The Sacred Unveiled: Part 3, Juan de Valdés Leal
August 21, 2020
By Géranne Darbouze
In considering the notion of the ideal nobleman in the context of Baroque Spain, we must attend to the work of painter Juan de Valdés Leal, who was a primary influence on the religious experiences of visitors not only to the hospital and chapel of Santa Caridad in Seville, but to the city in general. A well-known painter of religious history, Valdés Leal produced several images for Santa Caridad (“Holy Charity”). To create visually stimulating and emotionally moving works, he carefully calibrated his haunting religious imagery to spark strong emotional responses in his viewers, responses that motivated them to act. Such images include his two large paintings located inside the entrance to Santa Caridad, Allegory of Death and Gloriae Finis Mundi, which were commissioned by the chapel’s lay confraternity. These works center on dark, dramatic, haunting skeletons that urge viewers to rethink their position on Earth, in contrast with the more common Spanish tendency to focus on life after death. More specifically, these paintings encourage visitors to meditate upon the virtues of Faith and Charity. Worshippers are not expected to arrive with clear minds and hearts, ready to focus on this task. Instead, Valdés Leal’s imagery leads them forcefully in this direction. His compositions remind viewers that death is not only imminent but also final for each one of us—realigning our minds to the importance of charitable acts.
Founded to support La Caridad’s mission of providing services to the poor, the lay confraternity was a membership organization that also functioned as a social delineator for Catholic noblemen. As such, it promoted a new ideal of social distinction, in which heroic acts of charity served as a sign of nobility. These acts of charity—also referred to as corporal works of mercy—included feeding the hungry, burying the dead, clothing the naked, visiting the imprisoned, sheltering the homeless, giving drink to the thirsty, and caring for the sick. Such acts were to be achieved in life in order to secure peace in the divine afterlife.
In Valdés Leal’s Gloriae Finis Mundi (“end of the world’s glory”), viewers are reminded of the inverse relationship between these acts and material prosperity. At the top center, the outstretched, nail-pierced hand of Christ descends from heaven, holding a balance scale. The scale’s pan at the left, inscribed ni mas (“nothing more”) is piled up with worldly goods, which may lead to perdition. Inscribed ni menos (“nothing less”), the pan at the right holds instruments of religious devotion, including a crucifix and a prayer book, that point the faithful toward salvation. In the register below the scales is a pile of skulls alongside a full skeleton. Spotlit at the bottom, lying in repose in their crypt, are, at the left, a fully decked-out bishop, and at the right, a knight—who further urge the audience to act nobly in life. With the two figures sporting different regalia, the clear message is that death is equally final for everyone.
Allegory of Death presents a similarly haunting image. With one skeletal foot perched on a globe and the other entrenched in a bounty of unclaimed treasures that include a papal tiara and a royal crown, Death looks out at us with scythe and casket in tow. This work reminds us once again that death is imminent for all, and that the material treasures of our lives will simply be left behind to be picked through by others. By extension, the image urges viewers to focus on the quality of our current lives and actions. Inscribed in Latin at the center of this image is the phrase in ictu oculi (“in the blink of an eye”), a reminder to be ever ready and ever present as a Christian and a Samaritan. In contrast with the images by El Greco I discussed in my first blog post in this series, Valdés Leal’s works paint a picture that asserts confidence in one’s own life choices, within clear moral guidelines. Yet they are just as powerful as El Greco’s in conveying a message of religious freedom.
With their haunting qualities, Valdés Leal’s paintings within Santa Caridad may be construed as threatening rather than freeing; I believe that within their context, however, they can also be seen as inspirational. When it comes to Valdés Leal’s imagery, not much is left to the imagination, yet much is left unsaid about freedom of choice in relation to the charitable acts that his paintings promote. While the instructions are straightforward, it is not difficult to see how haunting imagery inspires an individual to press further and create a deeper connection with God through acts of service to the community. Thus, the religious freedom implied in Valdés Leal’s work motivates viewers quite differently than El Greco’s. While El Greco inspires a personal reading of the Catholic faith as a whole, Valdés Leal promotes a personal reading of an integral aspect of Catholicism, which is equally as liberating for believers who may enjoy being led but who also want to feel a sense of independence on their religious journey.
 Amanda Jaye Wunder. Baroque Seville: Sacred Art in a Century of Crisis. (University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2017), 99–101.
Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 4 | Part 5
Géranne Darbouze is an undergraduate intern at the Grey Art Gallery who is majoring in Film and Television Production and minoring in Art History and Religious Studies. She expects to receive her BFA in January 2021.