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Valdés Leal: The Life of Saint Ambrose

Valdés Leal: The Life of Saint Ambrose

Valdés Leal: The Life of Saint Ambrose

Madrid 10/28/2003 - 1/4/2004

In 1673, the Sevilian painter Juan de Valdés Leal painted a series of paintings on the life of Saint Ambrose for the lower oratory of the Archiepiscopal Palace in Seville, commissioned by the Archbishop, Ambrosio Spinola. The two smaller compositions representing supernatural scenes formed part of the altarpiece, together with a painting of the Virgin and Child commissioned from Murillo that same year. The other five, which depict key episodes in the ministry of the saint and his virtues as an archbishop, were arranged along the walls of the oratory. All these paintings disappeared during the War of Independence, when Marshal Soult converted the palace into his military headquarters. The paintings were assumed lost until they reappeared in 1960 and 1981 on the art market.

The exhibition, organised in collaboration with the Museo de Bellas Artes of Seville, reunites the seven surviving paintings, of which four, acquired by the Museo Nacional del Prado in December 2002, have never before been exhibited in public. The remainer have been lent by the museums of Saint Louis (Missouri), San Francisco (California) and Seville. This is a unique opportunity to appreciate the work of Valdés Leal at its finest, and to study a cycle of paintings rich with celebratory and symbolic connotations.

José álvarez Lopera, Senior Curator of the Spanish Painting Department at the Museo Nacional del Prado.


Room 17. First Floor


Archbishop Ambrosio Spínola and Valdés Leal

Archbishop Ambrosio Spínola and Valdés Leal
Saint Ambrose denying the Emperor Theodosius entry into the church
Oil on canvas, 166 x 110 cm.

Ambrosio Ignacio Spínola y Guzmán (1632-1684) was Archbishop of Seville from 1669 until his death. Grandson of General Ambrosio Spínola, the victor of Breda, and son of Diego Messía y Guzmán, first Marquis of Leganés, he had a distinguished ecclesiastical career. Educated by his uncle, Cardinal Agustín Spínola, who guided his first steps, he was appointed Bishop of Oviedo and Archbishop of Santiago before being named Archbishop of Seville aged only thirty-eight. Over the fifteen years that he held this position, he gained the respect and devotion of Sevilians through his conscientious pastoral care and charitable deeds.

A fervent devotee of the Virgin, Archbishop Spínola had a private oratory installed in his "ground-floor" room in the Episcopal Palace in Seville. In 1673 he commissioned Valdés Leal to paint a series of scenes from the life of his patron saint, Saint Ambrose. These were removed during the Peninsular War by Marshal Soult, who made the Episcopal Palace his headquarters. The paintings remained lost until five of them reappeared in 1960 on the New York art market and two more reappeared at an auction held in Paris in 1981. The present exhibition has been organised to mark the acquisition of four paintings from the series by the Museo del Prado.

The Life of Ambrose

The Life of Ambrose
The appointment of Saint Ambrose as governor
Oil on canvas, 166 x 96 cm.

Representations of the life of St. Ambrose, Doctor of the Church and Archbishop of Milan between 373 and 397, are extremely rare. This series of paintings by Valdés Leal (1622-1694) is unique in the history of Spanish art and fully reveals the artist's outstanding narrative and dramatic abilities. The iconographic programme is directly related to the life and pastoral activities of Archbishop Spínola. In it, the Archbishop both honours his patron saint, commemorating his consecration as Archbishop 1,300 years earlier, and also pays tribute to his own family, emphasising the links with northern Italy. In addition, the series reveals Spínola's ideas about the good government of the Church.

It has been assumed that all these canvases formed part of a large altarpiece. However, it is more likely that the two smaller ones, which represent the start and end of the saint's life and which are the only ones to feature supernatural events, were located on the altar of the oratory, above and to either side of The Virgin and Child (now Liverpool, Walker Art Gallery), also commissioned from Murillo by the Archbishop. The five vertical paintings, which do not show miraculous events, would have been hung along the oratory walls at eye level. This arrangement would explain the technical and expressive differences between the paintings. The association between the figure of Ambrosio Spínola and Saint Ambrose is conveyed by the likeness of the saint who bears the features of the Archbishop.

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