A Defence of Catholicism, A Defence by Catholicism

Posted by Stuart Lindsay on August 17, 2009 in Blog tagged with

 A Defence of Catholicism, A Defence by Catholicism: The Discovery of Spain by British Artists at the National Gallery of Scotland

British art often arises from beyond its own boundaries, frequently through its encounters with Catholic Spain. Simultaneously savage, seductive, and often at war, Spain has throughout the eighteenth, nineteenth and twentieth centuries, provided Britain with inspiration through its turbulent history and tumultuous landscape. From Byron’s Childe Harold to George Orwell’s own encounters during the Civil War, this war-torn nation is for British travelers to be romanticized and analyzed, a place through which depictions of human abuse, grief and suffering emerge.

As the exhibition in the National Gallery highlighted, there is an arguable fakery at the heart of British perspectives upon Spain: the traveler, by his very nature, stages the scene with an outsider’s sight, unable to cross the mystical boundary of nationalist struggle to partake in Spanish effort and exhaustion in the face of terrible atrocity. However, this boundary was perhaps first created by Spain itself. Through the Gothic grotesquery of Goya, Spanish art advertised the nation as a place of intense emotion and passion, a pilgrim’s paradise. For Romantics, reporters and would-be revolutionaries, this imagery attracted them to visit Spain, building up expectations which would inform their own insights and then find their ways into each own work. It is also no surprise, then, that Goya has today done the hard-selling for both the exhibition and for Gothic scholars interested in the ambivalent interactions between two nations that are normally ideologically opposed.

 While his stand-out works such as ‘Saturn Devouring His Sons’ provide the violent extremities of Spain, it is his more nuanced work that highlights the light and shade of Anglo-Spanish relations in the early nineteenth century. Goya’s sympathetic portrait of the Duke of Wellington, shown wearing full dress uniform adorned with both Spain’s Peninsular Medal and the Order of the Golden Fleece, is one of humane character. Here, the British adventurer, hero even, is dressed up in Spanish garb.

This notion of pose and performance is taken up by British artists all throughout the eighteenth century exploration of foreign lands, and brings about further interpretations upon the theme. Like Childe Harold, or indeed Byron himself, it was not unlike these military figures to be depicted wearing Spanish or Oriental garb in British portraiture. With compassionate expression and at one with the rugged landscape that they found themselves against, these romanticized figures de-militarized Britain’s imperial relationship with other nations, bridging the gap by adapting to, rather than conquering, their cultural and geographical signs of national identity and heritage. On a more picturesque scale, the Spanish fantasy of the reflected British imagination moves inwards to the domestic scene. Sir John Everett Millais, in his Souvenir of Velázquez, claims a British absorbsion of Spanish Royalist and even Catholic values, suggesting something on par with Velázquez’ own court paintings of Philip IV and his family.

 In Souvenir of Velázquez, Sir John Everett Millais beautifully balances an almost contradictory sight: the Anglican infanta. Her hair is rendered in the manner of the court contemporary to Velázquez, and the orange in her grasp perhaps references his Seville period of the time. Also, Millais employs the technique made famous by Velázquez: chiaroscuro, the art of lighting a scene from an angled source as if in theatre. Throughout this movement, the Spanish identities of Catholicism are rendered sympathetically by British brushes, an act at odds with the work of contemporary Gothic novelists.

Rather than portray Spain as the often-typically tyrannical and paranoiac fortress of Catholicism, British landscape and figure artists see it as a nation split open in honest grief and held together by determined heroism. Catholicism comes to the fore in Spain’s defence against the Napoleonic French during the Peninsular War, as Sir David Wilkie’s The Siege of Saragossa depicts.

While still romanticised, the Catholic fortress or Capuchin is no longer a closed stronghold. Here, the priest’s cross, that symbol of Catholic Christ, guides the cannon fire to its rightful target in an act of defence. Like the religion, it is transformed from a symbol seen by Britain as oppressive and fearful, to one of honour and heroism. In his series of Saragossa, Wilkie depicts Catholicism as aiding the war effort in each of its stages: before the guerrillero rides out on his horse, a priest offers him a cigar, and when he returns exhausted from battle, he supports him and tends to his wounds.

 Whilst the figures of Catholic Spain play a subsidiary role in the war, they are portrayed by British artists as brave and selfless, full of national pride. Perhaps they populate and contribute to a Spain no less of a British fantasy than that found in Matthew Lewis’ Gothic horror novel The Monk, yet they offer a counterbalance to the Gothic to reveal the complex political, military and social relationship that Britain has with Spain and Spanish culture.

By Stuart Lindsay

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