Objects of the Museu de Belles Arts de València
Altarpiece of St Martin, St Ursula and St Anthony
In medieval Valencia, it was common for financially well-off families with social status to have funerary chapels, for which they commissioned altarpieces and other works of art. These were intended not only to honour and perform ceremonies in memory of their ancestors, but also so that their descendants would acquire noble rank.
The altarpieces were dedicated to the namesake of the chapel, who was usually the patron saint of the person commissioning the work, having been born on their name day (feast day of the saint). In this case, it is dedicated to St Martin and St Ursula, who according to legend, was martyred accompanied by eleven thousand virgins. The popularity of legends about virgin martyrs gives an indication of the feminine ideals of the time.
The religious painting developed during the 17th century served as a vehicle for promoting piety and repentance among the faithful. The naturalistic tone and models taken from reality sought to make holy figures more closely resemble those with whom the faithful could identify.
One of the subjects most often depicted is that of the penitent Mary Magdalene, because she embodies the possibility of redemption through repentance. This image of the saint as a repentant sinner is a development which emerged from the combination of different figures. It served as a model for those mortals who, even if they sinned repeatedly, could harbour the hope of salvation through repentance.
Achilles among the Daughters of Lycomedes
Gender and clothing
This piece depicts one of the best known cases of a person of one gender dressing and performing the role and attributes corresponding to the opposite gender: Achilles, who is dressed as a woman and hidden by his mother to prevent him from taking part in the Trojan War.
The fact of using clothing to adopt an image which society identifies with the opposite gender does not affect the identity or the sexual orientation of the person wearing it. Achilles is presented as a man, a warrior, although in this case he is dressed and behaves like a woman, which ensures that he will not participate in an activity deemed exclusive to the male gender: war.
The Halberdiers José Díaz and Francisco Torán
Gender and sexuality
It is not common to find a double portrait of two male figures, such as this one of the halberdiers José Díaz and Francisco Torán. The fact that they are portrayed together is probably due to the fact that they were the only two Valencians who formed part of the Royal Corps of Halberdiers on the night of the kidnap attempt against the child queen Isabella II. The Valencia Provincial Council commissioned this portrait to commemorate their courageous action.
They are depicted in the bourgeois fashion, one seated and the other standing. They clasp hands, probably to symbolize the friendship and loyalty which united them. An intimate gesture far removed from rigid military protocol which at some points may have been ambiguous. Fortunately, today virility and valour need not go hand in hand.
Virgin with Child and the Infant Saint John the Baptist
Family and family relations
Maternity / Paternity
This small-scale work of the Virgin Mary with the baby Jesus and the infant Saint John was painted for private veneration. This type of arrangement, known at times as the Holy Family composition despite representing only the Virgin Mary, was often painted to include St. Anne, mother of the Virgin, or St. Elizabeth, her cousin. Not representing Joseph points to the intention of highlighting the divine, not earthly conception of Jesus. Mary is wed to Joseph after the Immaculate Conception to avoid being stoned, a punishment that was often imposed on women who became pregnant out of wedlock. Society has historically punished single mothers and women who have maintained extramarital relations with humiliation and exclusion, while being much more forgiving of men in the same situation.
Judith and Holofernes
Gender and attire
Gender stereotypes: Desirer / object of desire
The figure of Judith, like others from the Old Testament, is the subject of many paintings and sculptures beginning in the Renaissance period. The book bearing her name narrates the story of this Biblical heroine, a beautiful and pious widow who commends herself to God to save her people from the siege of Holofernes. While the narration does not specify at any point that she seduces and tricks the general, the representations of a nude or semi-nude Judith have conferred upon her the image of a distorted heroine, underlining the fact that women can use their power of seduction to lead men to ruin.
Saint Sebastian Tended by Saint Irene
Gender and history
Gender and sexuality
Works that feature St. Sebastian, the archer general of the Roman emperor Diocletian’s personal guard, typically show him at the moment in which he is pierced through with arrows. Contrary to popular belief, this did not kill him, and he was rescued and healed by St. Irene, as Ribera has depicted in this work.
Saint Sebastian has been the patron saint of ironworkers and a protector against the plague. His image has recently become an icon of the LGBTI community as a result of his martyrdom, which occurred after a confession of faith, and which is linked to the contemporary mindset that considers homosexuality not as an immoral state but rather as an act of reaffirmation of identity. It is also linked to the appearance in the late 80s of the AIDS epidemic, reclaiming the connection with the epidemics that had once decimated the population.
Sexual /gender division of labory
Gender and sexuality
A group of Sisters of Charity of Saint Vincent de Paul wait to board a train that will take them on a religious mission or to a field hospital, most likely in the Cuban War. Care of the wounded and infirm has historically been associated with religious orders, and by extension with women, who have traditionally cared for children and the elderly within the domestic sphere. And it was a woman, Florence Nightingale, who professionalized the vocation in the 19th century. She founded the first lay school for nurses in England, and she is considered the founder of the modern nursing profession.
The Virgin of Montserrat
Gender and the body
Gender and sexuality
This piece depicting the Virgin of Montserrat narrates, in a series of small scenes distributed across the mountainside, the legend that led to the foundation of the abbey. A legend that begins with the rape and murder of a young girl. Like this piece, many of the works displayed in museums portray dramatic episodes of violence towards women – stories that have been toned down and have become the subject of works of art in which there typically appears an erotically charged nude female figure. We should be mindful, however, and not allow our delight in beauty to distract us from the reality of the truth, which so very often consisted of unspeakable and unjustifiable crimes.
The Artist’s Daughters in a Garden
Gender and education
Gender and social class
The painter’s daughters are portrayed with great care in a garden setting. They are dressed in the fashion of the time, and their appearance and attire suggest that they belong to the upper class and would be expected to behave with exceptional refinement, a characteristic of the wealthiest families. The painting dates from the early 19th century, at a time of change in which the Spanish Constitution of 1812 had just been signed. One of the advances that would be introduced was universal, equal, public and free education, which in practice would not include women as there continued to exist a breach between education in decorum (within the female sphere, related to compassion and manners) and instruction (for the male sphere, related to the brain and thinking). This would lead to a long-term disparity in education and work options, relegating women to unqualified, and consequently poorly paid jobs.