sacred vision

Zurbaran: St Luke Contemplating the Crucifixion

Legend has it that St Luke – the patron saint of artists – painted not only the Virgin and Child (famously the Byzantine icon of the Theotokos Hodegitria) but also carved and polychromed a crucifix. Here, palette and brushes in hand, he contemplates the death of his Lord. The figures are isolated from the world by the darkness which surrounds them, and related to one another by their intense gaze.

The painting raises a number of issues, both artistic and theological. Is this Luke on Golgotha; or is he rapt before a crucifix (perhaps of this own making). What here is reality and what is art? Luke (Zurbaran?) is rapt in the contemplation of mystery, and is, at the same time, in a sense its creator and interpreter. The Byzantine theologians of the icon in the seventh and eighth centuries examined the implications of the incarnation itself in terms of the images it generated. God in Christ could be ‘circumscribed’ (perigrahein), because he could be represented in his human particularity. Christianity for them became the religion of the image. The Second Commandment was abrogated by the Incarnation, which made of painting the prime expression of orthodox Christology.

Zurbaran paints the painter contemplating the simulacrum which he, Zurbaran, has painted. It is at one and the same time a celebration of the historical reality of the incarnation (and so of the atonement) and of the skill of the artist and of the role which he plays as a spur to affective piety.

We do not know the origin of this commission. So we can only guess the intentions of the artist in painting it. Is this a theological conundrum, or merely a bravura demonstration of illusionism? Zurbaran was equally skilled in two and three dimensions. Perhaps the painter-evangelist is being challenged to paint a crucifix which Zurbaran himself has made! One thing is certain: no other image quite conveys the role of art in the Counter-Reformation as this one does.

Mark Stephens

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