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What secrets about the young virgin Mary revealed by a medieval artist:” the Boyhood of our lady ” by Surbaran

“The boyhood of the mother of God” is a painting by Francisco de Surbaran from 1658-1660, now in the Hermitage in Saint Petersburg. An ordinary Spanish girl is actually a prototype of the young mother of God. And the prototype of the portrait was the artist’s daughter.

About the artist
Francisco de Surbaran (baptised 7 November 1598-27 August 1664) was a Spanish artist known for his religious paintings of monks, nuns and martyrs, as well as still lifes. Surbaran earned the nickname “Spanish Caravaggio” due to the powerful and realistic use of chiaroscuro. This is a unique artist, deeply original, whose work is connected with all the roots of Spain. The artist’s literary tastes were formed under the influence of Spanish medieval art, paintings and engravings of old masters. Surbaran’s paintings are usually monumental, measured by the compositional rhythm and sonority of color. Describing biblical subjects on his canvases, Surbaran strives to be authentic and irresistible, and draws inspiration from life itself.

He first realized his reputation as an artist by completing a large Commission from the Abbot of the Dominican monastery of San Pablo El real in Seville. On January 17, 1626, Surbaran signed a contract with him, agreeing to create 21 paintings within 8 months. Fourteen of them depicted the life of Saint Dominic, while others represented Saint Bonaventure, Saint Thomas Aquinas, Saint Dominic, and four clerks of the Church. This order was preceded by other significant works of the artist. On August 29, 1628, the murcedarians of Seville commissioned Surbaran to create 22 more paintings for their monastery. In 1629, the elders of Seville invited Surbaran to permanently move to the city: the artist’s paintings became very famous and, with their invitation, the residents wanted to popularize their city. He accepted the invitation and moved to Seville with his wife, Beatriz de Morales, three children from his first marriage, and eight servants.

By 1630, Surbaran was appointed artist to Philip IV. An interesting story has been preserved: once the king put his hand on the artist’s shoulder, saying: “the Painter to the king, the king of painters”.
One of the most significant religious works of Surbaran is the painting “the Boyhood of the mother of God”.
“The Boyhood Of Our Lady»
The Hermitage’s “Boyhood of the mother of God” (“Boyhood of the Madonna”) dates from the late 1650s to the 1660s. This is the late period of the artist’s work. Chief curator of Department of painting of the Louvre, Jeanine Baticle suggested that the model for the virgin Mary was the daughter of Manuel Zurbaran.

The viewer sees in the picture a girl sitting on a wooden chair in the process of prayer. Her childish round face with wide-open and unusually deep eyes fascinates and mesmerizes all who look at her. Undoubtedly, the heroine’s eyes are the main focus of the picture. They are not childishly serious and exceptionally spiritual. The silhouette of the girl fits perfectly into the format of the picture, the composition is clearly verified, the draperies of clothing are carefully worked out, and accessories are kept to a minimum. The girl is dressed in a red dress, with a green pillow and a white handkerchief on her lap. The heroine’s hair is neatly arranged, and her cheeks are covered with a slight blush. This face is very smooth, delicate and neat. The girl’s thin white hands are folded in a prayer gesture. The wrist and neck of the dress is decorated with a Golden jewelry ornament. A master of monumental forms, Surbaran brilliantly processed the details. At first glance, this is a really cute Spanish girl. But there is something unearthly, magical about it. The touching meekness with which she fixed her gaze on the sky, and the face illuminated by the light, speak of her being chosen and submissive to the upcoming trials. Light plays a really dominant role here: the sparks in the eyes, the face illuminated by light, and the depicted halo around the girl’s head (a subtle and gentle glow) are important. All these rays of divine light point to the girl, they suggest that she is the chosen one among other virgins.

The plot in the picture, also known as” the Youth of Mary”, is taken by the artist not from the gospel, but borrowed from the apocryphal” proto-Gospel of James “(Chapter X) and” the gospel of Pseudo-Matthew ” (Chapter VI).
Mary was the object of wonder to all the people. When she was three years old, she walked sedately and gave herself up so completely to the praise of the Lord that everyone was amazed and admired. She did not look like a baby, but seemed to be grown up and full of years, with such diligence and constancy she offered prayers. Her face shone like snow, and it was hard to look at it. She worked diligently at needlework on wool, and everything that adult women could not do, She showed them, being still at such a tender age. She made it a rule to devote herself to prayer from morning to three o’clock, and to do manual work from three o’clock to nine (the gospel of Pseudo-Matthew. Chapter VI.)

The image of the mother of God in adolescence turned out to be truly pure, innocent. Interestingly, in 1985, the Ministry of communications of the USSR issued a postage stamp with a reproduction of this picture, the nominal value of the stamp — 4 kopecks (No 5597 in the CFA catalog).

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