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Members' Research Report Archive

In the Guise of Holiness: Portraiture, Dynastic Politics, and Sanctity under the Spanish Habsburgs

Adam Jasienski [Harvard University]
Samuel H. Kress Fellow, 2013–2015


Attributed to Eugenio de las Cuevas, presumed portrait of Juan José de Austria as Saint Hermenegild, c. 1642. Convento de las Descalzas Reales, Madrid. © Patrimonio Nacional

Typical of seventeenth-century Habsburg court portraits is a painting of a well-groomed, self-assured young aristocrat believed to be Juan José de Austria, an illegitimate son of Spanish king Philip IV. In the painting’s lower right corner is a thread of blocky letters that reads “S. Hermenegildus.” This line of text identifies the sitter as Saint Hermenegild, a sixth-century Iberian prince, and at the same time complicates the painting’s seemingly straightforward visual message. Scholars disagree as to whether the text was added to the portrait at a later date or the painting was commissioned as a retrato a lo divino (divinizing portrait), in which a secular sitter is purposefully identified with a holy figure. This work, one of many like it, and the disagreement around the stages of its making and potential remaking are emblematic of the main questions that my dissertation aims to answer: how was portraiture used to articulate sanctity in the early modern period, and in the Hispanic world in particular? How could such images, positioned on a scale between sacred and ostensibly profane, thrive under the Spanish monarchy, for which a uniform visual culture was key to enforcing cohesion across many colonial holdings? And finally, how were such images perceived by their viewers, from the Nahuatl-speaking towns of central Mexico, to Mexico City, to Madrid, and what were the preconceptions about privileged images that their beholders brought to the table?

My time at CASVA has thus far been devoted to analyzing a mid-seventeenth-century Mexican inquisitorial trial that engages with precisely these issues. The inquisitors were concerned that a number of portraits of Bishop Juan de Palafox y Mendoza depicted the controversial, still-living ecclesiastic as a saint. Some of these had been expressly commissioned to present the bishop as a holy figure, in explicit violation of various ecclesiastical decrees. Others had been repainted by their owners, who added angelic wings to finished works. Still others were not physically altered but were simply treated as if they depicted a saint, with their viewers lighting candles in front of them. Finally, some of the depictions of the bishop were hung under ceremonial baldachins, displacing the portraits of the king and queen, thereby usurping the prestige of those archetypal images of state. These mutations of formulaic portraits of a single sitter have led me to see portraiture as an active, changing, and endlessly manipulable, rather than static, artistic genre.

It was the multiplicity of ways in which Palafox’s portraits could be seen that especially concerned the inquisitors—after all, official images were supposed to adhere to a predetermined type. The inquisitors’ focus on the portraits’ sliding signification reveals a deep-seated anxiety about the impossibility of controlling popular engagement with pictures. This was part and parcel of real concerns about maintaining the social contract and political stability: attempts to curtail the bishop’s depictions had resulted in riots. At the trial’s conclusion the bishop’s portraits—by some accounts, nearly six thousand of them—were destroyed in a wide-reaching, officially mandated iconoclasm.

The desire to sanctify Palafox’s portraits, that is, to change the type of image they were and the category of individual they depicted, did not arise ex nihilo. Rather, I contend that their treatment emulated a number of other types of official images and accepted pictorial practices that united portraiture and devotional imagery. These included paintings of saints that emulated the “look” of portraits; portraits whose sitters had been forgotten and that were recycled as devotional pictures as a matter of expediency; and a lo divino portraits, which were permitted as long as their audience was strictly limited, such as the portrait of Juan José as Saint Hermenegild, which was likely a royal commission intended for a privileged, monastic audience. These precedents led people to engage with other official images, such as Palafox’s portraits, in unorthodox ways, precisely because their actions did not appear to differ from officially sanctioned forms of interacting with pictures.

This, and other episodes like it, were not without their consequences. From the early seventeenth century the anxiety surrounding difficult-to-categorize images and their potential misreadings motivated artists such as Diego Velázquez and theorists such as Bernardino de Villegas, both associated with the court in Madrid, to begin to define the boundaries of artistic genres and types. Their efforts suggest that official imagery could be misconstrued just as easily in the metropole as in the colonial “periphery,” which calls for a wide-reaching comparative study of images and documents from across the Hispanic monarchy.