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    Ground view of the National Gallery's glass pyramids looking towards the East Building

    Research Reports

    Morten Steen Hansen
    Center 43

    Morten Steen Hansen

    Idol-Phobia in the Spanish Empire: Translating the Sacred at El Escorial

    West entrance, El Escorial. Photo: Morten Steen Hansen

    Between 1563 and 1584, Philip II (1527–1598) built the royal site of San Lorenzo de El Escorial with the architects Juan Bautista de Toledo (c. 1515–1567) and, after his death, Juan de Herrera (1530–1597). Located some 50 kilometers east of Madrid, it is the largest monument constructed in Europe during the Renaissance. It comprises a royal castle and mausoleum, a basilica and Hieronymite monastery, library, seminar, and hospitals. The young king envisioned a new, charismatic religious center that would translate Rome and Jerusalem as sites of spiritual authority to Spain. This involved the commissioning and collecting of art on a grand scale as well as the gathering of a vast number of relics. The works by Pellegrino Tibaldi (1527–1596) and Luca Cambiaso (1527–1585) that imitate Michelangelo’s frescoes in the Vatican express the status of El Escorial as a bastion of the Roman Church. Inside the basilica, the sanctuary is centered on a tabernacle with the Blessed Sacrament in front of an enormous retablo, 26 meters high. Gilt funerary effigies flanking the high altar show Charles V and his son Philip with their families in perpetual devotion to the host inside the tabernacle.

    The construction of El Escorial coincided with the iconoclasms in bordering France by the Huguenots and in the Spanish Netherlands by the Calvinists in the 1560s. The ban on images in the Book of Exodus made Christian images, historically, a controversial issue. With the outbreak of the Protestant Reformations during the 16th century, the parts of the Decalogue that prohibited polytheism and pictorial representations became ammunition against the papacy itself. Proscriptions against sacred images found their most extreme expression in iconoclasm, which inevitably came with an accusation of idolatry, the gravest of charges since it meant substituting God for something else.

    Pellegrino Tibaldi, Martyrdom of St. Lawrence, 1591, oil on canvas. High altar of the basilica, El Escorial. Photo:

    The written and physical attacks on sacred art led to a pictorial counter-discourse in the Catholic domains, displacing or subverting Protestant arguments. Outside of Rome, this phenomenon is perhaps best studied in the basilica of San Lorenzo at El Escorial, not surprising considering that the outbreaks of iconoclasm in 1566 in the Netherlands were directed against the Spanish Crown, the implication being that both king and pope promoted idolatry. At El Escorial, I identify ripostes to accusations of idolatry at three levels: in the antithesis between the pagan idol, on the one hand, and the Blessed Sacrament, bodies of saints, and sacred images, on the other; in censorship suppressing unwanted artistic license; and in dissemblance, a strategy of beholding that insists on the nonmimetic nature of the religious image. The first of the three strategies is presently exemplified by Tibaldi’s Martyrdom of St. Lawrence, centrally placed in the retablo over the tabernacle. Above the saint being martyred on the grill sits Emperor Decius, commanding the execution. Behind him at top center is a statue of a nude male, while at right an angel arrives with the palm frond of martyrdom. By creating, through poses, a strong resemblance among the idealized, muscular figures of the emperor, idol, and angel, Tibaldi forces the question of a relationship between pagan idol and sacred image. The Protestants’ accusations of idolatry also involved the Catholics’ attitudes toward relics and the Blessed Sacrament. Hence the presence of the idol next to the saint—one of Lawrence’s bone relics was preserved in the basilica—and above the tabernacle strikes a polemical tone.

    Writers of Renaissance artistic literature agreed that painting had culminated in ancient Greece before going through a long period of decline in the aftermath of Christianity’s advent. It was only during the 16th century that painting once more was restored to its former glory, which partly resulted from the study of ancient statuary—that is, pagan idols. Tibaldi addressed the issue head-on for his Catholic audience: the idol is not just the antithesis of the transubstantiated body of Christ in the tabernacle and of the sacred image—in this case, the luminous figure of St. Lawrence. It is also unavoidably bound to the religious image by virtue of having provided its pictorial forms. Embracing so openly the idolatrous Other of the sacred image might be seen as a way to expel any suspicion that church painting based on pagan statuary took more than its beautiful style.

    Danish Academy in Rome
    Ailsa Bruce Mellon Senior Fellow, fall 2022

    Morten Steen Hansen is currently holding a three-year Investigator Grant in Art History Research from the Novo Nordisk Fonden in affiliation with the Danish Academy in Rome.