Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
June 27, 2018
Amanda Wunder Baroque Seville: Sacred Art in a Century of Crisis University Park: Penn State University Press, 2017. 232 pp.; 34 color ills.; 59 b/w ills. Hardcover $84.95 (9780271076645)

Amanda Wunder’s impressive study discusses how sacred artworks were created collaboratively as powerful interventions to mitigate Seville’s severe financial, political, and social crises in late seventeenth-century Spain. She examines works in multiple media, including architecture, painting, sculpture, alhajas (luxury objects prized for both their spiritual or monetary value), printed materials, and ephemera. Many of these were part of urban renewal campaigns responding to the natural and human-made disasters that profoundly affected Seville’s topography and distribution of resources, which eventually contributed to the city’s decline. Wunder explains in careful detail the context of the dire economic, political, and social turmoil that Seville experienced. Seville’s wealth and prominence plummeted in the late seventeenth century as a result of the plague, natural disasters, and loss of trade. The city turned to medios divinos (divine methods) to remedy these difficulties. Its efforts included the construction or remodeling of churches and the commission of religious art and ritual objects. Artworks were used on behalf of humanity to intercede with the divine, as means to alleviate the calamities that beset the mighty city that was once a dominant center for transatlantic navigation and trade. Artistic commissions and building projects were investments that reinvigorated the city’s finances and reshaped its civic identity. In turn, these projects also generated income that supported social services to those in need and fueled local industries such as the crafts trades. These practical measures (or medios humanos) helped to restore the city’s stability.

Wunder’s compelling study establishes powerful links among art, wealth, and religion. The author derives the dual concepts of medios divinos and medios humanos from the writings of the Spanish Jesuit philosopher and writer Baltasar Gracián. She notes that: “Medios divinos and medios humanos were complementary, not contradictory, as Gracián explains in The Art of Worldly Wisdom (1647): “Human means must be sought as if there were no divine ones, and divine ones as if there were no human ones” (11). In addition to the variety of media that Wunder examines closely, she carefully forges interdisciplinary connections between art and ritual as well as text and image.

The author is also very clear from the outset about certain omissions in her discussion. She does not utilize traditional methods and arguments that privilege canonical artists such as Diego Velázquez and Francisco de Zurbarán. The former left Seville for the court in Madrid and the latter outfitted Seville’s preeminent religious institutions. Instead, she focuses on the work of lesser-studied architects, designers, and sculptors to illuminate the complex nature of artistic collaboration in late seventeenth-century Seville.

Wunder’s book consists of five chapters that are organized chronologically, each concentrating on a specific patron, artistic commission, or architectural project. Chapter 1 focuses on Mateo Vázquez de Leca, a nobleman from Seville whose family fortunes came from New World trade. The author vividly recounts his conversion from a prodigal son to an austere, devout layperson. This change of heart was the result of Vázquez de Leca’s experience of desengaño (disillusionment with the excesses of the material world) that led him to embrace religious reform. Though he enjoyed a long, fifty-year career as one of Seville’s most important art patrons, Vázquez de Leca was best known for his commission of the sculptor Juan Martínez Montañes’ Christ of Clemency (ca. 1603–6, Seville Cathedral). Vázquez de Leca was an avid promoter of the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception amidst the Marian War that broke out in Seville in 1613. The words of a Dominican preacher who controversially claimed that the Virgin Mary was conceived with the taint of sin, just like any ordinary human, were the catalyst for this disruption in Seville’s religious institutions. Vázquez de Leca’s furtive associations with the religious organization of the Congregation of the Pomegranate (Congregación de la Granada) and ownership of spiritual texts raised suspicions about his activities as an alumbrado, a practitioner of a mystical form of Christianity that was perceived as heretical and had been suppressed by authorities in early modern Spain. Despite these doubts, Vázquez de Leca remained an important art patron and was later renowned for his patronage of ecclesiastic alhajas namely to fundraise for a new altarpiece for the Virgin of the Kings, which was “Seville’s most important civic devotional image” (37).

Wunder’s book underscores the importance of civic commissions to reshape the city of Seville across socioeconomic lines. Chapters 2 through 4 consider the patronage of two other leading figures in Seville’s art and religious establishments, Justino de Neve and Miguel de Mañara. Chapter 2 systematically analyzes the renovation of the parish church of Santa María la Blanca. Restored between 1662 and 1665 under the direction of Neve, this medieval church and its “baroquification” (or barroquización) is seen by Wunder as a potent medio divino. The shadow of medieval Spain is ever present throughout this study, as many of the Baroque buildings renovated in the seventeenth century, such as Santa María la Blanca and San Salvador, were former synagogues and mosques that were transformed into churches. The conversion of non-Christian structures to a different use poses a fruitful avenue for further consideration of what spiritual edification meant in late seventeenth-century Seville. Wunder’s detailed and systematic survey of the renovation of Santa María la Blanca also recovers the names of architects, artists, and designers who are lesser known than other Golden Age artists such as Zurbarán, Velázquez, and Bartolomé Esteban Murillo.

Chapter 3 focuses on the festivals held at Seville Cathedral commemorating the beatification of Fernando III in 1671. Expensive print publications accompanied the creation of large-scale ephemeral monuments such as El Triunfo (or the Triumph) that were part of an exhaustive fifty-year campaign expended by local authorities, including Neve, to canonize the local saint, who was deeply venerated by Seville’s citizenry.

Chapter 4 deals with the construction of the church and hospital of the Santa Caridad in the 1670s, under the auspices of Mañara. This project is best known for Mañara’s commission of two large-scale allegories by Juan de Valdés Leal, the iconography of which has been carefully studied in a now-standard essay by Jonathan Brown. Wunder builds on that scholarship by turning her attention to the socioeconomic context of the project in her reexamination of the activities of the Hermandad de la Caridad (Brotherhood of Charity). This fraternity, founded in 1565, tended to the ill and buried the poor and unclaimed dead of Seville. Members of Seville’s elite filled the ranks of the organization by the end of the seventeenth century. Wunder considers how the fraternity developed a new sense of nobility and social distinction through service to the poor. She also deftly links a renewed interest in charitable service to the identity crises that affected perceptions of manhood and masculinity. The fortunes of Seville’s nobility took a downturn in the late seventeenth century; in some ways, volunteering their time to help the poor was a way of saving face in light of public scrutiny.

The fifth chapter of the book investigates the construction history of San Salvador, one of many medieval churches that were razed and rebuilt in the seventeenth century. Wunder makes a case for the socioeconomic significance of this project as a boon to city’s economy at a time of high unemployment and scarcity. As she notes, “San Salvador was a community project that engaged a diverse cross-section of Sevillean society: churchmen and seamen, silversmiths and chocolate vendors, widows and beggars, nuns and noblemen” (126).

Overall these five chapters work together not only to evaluate the importance of these artistic commissions and building renovations but also to place them within the broader, historical narrative of decline. Wunder’s extensive archival research and use of excellent color illustrations and well-crafted maps guide the reader vicariously through festival processions and routes, accompanied by the author’s lively descriptions of diverse events and places. She intersperses colorful anecdotes that present a compelling social history, bringing readers closer to a seemingly distant past. For example, the author’s text recalls the humble people who made donations to fundraising campaigns by volunteering their labor or making gifts of their meager possessions, such as worn stockings, a contrast to the generous contributions of art that were made by Seville’s privileged class. An extensive bibliography is appended as well as a concise chronology of important dates and events.

Wunder’s volume builds on essential publications by art historians and historians such as Brown and John Elliott. The author’s careful appraisal and synthesis of material culture from a diverse array of textual and visual sources (that are documented by copious endnotes) give the book a wide-ranging scope. It is a significant contribution that should appeal to scholars across disciplines. Art historians, historians, and literary scholars of the early modern Iberian and Atlantic world will find much to reflect on in this concise and elegantly written publication. 

Lisandra Estevez
Assistant Professor of Art History, Department of Art and Visual Studies, Winston-Salem State University