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The Viaticum
Alenza, Leonardo
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Alenza, Leonardo

Madrid (Spain), 1807 - Madrid (Spain), 1845

Alenza, Leonardo See author's file

The Viaticum

1840. Oil on canvas.
Not on display

Leonardo Alenza y Nieto was, without doubt, the painter par excellence of romantic costumbrismo from Madrid. (Costumbrismo refers to nineteenth-century genre scenes representing folkloric subjects and local customs.) Alenza is traditionally considered a follower of Goya for the application of his sharp, honest skills of observation to the least favoured social classes in the Spain of his era, at times subtly revealing a critical perspective. He devoted most of his career to painting small genre scenes of humble folk, possibly inspired by the works of David Teniers that hung in the Prado. Alenza was able to produce the liveliest and most heartfelt of images, portraying the people and the alleyways and tiny inns of the Madrid underworld during the reign of Isabella II. His works are undeniably enchanting and stimulating, executed in brilliant colours and with an acute attention to detail. They often transcend the initial appeal of their folkloric picturesqueness to show us the most squalid and dramatic aspects of those milieus.The present canvas is the most exquisite work of this type by Alenza from among the abundant collection in the Prado, and one of his most important and carefully executed genre scenes. The appeal of this painting has to do with his approach to the composition of the scene, framed by the architecture of the modest domestic building that serves to define a closed space, recalling set decor in a playhouse. Groups of figures move forward in a tight procession, arranged with theatrical skill by the artist. Above all, the painting is especially evocative for the vibrant richness of Alenza´s technique: his short, light brushstrokes display all his technical skill. He demonstrates a command of the dramatic treatment of artificial light -an exercise in artistry frequent among painters since the mannerists- illuminating the nocturnal scene with the large lantern carried by one of the altar boys, opposite the figures of a man and boy, who also carries a candle, boldly silhouetted against the light. Thus, to great atmospheric effect, the people in the image are bathed in warm amber light but surrounded by darkness.The custom of carrying the Holy Viaticum in a procession through Spanish streets was common until well into the twentieth century, and it proved particularly appealing as a subject to costumbrista artists of the romantic period. The practice symbolised carrying the Holy Communion and last rites to people on the verge of death with the aim of ensuring their last voyage -viaticum is a Latin word meaning provisions for a journey- in the grace of God. The procession, led by the priest from the corresponding parish, was a ceremony accorded great respect and honour, to which all those caught unexpectedly by its arrival were obliged to respond. The ceremony was announced by the ringing of a small bell and the exclamation ¡Dios, majestad! (God, Majesty!), at which point all were expected to kneel as the procession passed. The ceremonious ritual surprised travellers to Spain and resident non-Catholic liberals such as writer and thinker José María Blanco White (1775-1841), born in Seville but of Irish stock. In his Cartas de España (Letters from Spain), he reports with almost comic irony the effect that this custom produced in him:These disagreeable encounters are frequent in the most populous cities of Spain. [...] The sound of them produces a magic effect in Spaniards. Thus, in the middle of the liveliest and noisiest of celebrations, the words His Majesty lead everyone to drop to his knees until the bell ringer has disappeared in the distance. You´re sitting down with me? Well, you have to leave the table to kneel. You´re in bed? You have at the very least to sit up. But where one may observe its most absurd effects is in the theatre. [...] The actors are struck dumb, the castanets accompanying the fandango fall silent, and everything remains still for several minutes, until the tintinnabulation of the little bell is lost in the distance. Then the spectacle resumes, and the devout actors stand up again, ready to satisfy the audience after this unexpected interruption. So powerful is the effect of the customs one acquires in childhood that for many weeks after my arrival in London I still felt the instinctive impulse to execute a proper genuflexion every time I heard the mailman´s little bell (Díez, J. L.: Portrait of Spain. Masterpieces from the Prado, Queensland Art Gallery-Art Exhibitions Australia, 2012, p. 190).

Technical data

Inventory number
Alenza, Leonardo
The Viaticum
Height: 77 cm; Width: 63.5 cm
Collection of Luis Ardanaz y Mariátegui; Collection of Francisco Javier de Mariátegui; Museo de Arte Moderno, Madrid (bequest of Luis Ardanaz y Mariátegui, 12.3.1931).

Bibliography +

Museo Nacional del Prado, Catálogo de las pinturas del siglo XIX, Ministerio de Cultura, 1986, pp. 20.

Díez, José Luis, Da Goya a Picasso. La Pittura Spagnola Dell'Ottocento, Mazzotta, Milán, 1991, pp. 150.

Museo Nacional del Prado, Pintura española del siglo XIX: del neoclasicismo al modernismo, Ministerio de Cultura, Dirección General de Cooperación, 1992, pp. 92.

El siglo XIX en el Prado, Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid, 2007, pp. 134-137 nº 12.

Portrait of Spain. Masterpieces from The Prado, Queensland Art Gallery, 2012, pp. 190-191, nº55.

Díez, J.L. (dir.), Pintura del Siglo XIX en el Museo del Prado. Catálogo general, Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid, 2015, pp. 53.

Other inventories +

Inv. Museo Arte Moderno, 1954. Núm. 3.

Registros-Inventarios Museo Nacional de Arte Moderno, 1900-1936. Núm. 89 A.

Actas traslado de obras MEAC - Prado, 1971-1973. Núm. 10.

Inscriptions +

L. Alenza
Signed. Front, lower left area

Exhibitions +

Portrait of Spain. Masterpieces from the Prado
16.12.2012 - 31.03.2013

Portrait of Spain. Masterpieces from the Prado
Houston TX
15.12.2012 - 31.03.2013

Portrait of Spain. Masterpieces from the Prado
22.07.2012 - 04.11.2012

Portrait of Spain. Masterpieces from the Prado
Brisbane, Australia
21.07.2012 - 04.11.2012

El Siglo XIX en el Prado
31.10.2007 - 20.04.2008

Pintura española del siglo XIX. Del neoclasicismo al modernismo
03.04.1992 - 17.05.1992

Pintura española del Siglo XIX: de Goya a Picasso
18.10.1991 - 08.01.1992

Displayed objects +

Bell: Niña a la derecha del cuadro, tocando una campana pequeña de metal, de la que no se ve el badajo.

Lantern / Street Lamp: Farol de mano

Update date: 26-05-2022 | Registry created on 28-04-2015

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