Revered in his day, Bartolomé Esteban Murillo was regarded as a national treasure in Spain during the 17th century. His works suited the tastes of the wealthy aristocrats who adorned their palace walls with themes of pious saints, cherubim, and stories from the Bible in rich baroque fashion. He also painted common folk, particularly impoverished street children and orphans. The plague, wars, and economic turmoil hit Spain in his lifetime, nearly halving the population in his hometown of Seville. He opened his studio and heart to the many suffering children. Many of whom can be seen in his paintings, posing for him.
It was unusual in his day for a renowned and respected painter to paint figures from a lower class. In the paintings of the poor children, there was an unspoken plea for compassion. Nearly all of the figures in Murillo’s paintings were rendered with sweetness and benevolence, perhaps as an antidote, or escape from the immense suffering and poverty Spain, and Seville had endured.
In the 15th and 16th centuries prior, the Spanish were obsessed with wealth and gold from the newly discovered exotic Incan, Mayan, and Aztec empires in the far corner of the world. After the Reconquista and the unification of Spain, Spaniards were left to relish in their ill-gotten power, expanding and establishing trade routes across the world.
The 17th century humbled Spain however. The War of Spanish Succession weakened the once mighty Spanish Armada, the Great Plague of Seville decimated Spain’s population. Earthquakes in 1644 and 1658 near Gibraltar nearly destroyed Spain’s southern ports. During the times of hardship, with worldly aspirations unachievable, people looked to faith, the spirit, and Murillo’s paintings for answers and comfort. He gave them illustrations of charity, hope, and spiritual wisdom.
Murillo’s paintings fell out of fashion once Spain prospered again, preferring the secular style of his contemporary, Diego Velázquez, who now stands as the pinnacle example of the Spanish contribution to fine art. Bartolomé Esteban Murillo fell out of fashion, even to be derided as simple and sentimental in our modern era. However, his quiet legacy as a humble, generous, and spiritual man can surely be an inspiration to many in our own uncertain times.