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Saint Basil Dictating His Doctrine

© 1989 RMN / Droits réservés

Paintings
Spanish painting

Author(s):
De Vergnette François

Inspired by the Holy Spirit, Saint Basil, the father of the Eastern Church, writes his monastic rules. He is surrounded by the men who founded the Catholic Church's main monastic orders, including Saint Augustine, Saint Benedict, and Saint Francis of Assisi. All of them turn towards Saint Basil to demonstrate the preeminence of his order and rules over theirs. This powerfully naturalistic painting is a masterpiece by Herrera the Elder, who was active in Seville during Spain's Golden Age.

Saint Basil inspires the founders of the Western orders

Saint Basil (330-379) is seated in the center of the painting. He is wearing a monk's habit covered with the white pallium with black crosses of the Eastern Christian Church, of which he is one of the Fathers, and a bishop's miter, symbolizing his dignity as bishop of Caesarea. Under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, symbolized by the dove above his head, he is writing his monastic rules (crica 360). Saint Basil is surrounded by the founders of the Western monastic orders, whom he influenced. Some gaze at him intensely, holding a pen or a book. Most wrote rules for their monastic orders that owe much to Saint Basil. Dressed as a bishop, Saint Augustine, who founded the monastic communities in North Africa, is standing to Saint Basil's left. Wearing a habit with a cowl, Saint Benedict of Nursia, who founded the Benedictine order, is on the painting's right. In staggered rows behind these three saints are, from left to right: Saint Francis of Assisi, founder of the Friars Minor; Saint Bernard, founder of the Cistercians; Saint Dominic, founder of the Preaching Friars; and Saint Berthold, who brought the Carmelites to Europe. Saint Peter Nolasco and Saint John of Matha, who founded other orders, are in the foreground. The saints are gathered beneath an open sky with lofty clouds in the background.

A Sevillian painter of the Golden Age

In 1638, the ecclesiastics of the collegiate church of San Basilio in Seville commissioned Herrera the Elder to paint this picture, which topped an altarpiece for which the artist also painted nine other works. The subject of Saint Basil dictating his rule is rare, but in 1597, Pope Clement VIII recalled the preeminence of Saint Basil's order over the other monastic orders. In the first half of the seventeenth century Herrera was one of Seville's most prominent artists. He was involved in decorating many of the city's churches and monasteries, including the Franciscan collegiate church of Saint Bonaventure, with Francisco de Zurbarán. Herrera's work reflects his fiery, hot-headed temperament. When this painting entered the Louvre in 1858, critics cited it as an example of Spanish obscurantism.

Naturalism unlike that of Caravaggio

Saint Basil Dictating His Rule is one of Herrera's masterpieces. He adapted to the painting's high position by giving it an easy-to-read pyramidal composition and making Saint Basil a very monumental figure. The work is characteristic of Herrera's powerful realism. The monks have realistic faces with dark, penetrating, and expressive eyes. The modeling of the figures is sharp, the painter's stroke wide and vigorous. But Herrera's naturalism owes nothing to Caravaggio, unlike that of his contemporaries Zurbarán and Ribera. It features none of the tenebrism that dominated the period. Instead, the work is painted in beautiful, harmonious brown tones.

Bibliography

Gerard Powell Véronique, in Écoles espagnole et portugaise, catalogue du département des Peintures du musée du Louvre, Paris, Éditions de la Réunion des musées nationaux, 2002, pp. 174-178.

Technical description

  • Francisco de HERRERA THE ELDER (Seville, c. 1585 - Madrid, 1654)

    Saint Basil Dictating His Doctrine

    1637

  • H. 2.43 m; W. 1.94 m

  • Acquired in 1858 , 1922

    M.I. 206

  • Paintings

    Denon wing
    1st floor
    Murillo
    Room 718

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