Photo credit: The Henry Barber Trust, The Barber Institute of Fine Arts, University of Birmingham
Murillo’s painting 'The Marriage Feast at Cana', made in Seville in about 1672, is among the largest and most successful of his private commissions. It represents the occasion of Christ's first miracle, when he turned water into wine. Murillo fills the canvas with over twenty figures, who are mostly white European in appearance, apart from the young boy towards the right, who is shown to be African or Afro-Hispanic. Paintings of Black figures, and of the Biblical story of the Marriage Feast of Cana, were rare in 17th-century Spanish painting. There is very little literature on these subjects, and specifically about the Black boy included in this work, so we would like to find out more and encourage discussions.
The picture was made for Nicolás Omazur (c.1630–1698), a Flemish silk merchant and picture collector resident in Seville since at least 1669. He was the most important private patron of Murillo, owning 31 paintings by him. The rich silk cloth embroidered with birds in an oriental pattern may allude to his profession. It has also been suggested (such as by Duncan Kinkead), although not universally accepted by scholars, that the work was made to celebrate Omazur's wedding, and that he and his wife are depicted as the new bride and groom at the centre of the table.
There are also references to 17th-century Sevillian culture and society, such as the stoneware pots and the people positioned beside them. The three older men in loose tunics may be servants, while the Black boy is likely to have been enslaved. There is a marked difference in their dress supporting this idea, because enslaved people were often dressed in lavish clothing to reflect the wealth of those that enslaved them, while servants were left to dress themselves. Seville’s community of enslaved people was the largest of the Spanish kingdoms. By the 1700s Seville had the highest concentration of enslaved, and freed, Africans and Afro-Hispanics registered in Spain.
We would be grateful to learn if baptism is referenced in Biblical scenes, especially those depicting the Marriage at Cana, in other paintings of this period. Also, are there other relevant works that depict identified Black enslaved people modelling for figures in Biblical paintings of this period? If so, what are the perceived functions and meanings of this?
Here is a link to the Prado's 1672 portrait of Nicolas Omazur by Murillo:
Does his face compare with that of the sitter in the painting?
Oddly, the Prado's record suggests that Omazur was born in 1609, where most other sources state that it was in c.1630, and some as late as 1641.
Attached are some details of the Gent/Ghent family of Omazur's wife, Isabelle Maelcamp, who was born on the 1st December 1647, and whom he married in Seville*. If she is featured in the painting, and her wedding took place in 1672, she would have been 25 years old when this work was created by Murillo.
Nicolas, depending on the accuracy of dates for his birthday, would have been anywhere between 31 (if born in 1641) and 42 (if born in 1630). More unlikely, according to the Prado's dates he would have been 63 (if born in 1609) in 1672. Perhaps 1609 was the year in which his father, also Nicolas, was born.
As an interesting footnote, taken from the 1848 "Le Nobiliaire de Gand", Isabelle's cousin, Jean-Baptiste Maelcamp, who had established himself in Spain, is listed as having married Doña Ignacia Omazur in Seville:
And as an observation, the wedding cake looks decidedly European or Belgian as opposed to Middle Eastern, and could grace the glass counter shelves of many an expensive pâtisserie.
Finally, here is a link to the existence of an interesting talk entitled "Black African Spain in the Time of Murillo", which was delivered in 2017 by Luis Méndez Rodríguez, Associate Professor of History of Art at the University of Seville. If contact was made with him, he might be more suitably placed than anyone else to answer some of the Barber's questions on this topic.
*Several Belgian genealogies from the 1860s and 1870s state that Nicolas and Isabelle was married in Sicily, not Seville, but this might be an error carried over from the earlier 1848 "Le Nobiliaire de Gand" entry.
every one in the picture is looking at someone else. However the boys gaze is not quite on anyone. It is out of the picture to something unseen. I doubt this is accidental.
I rather like the thought that the black slave is wearing his Lord's livery -- the colour of wine and of blood. (Cp, in Messianic / prophetic terms, Isaiah 63. 1-2)
He also stands out as the most colourfully clad person in the picture. Is this just a device to create distance in the picture or does the orange have significance? He could be looking at the other orange clad water carrier?
The kingdom of heaven, a new order, breaks in on and judges the kingdoms of this world... by making servanthood the new normative.
Early modern Spaniards were tuned in to this. Think of the Caballero de Gracia's 'esclavos del Santísimo Sacramento'.
Painters were expected to know their stuff as far as content was concerned. It's not that paintings had simple keys to their interpretation; they were meant to encourage meditation. And here we have, I think, a good case of it. As in the gospel, the importance of the slaves' role in obedience to the Master is foregrounded, whilst making no *overt* political-social point about it.
The depiction of black servants/slaves in European paintings of the Marriage Feast at Cana from the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries is not so rare, as can be seen from the attached selection. Whether there are many instances of Spanish artists including them in similar works on Biblical themes is, surely, the stuff of an MA or a Doctoral thesis.
More examples are attached.
Though rare in court paintings in Madrid figures of Afro-Hispanic origins are more frequent in Seville School painting e.g Murillo's’s '3 Boys' at the Dulwich Picture Gallery where the black figure plays a prominent part in the narrative of racial friction; + Velazquez's 'Kitchen Maid with Supper at Emmaus' (National Gallery of Ireland, Dublin no.4538) in which Afro-Hispanic female listens in to Christ’s conversation; + a townscape by an unknown artist 'View of the Alameda of Hercules, Seville' of about 1650 (Abelló collection, Madrid), which shows in the foreground a brawl between a black man a white man being watched by a black boy in livery. The recent publication (OUP, 2019) 'Black but Human. Slavery and Visual Art in Hapsburg Spain 1480-1700' by Prof. Carmen Fracchia of Birkbeck College, London, focuses on the image of the enslaved and freed black figure in Hapsburg Spain & has a whole chapter devoted to Velazquez’s freed slave who became an artist in his own right, Juan de Pareja. See also Fracchia’s online essay https://eprints.bbk.ac.uk/id/eprint/16051/1/16051.pdf. She has also has incorporated Luis Méndez Rodríguez’s research. The percentage of Sev’le's population that was North African, West African or of Afro-Hispanic heritage was about 20%, a higher percentage than some British cities of equivalent size to Seville nowadas. Legal documents about Murillo’s life and career published by Pablo Hereza in 2017 show that Murillo and his wife owned both white and black slaves, some of whom when freed returned to the household as domestic servants. Another of Murillo’s Afro-Hispanic slaves, Granada-born Sebastián Gómez (1646-82) called ‘El Mulatto’ was 1 of Murillo’s studio assistants, before he was freed by Murillo and became an artist in his own right.
If the bride & groom are meant to represent Omazur & his Flemish wife known in Spanish as Isabel Malcampo, then Murillo has idealised their features and in particular slimmed Omazur’s face compared to the portraits Murillo painted of them also in 1672 (Omazur Prado no.P03060 + his wife, private coll. Scotland). See also Keiran's posting above.
Black slaves and servants were associated with the delivery around Seville of fresh water an important part of the Wedding at Cana narrative. The first half of the 17th-century saw the Archbishop of Seville mount a concerted campaign of converting and baptising African and Islamic slaves. Some of these converted slaves, once baptised, were then freed. From the early 16th century onwards the converted, baptised and freed slaves in Seville had their own self-regulated religious brotherhood, with their own church in the centre of the city decorated with processional polychromed sculptures of black male and female saints. It is significant that the black boy in the painting is participating in 1 of the major miracles performed by Christ. In the same way that Juan de Pareja portrayed himself witnessing 'Christ’s calling of Matthew' (Prado Museum, Madrid) and sharing the same pictorial space as Christ. Carmen Fracchia has noted that Juan de Pareja has seemingly ‘whitened’ his features (compared to those shown in Velazquez’s portrait of his slave and studio assistant (Metropolitan Museum New York), and this may be associated with the belief that baptism purified and ‘whitened’ the soul and thus by metaphorical transfer the skin. It may also have been due to Pareja wanting to associate himself with ‘Old Christian’ culture rather than that of the ‘new Christian’ converso culture still thought in 17th-century Spain to be ‘tainted’ with African and Islamic beliefs.
The liveried black boy in the Barber’s painting both adds to the naturalism of the scene, for which Murillo’s paintings whether secular or sacred were noted, and also emphasises that whatever the colour of the skin one can participate in Christ’s mission, a fact that the devout Murillo would have appreciated.
The portrait of Juan de Pareja by Velázquez is, of course, a famous work which has always been very highly regarded:
Attached is an image of the copy, at Pollok House, Glasgow, of Murillo's 1674 portrait of Isabel Malcampo. She seems to have the same hair parting, colouring, and sad-looking face as the bride in the Barber portrait.
A detailed history (in Spanish) of the relationship between the Omazur's and Murillo can be found here:
Could the bird motif on the small table covering be a phoenix, symbolising the resurrection after death, and echoing Jesus's words, in response his mother's telling him that the wine had run out, of "Oh Woman, what has this to do with me? My hour has not yet come."
Re that bird, I suspect, rather, that the immediate link to be made is with John 1. 29 ff, especially vv. 32-33 ('et testimonium perhibuit Joannes dicens: quia vidi Spiritum descendentem quasi columbam de cælo et mansit super eum. et ego nesciebam eum: sed qui misit me baptizare in aqua ille mihi dixit: super quem videris Spiritum descendentem et manentem super eum hic est qui baptizat in Spiritu Sancto' 'There too is the link with baptismal water, and water turned to wine.
In this first miracle, we see in action Jesus, the one 'qui baptizat in Spiritu'.
Eric, thank you for your comments. Contributors can't edit their own posts, but if you would like us to make changes please leave a message on the discussion, or email email@example.com
I've amended your post of 10/02/2021, 12:34
Murillo probably included the embroidered Chinese table-cover on the side-table to reference the fact that Omazur was a silk merchant, established in Seville since 1669. As such he would have imported textiles from the far east especially China via the Spanish colonies in South America, an important trade route for the port of Seville. Globalised trade in luxury goods was common then as it is now.
The prominently placed bird on the textile is more likely to be a crane, which in Chinese culture symbolises long-lasting love and loyalty within a marriage, though I doubt whether this fact would have been known to Murillo.
Many thanks for that explanation.
I’d like to thank Eric Southworth for drawing his comments together for us:
'Following the gospel's great prologue 'In principio', Jesus has been recognised for who he is by John the Baptist, and is ready for action. And in association with this, I suggest that a main thrust of Jesus's first miracle, as John has it, is the inclusiveness of his mission and the central importance of self-giving service, becoming the δοῦλος of all. This is particularly plain in John 13. 3 ff also, and is strong elsewhere in the NT: Romans 6, for instance, Philippians 2... Early modern Spaniards were tuned in to this: think, say of the Caballero de Gracia's 'esclavos del Santísimo Sacramento'. I think Murillo was tuned into it as well.
In addition, of course, one has to remember the significance of marriage imagery throughout the OT, as a way of figuring God's relationship with Israel. With Jesus's coming, these messianic hopes are extended to the whole human race : a messianic wedding feast is offered to all, the old Israel and the new.
The kingdom of heaven, a new order, breaks in on and judges the kingdoms of this world... by making a radicalised view of servanthood (slavery) the new normative for all Xtns, including black ones. The servants in Murillo’s painting are foregrounded, after all. It is worth pondering the parenthetical remark at John 2. 9, 'ministri autem sciebant'. I rather like the thought that the black slave is wearing his Lord's livery -- the colour of wine and of blood. (Cp in Messianic / prophetic terms, Isaiah 63. 1-2.)
Re that bird embroidered into the tablecloth, bottom left, I suspect the immediate link to be made is with John 1. 29 ff, especially vv. 32-33 ('et testimonium perhibuit Joannes dicens: quia vidi Spiritum descendentem quasi columbam de cælo et mansit super eum. et ego nesciebam eum: sed qui misit me baptizare in aqua ille mihi dixit: super quem videris Spiritum descendentem et manentem super eum hic est qui baptizat in Spiritu Sancto'). There too is the link with baptismal water, water that is now being turned to a superabundance of wine. In this first miracle, we see Jesus acting as the one 'qui baptizat in Spiritu'.
Thoughts in John 2 about plentiful refreshment are continued in chapter 4, in Jesus's encounter with the Samaritana, a very definite outsider : ‘dixit ei si scires donum Dei et quis est qui dicit tibi da mihi bibere tu forsitan petisses ab eo et dedisset tibi aquam vivam.’
Finally, it is worth bearing in mind the patristic comments on this miracle, usefully brought together in Aquinas's Catena aurea. Well worth looking up… As also what Thomas has to say in Super Io., cap. 2 l. 1.
Such strike me as Murillo's most likely concerns, and he would have wanted to get things ‘right’ by the hermeneutic standards of his own day. Painters were expected to know their stuff as far as ‘content’ was concerned. It's not that paintings had simple, narrowly preachy, keys to their interpretation ; they were meant to encourage meditation. And here we have, I think, a good case of it. As in the gospel, the importance of the slaves' role in obedience to the Master is emphasised. But Jesus is a different sort of Dominus from the earthly sort, and earthly wedding feasts have an eschatological dimension.'