Dominating the centre of the composition, the Virgin Mary, arrayed in traditional robes of white and blue, clasps her hands together in prayer as she gazes downwards towards a group of objects positioned in the lower right-hand corner. Her physical appearance, which conforms to conventional perceptions of beauty, plays on the relationship between interior and exterior, figuring her delicate facial features—large dark eyes, small red lips, and pale skin flecked intermittently by touches of rouge—as manifestations of her inestimable inner purity. The star-like radiance around her head confirms her position not just as a member of the celestial elect, but as a figure with a unique position in the Christian tradition, serving simultaneously as mother, daughter, and bride of God—a form of divinely created matter, inseminated by the Holy Spirit, who subsequently gives birth to the infant that she now so heartbreakingly mourns.
The chief interest of the composition, however, is in the collection of objects in the lower right-hand corner. Serving no longer as purely inanimate entities, the shroud, nails, lance, and crown of thorns function as devotional synecdoches (or parts that represent the whole), evoking the totality of Christ and his experiences by focusing on the minutiae of the Passion narrative. The process, which is one of essentialization, ensures that Christ is not simply represented by the objects, but that he becomes them—the suffering that they caused transmuted into mechanisms for identification and the concomitant triggering of affective, mimetic outpourings of grief. Their socio-cultural effect, in this sense, is centripetal, drawing the attentions of the Virgin and the audience into a form of deeply personalized engagement with the humiliations and degradations inflicted upon him. The crucial point is that in contrast to a living presence, Christ is not now evoked by his anatomy but by intimations of its destruction and the prospect of its eventual reconstitution. In fact, his historical identity becomes all but irrelevant: as an abstract reality, fragmented and evoked no longer by a traditionally bounded sense of self, he both becomes and exemplifies the mutilations to which he was subjected. It becomes possible as a result to question whether the painting should be classified as a treatment of the grieving Virgin, or whether it should be more accurately thought of as a dual portrait of mother and son.
Trained initially in his father’s workshop in Cocentaina, a small town in the Alicante region, Espinosa moved north to Valencia, where, after the deaths of Francisco (1565–1628) and Juan Ribalta (1596–1628), whose style he imitated, he became the foremost artist in the city. His production covers a range of themes, from commissioned portraits of the nobility through to devotional compositions, many of which were influenced, particularly in later life, by the works of Pedro Orrente (1580–1645).
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Mater Dolorosa (‘Grieving Mother of Christ’).
Attributed to Jerónimo Jacinto Espinosa (Cocentaina, Alicante, 1600 – Valencia, 1667).
Medium and Support
Oil on canvas.
145.5 x 115 cm.
Marks and Inscriptions
The Spanish Gallery, Bishop Auckland.
Fernando Benito Doménech, Los Ribalta y la pintura valenciana de su tiempo (Madrid: Museo del Prado, 1987);
Alfonso E. Pérez Sánchez, Jerónimo Jacinto de Espinosa (1600–1667) (Valencia: Museo de Bellas Artes, 2000);
Andrew M. Beresford, ‘On the Sources and Contexts of Late Medieval Castilian Devotional Practice: Pain and Popular Piety in Gómez Manrique’s Representación del Nacimiento de Nuestro Señor’, in Christ, Mary, and the Cults of the Saints: Reading Religious Subjects in Medieval and Renaissance Spain, ed. Andrew M. Beresford & Lesley K. Twomey, The Medieval and Early Modern Iberian World, 66 (Leiden: Brill, 2018), pp. 151–86;
Jonathan Ruffer, Adam Lowe, & Charlotte Skene Catling, The Spanish Gallery: A Guide to the Works of Art (Bishop Auckland: The Spanish Gallery, 2021), pp. 54–55.