these paintings, were of a
Cross, larger than life size. The patriarch, who was her
confessor, had brought her to live close to him; indeed,
she died in his presence in 1600. All of these paintings
of Sor Margarita, as with those of Father Simó, were
executed post mortem. Attempts to promote Sor
Margarita’s canonization led nowhere, and it is rather
ironic that the only figure of this group who made the
step to sainthood was Archbishop Ribera himself. These
images are relatively generic, however, and of all the
various works of art that Juan de Ribera encouraged,
those surrounding the cult of Jeronimo Simó are the
most intimately and directly connected to the religious
climate that he had fostered as archbishop in Valencia.
Becoming a saint was not easy and the politics of cult
formation were tortuous: canonization was as much a
political as religious process, and all means necessary
were employed.57 Recent, detailed studies of the
actual process of canonization in the years at the end
of the sixteenth century, particularly in relation to the
nascent cults of Filippo Neri and Ignatius Loyola, have
illustrated these difficulties clearly.58 Nonetheless, there
have been only a few case studies of the propagation of
more local cults such as that of Jeronimo Simó. Spain,
although united in the late fifteenth century, could only
claim one saint until the canonization of the Castilian
Franciscan, Diego of Alcalá, by Sixtus V in 1588.59
With the cleaning of the National Gallery painting
immediately after the Second World War, various
artistic manifestations of Simó’s cult first began to
be reconstructed. Since then, additional discoveries
demonstrate that the Vision is not the only work
of material culture that can be connected to the
propagation of the cult of Jeronimo Simó. For
example, an equally dramatic altarpiece appeared
on the art market in 1985, and is now in the Museo
Nacional in Valladolid (fig. 15).65 Here the viewer sees
Jeronimo Simó again, in the vision that followed almost
immediately on that in the National Gallery, that of
Christ on Calvary. This time Simó kneels to one side
of the Cross, from which Christ looks down directly at
him. On the other side Veronica holds the veil, and her
figure is a neat mirror image of Father Simó’s. Behind
Veronica the three Maries lament.


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