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The Penitent St Peter of Los Venerables

Museo Nacional del Prado. Madrid 9/11/2015 - 1/17/2016

The Penitent St Peter of Los Venerables was the property of Justino de Neve, one of the most intelligent and expert patrons the painter ever had, on whom an exhibition was organised three years ago by the Prado, the Fundación Focus-Abengoa and the Dulwich Picture Gallery in London. In his will of 1685, he bequeathed the work to the Hospital de los Venerables in Seville, a Baroque building that now houses the Fundación Focus-Abengoa. It will return there after its stay at the Prado, so culminating the restitution of this masterpiece of Sevillian painting.

Preserved in the church of the Hospital is the altarpiece on which the painting stood from at least 1701 until the Peninsular War, when it was confiscated by Marshal Soult and stayed in his collection until his death in 1851. The work has remained since then in private collections.

The Penitent St Peter of Los Venerables takes a composition by Ribera as its starting point for a subject that was very popular in Spain during the Golden Age, the withdrawal and repentance of St Peter, who is showing clasping his hands while turning his moist eyes to heaven.




The Restoration

The Restoration
The Penitent St Peter of Los Venerables
(After the restoration)

When Abengoa’s work reached the Prado, it was in a good state of conservation but it was dark, lifeless and lacking in volume.

Accumulated varnishes and earlier restorations had reduced the painting’s transparency and made it difficult to see which place was meant to be occupied by each of the parts designed for the composition. Despite its apparently good condition, then, it was lacking in these necessary references of space and depth.

The treatments carried out were aimed at the consolidation of the painting, a process which prevents paint loss or lifting of the craquelure, and the elimination of earlier interventions that hid the original picture. With the removal of the varnishes and repaintings, the work now shows the technical and stylistic virtuosity of Murillo in this phase of his maturity. Technical and chemical analyses not only guided the restoration but also help us understand more about the artist’s technique and creative process.

In this work, where the lighting is uniform but strongly contrasted, Murillo first painted the sky and the backgrounds on the half-tone of the ground, which is greyish in colour. Afterwards he fitted the figure into the area he had reserved for it, the dim light of the grotto, which stands out from the background owing to its more heavily impastoed brushwork.

The brushwork is very versatile, and is the protagonist of his style. He uses a paint-laden brush to model the flesh tones, leaving the mark of the bristles. He achieves the ethereal effects of the landscape by diluting the paint on his brush, and the transparencies of the backgrounds by liquefying the pigment as much as possible. The final touches are dry strokes that mark the main highlights of the illumination.

He worked in layers, with the brighter ones superimposed on the darker so that the contours can be appreciated. The face and hands are modelled with more impasto than the cloak, while the fabrics are in their turn more impastoed than the background. The dark effect of the grotto is achieved with very smoothly and evenly applied brushwork.

The restoration has allowed the picture’s message to become clear once more, and we can now understand how the artist communicates through paint.

The frame was restored at the same time. Although it is not the original, which is preserved on the altar of the church of the Hospital de los Venerables, it is a magnificent piece in the First Empire style, probably made when the picture was taken to France by Napoleon’s army.

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