King Ferdinand III of Castile (1201–52) is a key figure in traditional narratives of the Christian reconquest, which gradually succeeded in reclaiming the Iberian territories that had been under Islamic rule since 711. Ferdinand’s military campaign included raids on Muslim citadels and battles against the forces of Andalusian leaders and their allies. He captured major cities, including Córdoba (1236), Jaén (1246), and Seville (1248), and was also a devout monarch and the founder of Burgos Cathedral. After his death, a local cult quickly developed around his tomb in Seville Cathedral, but he was not formally recognized as a saint until 1672. In Seville, to this day, Ferdinand III’s coffin is opened annually on the date of his feast (30 May) for the public to view.
Murillo’s bust portrait of Ferdinand III was probably commissioned in around 1671 as part of a long-running campaign to promote the King’s canonization. The Archbishop of Seville had already asked the artist in 1649 to investigate earlier images of Ferdinand III, and the distinctive bobbed and fringed medieval haircut in this painting probably derives from his research.
Murillo has given Ferdinand III a solemn appearance. He looks at the viewer, holding his saintly symbols, an unsheathed sword and a globe. This approach forms a contrast with that of rival artists, notably Juan de Valdés Leal (1622–90), who depicted the King as a warrior, vigorously brandishing his sword whilst standing over the armour of the defeated Muslims. Instead, Murillo places emphasis on the King’s face to produce an unidealized, naturalistic likeness. The Latin inscription below declares that this is a ‘true image’, and to reinforce the illusion that what we see is an actual portrait, Murillo has set the King’s image in a feigned oval frame, which appears to be held and presented to the viewer by putti or child angels. The visual device of a picture within a picture is typical of Murillo’s late style and can also be seen in his celebrated self-portrait (1670, National Gallery, London).
Probably in response to Seville Cathedral’s need for a more conventional image of Ferdinand III as a saint, Murillo painted another portrait possibly after 1675, which was donated to the Cathedral in 1678 by Murillo’s cousin, Bartolomé Pérez Ortiz (1614–78), who worked there as an administrator. This portrait depicts Ferdinand with a Christ-like face—long-haired, fully-bearded, and moustached—gazing heavenwards in communication with God. It became the preferred cult image of St Ferdinand, and was copied well into the nineteenth century and even into the twenty-first in Latin America, where a copy was installed in the Cathedral of the Argentinian city of San Fernando del Valle de Catamarca in 2008. Murillo also painted a further image of the saint in the early 1670s, kneeling in prayer before his crown (Prado Museum). By then Murillo had become Seville’s most celebrated artist, and was widely admired for his sacred and secular paintings and for his portraits of the city’s clergy and cosmopolitan merchant elite.
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Bartolomé Esteban Murillo (Seville, 1617–82).
Medium and Support
Oil on canvas.
170 x 114 cm.
Marks and Inscriptions
‘Vera Divi Ferdinandii III Effigies / Maurorum Exterminatio Restitutor Hispani Orbis’ (The true portrait of the divine Ferdinand III / Expeller of the Moors and restorer of the Hispanic World). Editors' Note: The term ‘Moor’ (‘moro’ in Spanish) here refers to the Iberian Muslims who ruled large parts of the Peninsula between 711 and 1492. Since ‘Moro’ refers to black or dark skin colour, it should be considered a derogatory, racist term.
Acquired by The Zurbarán Trust in 2020.
Possibly commissioned 1671 by a Madrid patron via Pedro Núñez de Guzmán (1615–78), Count of Villaumbrosa and Marques of Montealegre; Infante Sebastián Gabriel María de Borbón y Braganza (1811–75), in royal palace apartments in Madrid 1828 (no. 18); possibly bought from the art dealer Pedro Antonio de Ibarrola after 2 May 1827; confiscated by Spanish government and displayed in the Museo de Trinidad 1835–60; returned to the Infante and taken into exile to Pau, France 1860–75; 1897 taken to Cologne, Germany; William Lukens Elkins in Philadelphia, 1900 (no. 109); inherited by his son, George Elkins, 1903–19; on George Elkins death exhibited and sold at the American Art Association, New York; bought by A. Reiman 2 February 1919 (no. 74); sold at Bruun-Rasmussen auction house, Copenhagen, Denmark 26 November 2019 (Lot 127); shown at Colnaghi stand, The European Fine Art Foundation, Maastricht 7–11 March 2020.
The Spanish Gallery, Bishop Auckland.
Diego Angulo Íñiguez, Murillo: catálogo crítico, 3 vols. (Madrid: Espasa-Calpe, 1981), II, pp. 246–49 (nos. 296–98);
Ignacio Cano Rivero, Ignacio Hermoso Romero, & María del Valme Muñoz Rubio, ed., Valdés Leal 1622–1690 (Seville: Junta de Andalucía, Consejería de Cultura y Patrimonio Histórico, 2021), pp. 248–49 (no. 66);
Rafael López Guzmán & Francisco Montes González, Religiosidad andaluza en América: repertorio Iconográfico, Arte y Arqueología (Granada: Universidad de Granada, 2017), pp. 92 and 94.