Bartolomé Esteban Murillo's "The Virgin of the Napkin" is a captivating masterpiece that captures the divine essence of the Virgin Mary and the Child Jesus. The painting was made in 1666 for the Capuchin Church in Seville. It measures 67 by 72 centimetres and remains one of the most popular depictions of the Virgin Mary. I took my time, sat down on a bench and admired this iconic work of art in the Fine Arts Museum in Seville.
As I looked at this painting, I couldn't help but notice the subtle influence of several artists whom Murillo greatly admired. The bright colours and delicate forms are reminiscent of Raphael, while the ethereal atmosphere subtly hints at Murillo's knowledge of Velázquez and Rubens. What made me curious was the mystical aura surrounding this work of art, which has earned it a place in the annals of art history.
For over 150 years, the "Virgin with the Napkin" adorned the altarpiece of the Capuchin Church. During the War of Independence, the French Marshal Jean de Dieu Soult, an ardent Murillo fan, almost confiscated it. But the clergy recognised the immense value of the painting and in 1810 brought it, together with other works, to Gibraltar, where it was protected from the French army's grasp until the end of the war in 1814.
In 1836, as a result of the government decree confiscating church property under the direction of Minister Mendizábal, the painting became state property and was incorporated into the newly founded Museum of Fine Arts.
The name "The Virgin with the Napkin" derives from a legend that first appeared in O'Neill's "A Dictionary of Spanish Painting" in 1833 There are two variants of this fascinating story.
In the first version, the Capuchin monks discovered the disappearance of a napkin from their possession, which was then mysteriously returned by Murillo himself, decorated with a sketch of the Virgin. The second version tells of a monk of the monastery who asked Murillo for help in creating a personal image of the Virgin and Child for his private devotions. Murillo agreed, but demanded a canvas for the artwork. As the monk had no financial means, he instead provided a simple napkin on which Murillo created this extraordinary masterpiece.
The emotional impact of the painting is undeniable. The Child Jesus seems to yearn to step out of the frame, while the Virgin's gaze connects with the viewer and conveys a deep sense of tenderness and intimacy.
The Baroque era treasured the paintings of the Madonna and Child for their deep emotional and spiritual impact, which came with the fervour of the Counter-Reformation. In the midst of this religious revival, the Catholic Church promoted these works of art to reinforce doctrine and appeal to the faithful. The role of the Virgin Mary as Mother of God and the tender union with the Child Jesus were of great theological significance. These paintings, with their accessibility and emotional resonance, became symbols of the personal devotion, artistic tradition and fervent piety of the era, embodying the essence of the artistic and spiritual heritage of the Baroque.