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The Birth of the Virgin
Morales, Luis de
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Morales, Luis de

Badajoz (Spain), 1510 - Alcántara? (Spain), 1586

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The Birth of the Virgin

1562 - 1567. Oil on panel.
Not on display

The Birth of the Virgin at the Museo del Prado, the only painting on this subject by the hand of Luis de Morales and a work that remained unpublished until 2003, and the two pieces at the Museum Schloss Fasanerie in Eichenzell, The Presentation in the Temple and The Visitation, which are little known in Spain, belong in all probability, as Gabriele Finaldi pointed out, to one and the same set, a judgement based on their measurements, the proportion of the figures, their style, subjects and decorative features, and their extremely high quality. The subjects and characteristics of these three paintings set them apart from the corpus of Morales’s small independent devotional works, while the format of the panels differentiates them from those of his much narrower and more elongated triptychs. Similarly, the half-length figures, instead of the busts generally employed on the triptychs, correspond more to what was demanded of Morales for the predellas of altarpieces, as reflected in the contract for the San Felices de los Gallegos altarpiece (1572).

Various documents and testimonies situate the three works with some certainty in the monastery of San Benito in Alcántara (Cáceres), where Morales was to produce several works of uneven quality in later years, specifically for the predella of the small altarpiece of the funerary chapel of Antonio Bravo de Xerez (died in 1562). In the will (23 February 1560) of this powerful personage, Knight Commander of Piedrabuena, Governor of Alcántara, and the son of Vasco Yáñez de Xerez, the accountant of the Dukes of Béjar and Plasencia, there is a mention of the subjects of the Nativity of the Virgin and the Presentation in the Temple, both in relation to his chapel. This document, together with the various payments made to the painter (a total of 350 ducats) and the chronicles of the visiting officials of the Order of Alcántara, allow the works to be assigned to the hand of Morales, and the execution of the panels to be dated to one of the master’s most active periods, between 1562 (after the death of the Knight Commander) and 1 February 1565, the day when the visiting official Gonzalo Chacón ordered the payment of the sum owed to Morales given that the said work is perfectly finished in accordance with the obligation contracted.

The panel of the Birth of the Virgin (Protoevangelium of James, V, 2), so far unique in his repertory, is representative of Morales’s abilities as an artist. It demonstrates his originality in the interpretation and composition of the scene, and the exquisite beauty and delicacy he was capable of attaining in the figures and details. Morales interprets the moment after the birth with great simplicity and sobriety, a far cry from the habitual domestic scenes of feminine celebration like that of Juan de Borgoña (act. 1495-1535) at Toledo Cathedral (1509-11), which shows details of the setting, objects, a large number of figures and every day actions with no essential role in the narrative. In this painting, St Anne sits up with a gesture of pain, helped by a young woman who at the same time offers her the traditional earthenware dish of broth. The baby girl is swaddled in accordance with the system used in countries like France or Germany, in a similar fashion to that seen in the Triptych of the Birth of Christ (c. 1450) by the Master of the Zarzoso Triptych, which reflects Morales’s contact with the art of Northern Europe. The mysterious figure of the young woman carrying the basket, who is repeated in The Holy Family in New York and may represent a visiting neighbour or relative who has come with a gift for the woman in labour, is differentiated from the other characters by her delicate coiffure and her dress, similar to that of Morales’s Gipsy Virgins but finer, with lace edging on the neck and cuffs. The fact she is gazing out at the viewer makes one suspect she is a portrait, perhaps of some pregnant woman or even a relative of Morales’s (his own daughter Catalina gave birth to a child in 1564). The fruits in the basket, which may have an allegorical function, appear to be small apples, with a heavy weight of symbolism related to sin and redemption, or small quinces, which are said in Alciato’s Emblem 191 to be presented as gifts for wives.

Although this was probably the first time Morales had painted this scene, the underdrawing revealed by infrared reflectography displays very few hesitations and changes with regard to the painted picture, thanks mainly to the system of transferring images through the technique of calco. It is noteworthy, however, that the shading on the maidservant who is bringing the dish to St Anne is more elaborate than is habitual in other works by Morales, probably because the painter had not dealt with this figure before and needed to think out the positions of the lights and shadows more carefully. Curiously, they nevertheless do not correspond with those he afterwards painted (Text drawn from Cenalmor, E. in: The Divine Morales, Museo Nacional del Prado, 2015, pp. 60-61).


Technical data

Inventory number
Morales, Luis de
The Birth of the Virgin
1562 - 1567
Height: 69.2 cm; Width: 93.2 cm
Private collection, Great Britain; Acquired from Sotheby’s London, 10 July 2003 by the Spanish State and assigned to the Museo del Prado

Bibliography +

Trapier, Elizabeth du Gué, Luis de Morales and leonardesque influences in Spain, The Trustees, 1953.

Gaya Nuño, Juan Antonio, Luis de Morales, Instituto Diego Velázquez, 1961.

Backsbacka, Ingjald, Luis de Morales, Helsingfors, 1962.

Solís Rodríguez, Carmelo, Luis de Morales, Fundación Caja de Badajoz, 1999.

Old Master Paintings, I, Sotheby’s, Londres, 2003.

Museo Nacional del Prado, Memoria de actividades 2003, Ministerio de Educación, Cultura, Madrid, 2004, pp. 32.

De Carlos Varona, Maria Cruz, Representar el nacimiento: imágenes y cultura material de un espacio de sociabilidad femenina en la España altomoderna, Goya. Revista de arte, 319-20, 2007, pp. 231-45.

Cenalmor, E, 'Luis de Morales. El Nacimiento de la Virgen' En:, El Divino Morales, Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid, 2015, pp. 60-65 n.1.

Jover de Celis, M. Alba, L. Gayo, M. García-Máiquez, J, 'En el taller de Luis de Morales' En:, Luis de Morales, Diputación de Badajoz,, 2018, pp. 97-113 [103 f.20].

Other inventories +

Inv. Nuevas Adquisiciones (iniciado en 1856). Núm. 2650.

Exhibitions +

El Divino Morales
16.06.2016 - 25.09.2016

El Divino Morales
09.02.2016 - 16.05.2016

El Divino Morales
06.10.2015 - 10.01.2016

The Divine Morales
01.10.2015 - 10.01.2016

Displayed objects +



Recipient: Recipiente cerámico

Update date: 24-02-2022 | Registry created on 28-04-2015

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