The Sacred Unveiled: Part 4, Luisa Roldán

August 21, 2020

By Géranne Darbouze

Luisa Roldán (1652–1706), also known as La Roldana, was an enormously influential woman sculptor of the 17th century, and in considering the topic of landscape in Spanish Mannerist and Baroque Nativity-related scenes, Roldán’s The Repose in Egypt should not be overlooked. A polychrome terracotta sculpture dating from near the end of her career and possibly intended for private devotion, it depicts the Holy Family resting during their flight from King Herod’s Massacre of the Innocents.[1] Like El Greco’s depictions of the nativity, Roldán’s work makes a strong statement. She clearly set out to create a model of what true devotion to faith looks like, representing the scene in instantly accessible terms, focusing on Mary and Joseph’s loving care for and attention to the Christ Child—who is seated on Mary’s lap as on a throne, and who accepts a pomegranate from Joseph’s hand.[2] The angel kneeling at left offers additional fruit, perhaps harvested by the putti in the tree behind.[3] As a Nativity scene, Roldan’s sculpture shares the same general purpose as El Greco’s two depictions of the Adoration of the Shepherds—to aid in worship—but Roldán’s use of color contrasts markedly with El Greco’s, both in her handling of pigment and in how she uses it to prompt viewers to react. Appointed “sculptor in ordinary” by King Philip II in recognition of her detailed and accurate work on a life-sized sculpture of St. Michael crushing the devil (Basilica of San Lorenzo de El Escorial, Spain), Roldán had a knack for creating pieces that moved people through surprisingly lifelike effects.[4]

Luisa Roldán (La Roldana), San Miguel y el diablo, 1692. Polychrome wood, over life-size. Basilica of San Lorenzo de El Escorial, Spain

As a sculptor, Roldán was unable to control the atmosphere surrounding her figures in the way El Greco could in oil on canvas. How did she meet the challenge of placing figures so that their meaning shines through even when they are placed in a location that does not evoke their context? Roldán effectively solves this issue through her masterful use of color. The Repose in Egypt and Adoration of the Shepherds depict two different points in time, but Roldán uses much brighter, more eye-catching colors than El Greco. This is not to say that El Greco’s images are not dynamic, but rather that Roldán’s figures look as if they could step off their pedestal directly into the viewer’s space. Their cheeks, legs, and hands teem with blush-red splotches, and their poses capture everyday movements frozen in time.

Luisa Roldán (La Roldana), The Repose in Egypt, c. 1690. Terracotta, painted, 16 1/8 × 18 1/8 × 12 in. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York (On loan from The Hispanic Society of America, New York)

The putti, the dethroned lapdog, St. Joseph, and even the angel all exude an air of perfect devotion to the Christ Child. Roldán’s sculpture depicts, in essence, these words from Psalm 103: “Praise the Lord, my soul; all my inmost being, praise his holy name.”[5] In centering her scene around the nourishment of the Christ Child and presenting every participant locked in worship even as they interact like human beings, Roldán shows how Christian faith must be nurtured rather than emulated.[6] She shows not only the simplicity of Christian devotion, but also the necessity for it.

Sculpture, unlike painting, has a unique ability to present dramatic scenes as happening in three dimensions, in “real” time and space, but these two major art practices are in fact interdependent. Their relationship is cyclical: Figures inspire paintings, and paintings inspire the creation of even more dynamic sculptural figures. The success of one is dependent on the other. This notion is supported within Spanish artistic tradition, where painters are not only in conversation with sculptors but also often working with them to create their most highly acclaimed and recognizable masterpieces. In addition, many sculptures were touched by the hands of both a gifted sculptor and an equally talented painter who ultimately breathed life into the figures, as in the case of Luisa Roldán.

 

[1]The Repose in Egypt, ca. 1690, Luisa Roldán.” metmuseum.org. Accessed June 20, 2020. https://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/744618.

[2] The pomegranate symbolizes Christ’s death and resurrection through its association with the Greek goddess Proserpina, who was abducted by Hades, king of the Underworld. Having eaten several pomegranate seeds while captive, she was forced to return underground for six months every year. Her reappearance on the earth signaled the end of winter and the start of spring.

[3]The Repose in Egypt, ca. 1690, Luisa Roldán.” metmuseum.org.

[4] Elizabeth Fries Ellet, Women Artists in All Ages and Countries (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1859), 87–88.

[5] Psalm 103:1, New Standard Version.

[6]The Repose in Egypt, ca. 1690, Luisa Roldán.” metmuseum.org.


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.