Landscape with Saint Mary of CervellóCa. 1637. Oil on canvas, 162 x 241 cm.
The scene is set in a lush wooded clearing that opens into the distance at the center. A brightly lit anchorite in a Mercedarian habit kneels in the foreground, praying in front of a crucifix. The space is enclosed on both sides by trees and boulders but the horizon visible through the center consists of high mountains lit by soft dawn light. Scattered around the landscape are deer and a few buildings, and on the left, a village on the banks of a river crossed by a bridge. The authorship of the figure has been questioned, as its scale is larger than customary in works by Claude Lorrain. It has traditionally been identified as Saint Mary of Cervelló (ca. 1230-1290), cofounder of the female branch of the Mercedarian order, but there is no documentation to indicate that she ever lived as a hermit. In fact, she spent all of her life in Barcelona, aiding the needy in prisons and hospitals. However, this may be a depiction of the blessed Mariana de Jesús (Madrid, 1565-1624), who retired to a small house near the Mercedarian convent by the hermitage of Santa Bárbara, in Madrid. In 1613, she entered the Order of Mercy, but she continued to live in her retreat, which may be why she is represented here with her hair down and bareheaded. The people of Madrid were highly devoted to her from a very early date, calling her a saint while she was still alive. Court painter Vicente Carducho made her death mask and painted her first portrait around 1605 (Almería Cathedral). All of this seems to justify her presence among the paintings of hermits at the Buen Retiro palace.
Nature plays an outstanding role in this work, providing an exuberant refuge for the delicate and pious figure of the saint, which is theatrically illuminated by a ray of light against a dark background.
There are preparatory drawings for this canvas at the British Museum in London and at the Albertina Library in Vienna. It was painted for the landscape gallery at King Philip IV’s (1605-1665) Buen Retiro Palace, where it was coupled with Landscape with Saint Onuphrius (P2256), which is also at the Museo del Prado.
The formidable campaign of arts acquisitions carried out by the Count-Duke of Olivares in the 1640s to decorate the vast spaces at Madrid’s Buen Retiro Palace included a very notable number of landscapes. Of these works -almost two hundred in all- we cannot determine how many were purchased in Flanders or Spain, nor which ones came from private collections or other Royal Seats, but thanks to the works at the Museo del Prado and documents found to date, we can establish with certainty that the Buen Retiro Palace was furnished with numerous landscapes painted for the occasion by artists active in Rome.
A series of at least twenty-five landscapes with anchorites and a dozen Italianate landscapes -large format works by different artists- were commissioned. Of the pieces that have survived, most are at the Museo del Prado.
Commissioned in Rome between 1633 and 1641, these landscape paintings from the Buen Retiro constituted an early anthology of this new painting from nature characterized by a new awareness of the effects of light and the atmosphere of the Roman countryside that would eventually spread through most of Europe, representing one of many aspects of classicism (Text drawn from Posada Kubissa, T.: Pintura holandesa en el Museo Nacional del Prado. Catálogo razonado, 2009, pp. 230-232; Capitelli, G. in Úbeda de los Cobos, A.: El Palacio del Rey Planeta. Felipe IV y el Buen Retiro, Museo Nacional del Prado, 2005, p. 241).