You can’t manufacture a miracle but some painters can manufacture beautiful visions. Luis de Morales (1509-1586) was one of them. He was born in Extremadura, South West of Spain, and worked for important religious patrons becoming commercially successful in supplying the aristocratic families with a remarkable amount of devotional paintings. Now the MNAC (Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya) is housing a great anthology of his paintings that will be on show until the end of September 2016.
Juan Gris said that the quality of a painter equals the amount of tradition that his work can incorporate. If that is true, then Morales is a painter of remarkable quality. The exquisite Flemish facture and the refined elegance of the Italian models lead a harmonious existence in his paintings. Take for instance The Presentation of Jesus in the Temple. The precise drawing gives a firm and sculptural definition of the volumes, and becomes almost as sensitive as a seismographic needle in the hair of the figures and the folds of their robes. That is very Flemish. There is also a very Flemish interplay between busy and empty areas -the crowded background against the terse surface of the altar. And there is of course the Italian angel; as elegant and gracious as any heavenly creature by Parmigianino or Rosso, but much more modest.
Although Morales was very successful in his lifetime, his art has never attracted much attention in modern times beyond relatively small circle of experts, collectors and art lovers. One of the possible reasons for this is the nature of his color. It is dull and thin; pale more than light and sombre more than deep. It doesn’t live up to the average expectations of the modern viewer. Morales art lacks sensuality and, in a way, is very abstract. This could be a second reason for his faint appeal to modern viewers. And a third one might well be the very motive for the popularity Morales enjoyed during his lifetime: his religious intensity.
Interestingly enough, a number of reviews of this exhibition warn readers against this fact defining Morales as fine painter beyond his religiosity, as if a bleeding Christ or a weeping Mary were too much to bear for a modern day viewer. But late Goya is not great despite its darkness or Michelangelo is less magnificent because of his terribilità. Those are not obstacles but ingredients of their greatness. The problem with Morales, and with so many other Catholic painters, is to assume that we are dealing with a common standard of religiosity; a sort of unshakeable dogma that adheres to the painter’s conscience like a master’s whistle adheres to a dog’s mind. But good painters have powerful imaginations that work not only on the technical or aesthetic level but on every possible level we may discover in a painting.
Morales paintings often show a subtle and very personal elaboration of the Catholic subject-matter. The best example of this is, to my view, the Vir Dolorum, the Suffering Man, a popular Christian subject since late Gothic times. In this subject Christ is depicted alone, sometimes with angels, covered with bruises, surrounded by the instruments of torture and Passion and showing us the wounds of crucifixion. Morales paints a lonely, melancholic Christ lost in his musings. He doesn’t move us to compassion exactly, but to a certain disenchanted state of mind. We find ourselves projecting onto the figure thoughts like “What is the point of going through all this?”, so the effect is more than just sentimental sympathy. Needless to say you don’t need to be a Catholic, a Christian or even a religious person to understand the painting in those terms. In fact, even a pop singer could get it. The only thing needed here is to ever have been lost, hurt, tired or lonely. Then something beautiful may come your way.