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Morales, Luis de

Badajoz, Hacia 1510 - Alcántara?, 1586

Luis de Morales was born in 1510 or 1511. In an affidavit made in December 1584, the painter declared himself to “be of the age of seventy-three or four years”, an affirmation that confirms the information given by Antonio Palomino in his “Vidas”. The painter almost certainly died in 1586 in Alcántara, the place where he had settled in the last years of his life. According to the testimony of his daughter Isabel, he was buried in the high chapel of the church of the Hospital de la Antigua Piedad in Badajoz, where the body of his wife, Leonor de Chaves, was also to lie. It might be deduced that Morales travelled before his death to the city where he had lived for most of his life, but this is improbable since he resided in Alcántara with what remained of his family, with the exception of his daughter, Sister Mariana de Jesús.
Morales went to live in Badajoz in about 1539, and that small city was thenceforth the setting for both his family life and attending to many of the commissions received by his workshop. Contrary to tradition, nevertheless, it cannot have been his birthplace. Everything indicates that the city became the central place in his biography after his marriage to Leonor de Chaves. Their union was prolific, not only because she bore him seven children but also because his wife’s family relations allowed him to broaden his horizon of clients and social contacts.
Before setting up his home and workshop in Badajoz, Morales lived in Plasencia. This is a town in Upper Extremadura, an area close to Salamanca, Ávila and Toledo. He received payments in 1535 for gilding and painting sculptures, and for appraising the altarpiece made by the sculptor Guillermín de Gante for the parish church of San Pedro Apóstol in Aldeanueva de la Vera, a small town belonging to the bishopric of Plasencia. Two years later, in a binding letter of guarantee dated 25 January 1537, he is named as a “painter and neighbour of the said city” of Plasencia, receiving ten thousand “maravedís” as down payment for an altarpiece commissioned for the parish church of Santiago in the town of Belvís de Monroy. It can therefore be concluded that Morales resided in Plasencia from at least 1535 to 1537, and the evidence provided by the Aldeanueva and Belvís documents suggests a prolonged relationship with the city’s artistic milieu.
In 1539 or 1540, Luis de Morales began the altarpiece of the parish church of Villanueva de Barcarrota, a village less than fifty kilometres to the south of Badajoz, which had a population of just over 1,200 when it was sold on 14 May 1539 by the Order of Alcántara to Juan Portocarrero, first Marquis of the town, seventh Lord of Villanueva del Fresno, Lord of Moguer, Knight Commander of Estepa and Segura de la Sierra, and chief magistrate of Seville. It was probably Portocarrero who commissioned the altarpiece for the parish church, though the work was not deemed to have been completed until 1549, after a court order had been served for its delivery. The prolonged and doubtless fraught commission for the Barcarrota altarpiece, the securing of new contracts for other altarpieces in the region, and the painter’s marriage to Leonor de Chaves all help to explain why Luis de Morales settled definitively in Badajoz.
For a large part of his life, Morales had an active artistic career that frequently obliged him to travel to arrange commissions, execute them or oversee their completion by the workshop. Otherwise, like many other artists in the region, he rounded off his finances with other sources of income. He owned houses and land in the city as well as vines, olives and livestock in the surrounding area. The markedly rural profile of both the artist and the milieu he lived in is evident too when we recall that Bishop Juan de Ribera paid him for several commissions in kind: wheat and barley, or “a Friesian horse with bit and saddle”.
Fifty years went by between Morales’s first works in Aldeanueva de la Vera and his last intervention, even if nominal, at the convent church of Alcántara. It was a long career for a very active painter with a high reputation in Extremadura, during which time he produced about twenty altarpieces and around one hundred devotional panels, although the exact number of these, his best known work, is complex to determine because of the numerous versions, derivations and copies of Morales’s originals that continue to appear.
Of the altarpieces, only the ones at Arroyo de la Luz and San Martín in Plasencia remain completely mounted with their original structure and decoration. At Higuera la Real, all the painted panels are preserved, but not the structure. Visitors can also see some of the panels painted for Elvas Cathedral, the Dominicans in Évora, the convent church of Alcántara and the Chapel of El Sagrario at Badajoz Cathedral. As a master of altarpieces, Morales’s most important work was produced in the 1540s and 1550s.
The references to the principal people Morales worked for are coupled above all with small-format works of a private character, known as “tablillas” or, as they are more frequently cited, “pieças”. A great many “lords of the realm have sent and continue to send … to this city [Badajoz] to have many pieças of painting made … which are works that have been highly esteemed by all those who have seen them, saying they are the best works now to be found in the Kingdom”, for they are paintings which “he finishes very well and very true to life”. There are successive mentions of these pieces, on which the favourable testimonies tend to be centred, and which had earned the painter much of his reputation since the early 1540s.
Among the long list of works produced in the 1540s, one which stands out exceptionally is “The Virgin and Child with the Little Bird”, of 1546. One of the painter’s most successful achievements, and the only work which he dated, it was painted for the church of the Hospital de la Concepción in Badajoz, and has been kept since about 1950 in the parish church of San Agustín in Madrid. Its compositional grandeur, plastic quality and large size prove the degree of creative maturity that Morales was capable of showing at that time.
It was during the incumbency of Francisco de Navarra that Morales started to perform a succession of tasks in the diocese. He was asked to carry out appraisals in 1552, when he also painted the surround of an altarpiece at the parish church of Santa María del Castillo. The next year he received a more significant commission to provide the paintings for the Chapel of El Sagrario (1553-54), four panels meant for a space that was also to hold “The Virgin of La Antigua”, one of the city’s chief devotional images since the end of the fifteenth century, when it was hung in the retrochoir of the cathedral, a space eliminated in the mid-sixteenth century with the addition of new choir stalls. Morales must already have had some collaborator or assistant while he was working for Badajoz Cathedral, as seems clear from the uneven quality of the four panels for the Chapel of El Sagrario, independently of the state of conservation in which they have come down to us. Commissions started to accumulate for the painter around that time. Besides the work he had been contracted to do for the cathedral, he also had altarpieces to make for the parish churches of Puebla de la Calzada and Lobón, whose proximity to each other would make it easier for him to work on both.
Arroyo de la Luz, where Morales and his workshop were occupied from 1560 to 1563 on the main altarpiece of the parish church, a highly impressive group preserved in situ with its whole architectural and sculptural structure still in place. Fourteen of the twenty panels painted for it show the episodes from the life of Christ that were most frequently repeated in this type of work, nearly all of them represented on more than one occasion by Morales, who used various engravings (Schongauer, Dürer, Cort, Caraglio) as sources for his compositions, as well as direct knowledge of works, copies or versions by Pieter Coecke van Aelst, Massys, Piombo and Alonso Berruguete.
In the second half of the decade, he received a succession of commissions related to Bishop Juan de Ribera (1532-1611), who governed the diocese from 1562 to 1568. All the works are linked to private requirements of the prelate, and make up a not very numerous group of small-format works on Marian themes or subjects from the Passion. The end of Ribera’s incumbency coincided with a decline in the activity of the painter’s workshop. In the 1570s, he is mentioned in relation with only two altarpieces, the one at the church of Entrambos Álamos in San Felices de los Gallegos (Salamanca), whose contract dates from 1572, and the one for the main church of Elvas (Portugal), commissioned in late 1575 or early 1576.
Palomino told of an encounter between the painter and Philip II in 1580. While there is no further proof that such a meeting ever took place, the story could well reflect Morales’s situation after the years of bonanza. The painter, his daughters Isabel and Catalina, the latter’s husband and their son moved to Alcántara in 1582. We do not know why the whole family moved in this way. Perhaps their relations in Alcántara had given them hope of more work and a better income than they had while living in Badajoz. Once in Alcántara, Morales, assisted by his son-in-law Pedro Sánchez de Vera, made the altarpieces for the Ovando and Santillán Chapels in the town’s Holy Convent. The master’s precarious health must have limited his participation to a testimonial presence, a supposition confirmed by the resolution of the preserved panels, where at least two hands can be distinguished, one of them perhaps that of a Morales with an unsteady pulse who probably died shortly afterwards (Ruiz, L.: The Divine Morales, Museo Nacional del Prado, 2015, pp 17-34).

Artworks (31)

Ecce Homo
Oil on panel, XVI century
Morales, Luis de (Workshop of)
Ecce Homo
Oil on panel, XVI century
Morales, Luis de (Seguidor de)
The Agony in the Garden
Oil on panel, Ca. 1545
Morales, Luis de
The Presentation of Jesus in the Temple
Oil on panel, Ca. 1562
Morales, Luis de
Ecce Homo
Oil on panel, 1560 - 1570
Morales, Luis de
The Annuncation
Oil on panel, Ca. 1565
Morales, Luis de
The Virgin and Child
Oil on panel, Ca. 1565
Morales, Luis de
Christ Justifying his Passion
Oil on panel, Ca. 1565
Morales, Luis de
The Virgin Dolorosa
Oil on panel, 1560 - 1570
Morales, Luis de

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