This unpublished and beautifully preserved panel of the Virgin and Child is a notable addition to the oeuvre of Luis de Morales, one of the greatest devotional Spanish artists of the 16th century. After his death, Morales also became known as 'el Divino', a soubriquet that reflects the exclusively religious nature of his work and demonstrates his success in embodying the fervent spirituality of Spanish society at the time in his art.
Morales spent most of his working life in Badajoz, the remote and isolated town that was the capital of Extremadura and the seat of the diocese. His artistic training remains hazy, but Antonio Palomino states that Morales trained in Seville with the Flemish Mannerist painter, Peeter de Kempeneer (Pedro de Campaña), and his work demonstrates the distinctive influence of the Italianizing Flemish painters, combining a meticulous technique with echoes of the forms and styles of Leonardo and Raphael, often transmitted through the medium of prints. Morales painted small-scale devotional panels in his maturity often concentrating on the searing imagery of the Passion and on tender images of the Virgin and Child, redolent with a sense of foreboding. These objects were intended as aids to meditation, the direct pictorial equivalent of the spiritual writings of contemporary Spanish mystics, including Fray Luis de Granada and St. John of Avila. By portraying his figures in stark relief against black backgrounds, Morales concentrated and intensified the emotional content of the image. His highly distinctive and individual style became extremely popular, as the numerous repetitions and weaker versions of his prototypes demonstrate.
The distilled emotion of the present panel is characteristic of the artist. A graceful Virgin inclines her head towards the Christ Child, whose eyes are uplifted as He clutches a spinner's distaff or yarnwinder - a presage of the Cross of his Crucifixion. The Virgin's downcast eyes, slightly furrowed eyebrows and open mouth eloquently express an inner anguish that is a presentiment of her son's martyrdom. While the mannerist contrapposto of the Christ Child and his musculature is characteristically Flemish, the subject of the picture is based on the much-copied model of Leonardo's Madonna of the Yarnwinder. As Isabel Mateo notes (private correspondence), Morales would have probably become familiar with Leonardo's painting through the many versions that were made of it by the school of the Hernandos in Valencia. He treated similar themes of the Virgen de la leche and the Virgin with the distaff on numerous occasions, but few attain the poignancy of this panel. Rather unusually, only one other version of this composition, with slight differences, is known to exist (last recorded as being lent in 1962 by Mr. and Mrs. Arthur W. Levy Jnr., to the North Carolina Museum of Art). These two compositions are unique in showing the Virgin holding a quince (instead of her more usual distaff of yarn), a fruit that shares the same religious iconography as the apple. The expressiveness of the hands, the delicate transparency of the Virgin's veil and the exquisite rendering of her fan-shaped eyelashes are exceptional, as is the hair which recalls Palomino's comment that Morales 'painted hair with such a masterly and elegant hand that even the greatest artists try to blow on it, to make it move; it is as fine as natural hair' (A. Palomino de Castro y Velasco, El Parnaso español pintoresco laureado, Madrid, 1724, p. 384, translated and cited by I. Bäcksbacka, Luis de Morales, Helsinki, 1962, p. 24).
We are grateful to Dr. Isabel Mateo Gómez for confirming the attribution to Morales from photographs. She will be including this work in her forthcoming catalogue raisonné on the artist.