On the left of this busy composition St Raymond Nonnatus is depicted on his knees in front of his deathbed. He is supported by two angels holding a communion cloth ready for him to receive the viaticum (or last communion) from the hands of St Peter Nolasco. A number of angels and Mercedarian brethren line the processional route, their turned heads establishing a strong diagonal line towards the upper right-hand corner of the canvas, where Nolasco is standing, illuminated by two taper-bearing angels. Nolasco is dressed in liturgical vestments, having just celebrated mass in order to bring his dying colleague the sacrament.
This painting formed part of a group of six canvases that Pacheco produced from 1600 onwards illustrating the life of St Peter Nolasco to decorate the main cloister of the newly rebuilt Mercedarian Convent in Seville (the building that today houses its main art museum, the Museo de Bellas Artes). The Mercedarian Order had been founded by Nolasco in 1230 with the explicit mission of raising funds to ransom Christians taken captive by the Islamic populations of Spain and North Africa. By the beginning of the seventeenth century, it had begun to press the case for the canonization of its founding members, including Peter Nolasco and Raymond Nonnatus. The latter, whose name means literally ‘not born’ because of his caesarean birth, had been appointed by Nolasco as the second Superior of the Order. Along with the efforts in Rome to secure these canonizations, leading artists were commissioned to produce a visual hagiography of the Order, with Nolasco finally being declared a saint in 1628, and Nonnatus, in 1657.
In the first decades of the seventeenth century Francisco Pacheco played a leading role in the arts of Seville. In addition to his work as a painter and producer of polychrome sculpture, he was also an art theorist and teacher. He was involved in the decorative schemes for various religious houses in Seville and would have been a natural choice for the large Mercedarian Convent. Although it could be argued that the lack of clarity in the image created by the numerous figures—who are all seemingly glancing in different directions—shows that Pacheco struggled with large narrative compositions, he handled the distinctive white, flowing robes of the Mercedarian friars with skill, an achievement that would not have been lost on his patrons.
Pacheco’s canvases remained in the Mercedarian Convent until their removal during the Napoleonic wars. Two are now lost and this canvas only reappeared in 1965 when it was gifted to The Bowes Museum, albeit in a very poor state with large areas of missing paint. During its subsequent conservation, the decision was taken to restore its legibility but to leave visible the deterioration it has suffered during its troubled life.
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The Last Communion of Saint Raymond Nonnatus.
Francisco Pacheco (Sanlúcar de Barrameda, 1564 – Seville, 1644).
Medium and Support
Oil on canvas.
203.8 x 248.9 cm.
Marks and Inscriptions
Signed lower right, ‘F,,,CVS PACIECUS 1611’.
Donated by Surgeon Captain W. G. Thwaytes of Penrith in memory of Tony Ellis, 1964.
The Bowes Museum, Barnard Castle, B.M.69.
Eric Young, Catalogue of Spanish Paintings in the Bowes Museum, 2nd ed. (Middlesborough: The Bowes Museum, 1988), pp. 116–19;
Bruce Taylor, Structures of Reform: The Mercedarian Order in the Spanish Golden Age, Cultures, Beliefs and Traditions: Medieval and Early Modern Peoples, 12 (Leiden: Brill, 2000);
Véronique Gerard Powell, ‘Spanish Paintings in the Bowes Museum’, in Spanish Art in County Durham, ed. Clare Baron & Andy Beresford (Bishop Auckland: Auckland Castle Trust, The Bowes Museum, & Durham University, 2014), p. 73;
Mercedes Cerón, ‘The Last Communion of Saint Peter Nolasco’, https://vads.ac.uk/digital/collection/NIRP/id/27108/rec/1 [accessed: 18.07.22].