Painter Found Symbols of God's Truth in Nature

THE MAJORITY of great art museums—most contemporary ones excepted—have beautiful religious paintings in their permanent collections. They don't often devote precious exhibit space to shows with religious themes, though.

This summer, two exquisite exhibits break that pattern. “The Glory of Byzantium” at New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art which just recently closed (see Register, July 27- Aug. 2), and “The Sacred and the Profane: Josefa de Obidos of Portugal” which continues through Sept. 7 at The National Museum of Women in the Arts in Washington, D.C.

Josefa de Obidos (1630-1684) is a heroine of Portuguese culture. A devout Catholic who did much of her work for convents and monasteries, she is hardly known outside her native country. Yet she is considered the most original painter of Portugal's Baroque period, a time when very few European women painted professionally.

The 47 paintings on view at the Women's Museum are fleshly and sumptuous: Baby-doll Infant Jesuses, a flagellated Christ dripping with blood, and the Virgin Mary spraying mother's milk into the mouth of Saint Bernard hang next to paintings of honey-dipped pastry, codfish, and wisteria, bruised pears and seedy melons.

With the first startling image that greets the viewer— a poignant bound lamb titled Agnus Dei—it's clear that for Josefa, nature is just another way to depict God's truth.

So often in the Bible, Christ is described as a lamb or as a shepherd. As we prepare to receive the Eucharist we pray, “Lamb of God, you take away the sins of the world: have mercy on us.”

Josefa's visual translation of the metaphor is breathtaking. Three versions of the image are shown side by side. In one, a suffering white lamb with curly fleece and a faint halo lies on a sacrificial stone slab, its four hooves tied. It's an extremely realistic and moving picture of a lamb close to death.

It's also a poignant symbol of the crucifixion. Rose petals and violets signifying Christ's charity and humility are scattered around the animal. The image is wreathed with a garland of flowers with grapes (Christ's blood) and sheaves of wheat (his body).

Another painting which combines religious figures and natural symbols derived from the Bible is Saint John the Baptist with Border of Flowers. A young John, carrying a small lamb, holds a scepter-like cross inscribed Ecce Agnus Dei—Behold the Lamb of God. The dense wreath encircling him includes a honeycomb with bees and locusts to remind the viewer that as a hermit, John lived on locusts and honey. There are snails, which eat what they can find, like a hermit. There's also a water gourd, used for baptisms, suspended in the garland.

The profusion of flowers are tied with seven ribbons signifying the Holy Spirit's gifts and the fact that St. John was filled with the Holy Spirit at the visitation. Further, each species of flower—tulips, roses, daisies, wisteria, marigolds, irises, violets, forget-me-nots—corresponds to a different virtue which should be cultivated by the soul's “inner garden” according to the mystical literature popular at the time, says Professor Barbara von Barghahn, professor of art history at George Washington University.

“Still lifes are usually interpreted as totally secular works. If you go to most books on Spanish still life painting in the Golden Age there is very little emphasis on the religious content. They are all interpreted in the secular, or profane, light. Still lifes were often displayed in private homes, so art historians have assumed the work has little religious meaning. But this ignores the devout nature of families at the time,” von Barghahn explained.

For her contribution to the Josefa de Obidos exhibition catalogue, Von Barghahn consulted the mystical works of the period, especially the writing of St. John of the Cross and St. Teresa of Avila, both of whom Josefa depicted.

“I went to this literature knowing that Josefa painted for convents and monasteries. She had access to these books and she was an intellectual. St. John of the Cross is not easy. He is talking about faith and darkness. But there are beautiful passages.”

Von Barghahn quotes St. John's interpretation of a passage from the Song of Songs (4, 16) which reads:

“Arise, O north wind, and come, O south wind; blow through my garden, and let the aromatical spices thereof flow.”

In Spiritual Canticle, St. John responds: “The garden in the soul … God sometimes grants these favors to the soul, his bride. He breathes through her flowering garden, opens all these buds of virtues, and uncovers these aromatic spices of gifts, perfections, and riches; and disclosing this interior treasure and wealth, He reveals all her beauty.”

Von Barghahn sees a similar attitude toward nature as a reflection of the soul in Josefa's painting. “I think the still lifes were intended as memory fragments. By memory fragments, you were supposed to be led from the flowers and fruits to thoughts about the vineyard of your soul. The fruit would remind you of Eden, for example, which would cause you to think about the acts of mercy you should perform. The still life would inspire contemplation and a repentant soul.

“There's another message in the paintings of candy and cream and cookies which were worldly pleasures. During Advent and Lent you were not supposed to indulge, so these paintings serve as warnings of temptation.

“Taste and fragrance run through her work,” observed von Barghahn. “It's worldly and biblical too. Think of the number of feeding episodes in the Bible.” In her catalogue essay, she enumerates the banquet narratives in the canonical gospels from the wedding feast at Cana to the supper at the house of Simon to the feeding of the 5,000, all of which anticipate the messianic banquet of the Apocalypse, described as a wedding feast by Matthew.

Von Barghahn also referred to St. Teresa, who declared, according to the professor: “Eden is everywhere. Paradise is everywhere. Isn't that beautiful?”

Josefa de Obidos's religious training began at age 14 in an Augustinian convent. Though she never took vows, she often lived in monasteries and was associated throughout her life with the Franciscan order. She was buried in the brown habit of the Poor Clares.

Many convents during this era supported themselves by making and selling pastries and candies, foods which were supposed to represent the sweetness of Jesus. That's another source of significance for Josefa's still life compositions.

A painting like Still Life: Boxes, Earthenware, and Flowers shows how important is this religious outlook in interpreting the artist's intention. An open wooden box of marzipan, a crystal cup on a silver compote, and a red urn filled with flowers sit on a table littered with candies in a darkened room.

The key to understanding the painting is the crystal cup which signifies Marian chastity and sits near violets symbolizing the virtue of humility. The red urn stands for Christ's blood, and the stem of red wisteria, extending over the cup, represents the spiritual refinement achieved through chastity and acts of mercy in contrast to the earthly sweets on the table which do not lead to enlightenment.

Josefa was remarkable for her independence as well as her painting. She was a landlord who became wealthy managing property, which allowed her to support her mother and other family members. She was well-educated in Flemish, Italian, and Spanish artistic trends, probably through her father, Baltazar Gomes Figueira, a gifted painter in his own right, and through her godfather, Sevillian painter Francisco de Herrera the Elder.

Most important, she offers viewers entry into a world of extraordinary sophistication and belief, a world animated in every aspect by faith. “Josefa uses a universal language—understood by the people of her time—that has been lost. Her paintings are needed for a non-spiritual age,” concluded von Barghahn, who is Catholic.

The Portuguese government recognized the importance of von Barghahn's work on Portuguese art by conferring on her the Order of Prince Henry the Navigator. But it's a puzzle why the National Museum of Women in the Arts, working closely with the government of Portugal, titled the exhibit “The Sacred and the Profane” when the central, ground-breaking, revelation made by the exhibit-related scholarship is that all of Josefa de Obidos's complex iconography ultimately refers to her Catholic faith.

“I just don't know,” answered von Barghahn. “But they certainly picked the title before I came on board.”

Eleanor Kennelly and Victor Gaetan are based in Washington, D.C.