St Ildephonsus was born in 607 in Toledo, which at the time was part of the Visigothic Kingdom of Hispania. Elected Bishop of Toledo in 657, he was famed for his devotion to Mary. His most famous literary work, The Perpetual Virginity of Holy Mary, promoted the doctrine of her virginity. Following this, it is said that in 665 Ildephonsus had a vision of Mary stepping down from the Bishop’s throne in Toledo Cathedral and presenting him with a chasuble. She is believed to have told Ildephonsus that the priestly vestment belonged to her son and was to be worn only when he was celebrating mass during Marian festivals. The place where Mary supposedly stood is still venerated, and as a result of the event the building was declared the ‘Primatial Cathedral’ in 1088, making it the very centre of Catholicism in Spain.
In Cabezalero’s depiction of the scene Ildephonsus appears in the dress of a seventeenth-century bishop kneeling before the Virgin. He holds the hem of the chasuble in his hands, as if he is about to kiss the fabric being placed over his head. The large frame of the Virgin dominates the centre of the canvas. She is caught in the action of moving down the steps from the wooden throne, the weight of the chasuble borne by her right forearm as her left hand guides the precious silk towards the head of the kneeling saint. Mary’s gleaming face and translucent halo appear to be the main source of light. The sense of movement in the image is accentuated by the strong diagonal line created by Ildephonsus’s crouching posture in the bottom left corner, Mary’s outstretched arms, and the group of saints and angels gathered behind the throne in the top right-hand corner. A further flourish is added by the cherub descending with a crown of roses. The figures around Mary are difficult to distinguish, in part because they look remarkably alike and were possibly reproduced from the same life model.
Relatively little is known of Cabezalero’s life or works. His earliest biographer, Antonio Palomino (1655–1726), affirms that he was born in Almadén, close to the province of Córdoba and that following a career spent mainly as a court painter in Madrid he died ‘in the flower of his life’ before the age of 40. He is described as a ‘studious’ painter and a ‘modest man’, having learnt the art of painting from Juan Carreño de Miranda (1614–85). Palomino also lists a number of his works, among them a square painting for the Church of San Nicolás in Madrid of Saint Ildephonsus receiving the chasuble, which is thought to be lost. While the Spanish Gallery painting is not square, the fact that many of the figures appear to continue outside the visible picture frame might suggest that it was altered at some point in its history.
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Saint Ildephonsus Receiving the Chasuble from the Virgin Mary.
Juan Martín Cabezalero (Almadén, Ciudad Real, c. 1634 – Madrid, 1673).
Medium and Support
Oil on canvas.
188 x 132 cm.
Marks and Inscriptions
The Spanish Gallery, Bishop Auckland.
Antonio Palomino de Castro y Velasco, Lives of the Eminent Spanish Painters and Sculptors, trans. Nina Ayala Mallory (Cambridge: University Press, 1987), pp. 222–23;
Jonathan Ruffer, Adam Lowe, & Charlotte Skene Catling, The Spanish Gallery: A Guide to the Works of Art (Bishop Auckland: The Spanish Gallery, 2021), pp. 40–41;
Rafael Gil Bautista, Juan Martín Cabezalero (1645–1673): un pintor barroco de Almadén para la villa y corte (Puertollano: Ediciones Puertollano, 2018).