The cover of the month

Holiness of Everyday Life by Pierre-Marie Dumont

This Holy Family in the Workshop of Nazareth was painted by Juan del Castillo (c. 1590–c. 1658) for the main altarpiece of the church of the Dominican convent of Monte Sion in Seville, Spain. The altarpiece was destroyed in 1936 when anti-clerical activists razed the church. Some works of art were saved from the vandalism, including this one, now on display in the collection of Seville’s Museum of Fine Art.

Juan del Castillo, a modest Seville painter of Spain’s “Golden Age” (c. 1550–c. 1680), was a supporting artist to the renowned masters of the time. He principally devoted himself to the creation of dozens of small works that adorned the prodigious thematic altarpieces typical of the Andalusian baroque. He was very close to Alonso Cano (1601–1667), for whom he stood bail when Cano was imprisoned on suspicion of his wife’s murder. He probably also worked with Zurbarán (1598–1664).

The art of Juan del Castillo is fairly unremarkable, especially with respect to the quality of the draughtsmanship. However, rather than comparing it to the work of the great masters, we do better to consider what lends it its charm: his deliberately naïve style. Highly original and thoroughly charming, his naturalistic approach adds a very personal touch to his work. It was in this vein that Juan del Castillo created a whole series of realistic and engaging popular scenes. Assimilated and reworked, these models would eventually characterize the Seville school, especially when raised to the summit of artistic expression through the genius of Murillo (1617–1682). There is nothing surprising in this, since the orphaned Murillo had been placed as a boarder-apprentice in the workshop of Juan del Castillo in 1633, where he remained for perhaps five years and very probably worked on the Monte Sion altarpiece itself.

In the baroque style, the retable placed behind the altar was designed as the point of fusion between human and sacred history, the eschatological meeting place of the human with the divine. To best achieve its catechetical aim, the reading and interpretation of the altarpiece had to be as explicit as possible, as a whole as well as in each of its details, of its episodes, so to speak. Here, the Holy Family busies itself in the workshop of Nazareth. The message is clear: man finds his prime redemption through work, a true evangelical preparation which remains ever indispensable, as attested by the one sole Redeemer who did not disdain applying himself to it. This message engaged in a polemic very topical at the time, which denounced the “deleterious idleness” of some consecrated religious life. Thus we find Joseph, Mary, and Jesus laboring with their hands to accomplish their works.

The second message is equally clear: the Son of God did not seek to avoid the mission of education and human formation incumbent upon his parents. This stresses the unique importance for parents to fulfill that mission to the best of their abilities and, for children, to submit to it as gracefully as they can. It is in his role as true man, and here as true child, and in his interaction with all that constitutes human life, that Jesus, from birth to death, is the Redeemer. These clear messages do not exclude others, more symbolic, requiring perhaps a bit more decoding. For example, is that not a cross Joseph is teaching Jesus to construct? And is that not a white linen shroud that Mary stitches?

Front cover: The Holy Family in the Nazareth Workshop (c. 1634–1636), Juan del Castillo (c. 1590–c. 1658), Museum of Fine Arts, Seville, Spain. © Leonard de Selva / Bridgeman Images.