Spanish Golden Age

Las Meninas (1656, English: The Maids of Honour) by Diego Velázquez
In ictu oculi ("In the blink of an eye"), a vanitas by Juan de Valdés Leal

The Spanish Golden Age (Spanish: Siglo de Oro [ˈsiɣlo ðe ˈoɾo], "Golden Century") is a period of flourishing in arts and literature in Spain, coinciding with the rise of the Spanish Habsburg dynasty. Politically, El Siglo de Oro lasted from the accession to the throne of Philip II of Spain in 1556 to the Treaty of the Pyrenees in 1659.[1][2] When no precise dating is used, the period begins no earlier than 1492 (with the end of the Reconquista, the sea voyages of Christopher Columbus to the New World, and the publication of Antonio de Nebrija's Grammar of the Castilian Language) and ends no later than 1681 with the death of the Pedro Calderón de la Barca, the last great writer of the age.

The Habsburgs, both in Spain and Austria, were great patrons of art in their countries. El Escorial, the great royal monastery built by King Philip II, invited the attention of some of Europe's greatest architects and painters. Diego Velázquez, regarded as one of the most influential painters of European history and a greatly respected artist in his own time, cultivated a relationship with King Philip IV and his chief minister, the Count-Duke of Olivares, leaving us several portraits that demonstrate his style and skill. El Greco, another respected artist from the period, infused Spanish art with the styles of the Italian renaissance and helped create a uniquely Spanish style of painting. Some of Spain's greatest music is regarded as having been written in the period. Such composers as Tomás Luis de Victoria, Cristóbal de Morales, Francisco Guerrero, Luis de Milán and Alonso Lobo helped to shape Renaissance music and the styles of counterpoint and polychoral music, and their influence lasted far into the Baroque period which resulted in a revolution of music. Spanish literature blossomed as well, most famously demonstrated in the work of Miguel de Cervantes, the author of Don Quixote de la Mancha. Spain's most prolific playwright, Lope de Vega, wrote possibly as many as one thousand plays during his lifetime, of which over four hundred survive to the present day.


Spain, in the time of the Italian Renaissance, had seen few great artists come to its shores. The Italian holdings and relationships made by Queen Isabella's husband and later Spain's sole monarch, Ferdinand of Aragon, launched a steady traffic of intellectuals across the Mediterranean between Valencia, Seville, and Florence. Luis de Morales, one of the leading exponents of Spanish mannerist painting, retained a distinctly Spanish style in his work, reminiscent of medieval art. Spanish art, particularly that of Morales, contained a strong mark of mysticism and religion that was encouraged by the counter-reformation and the patronage of Spain's strongly Catholic monarchs and aristocracy. Spanish rule of Naples was important for making connections between Italian and Spanish art, with many Spanish administrators bringing Italian works back to Spain.

El Greco

Known for his unique expressionistic style that met with both puzzlement and admiration, El Greco (which means "The Greek") was not Spanish, having been born Domenikos Theotokopoulos in Crete. He studied the great Italian masters of his time - Titian, Tintoretto, and Michelangelo - when he lived in Italy from 1568 to 1577. According to legend, he asserted that he would paint a mural that would be as good as one of Michelangelo's, if one of the Italian artist's murals was demolished first. El Greco quickly fell out of favor in Italy, but soon found a new home in the city of Toledo, in central Spain. He was influential in creating a style based on impressions and emotion, featuring elongated fingers and vibrant color and brushwork. Uniquely, his works featured faces that captured expressions of sombre attitudes and withdrawal while still having his subjects bear witness to the terrestrial world.[3] His paintings of the city of Toledo became models for a new European tradition in landscapes, and influenced the work of later Dutch masters. Spain at this time was an ideal environment for the Venetian-trained painter. Art was flourishing in the empire and Toledo was a great place to get commissions.

Diego Velázquez

He was born on June 6, 1599, in Seville. Both parents were from the minor nobility. He was the oldest of six children. Diego Velázquez is widely regarded as one of Spain's most important and influential artists. He was a court painter for King Philip IV and found increasingly high demand for his portraits from statesmen, aristocrats, and clergymen across Europe. His portraits of the King, his chief minister, the Count-duke of Olivares, and the Pope himself demonstrated a belief in artistic realism and a style comparable to many of the Dutch masters. In the wake of the Thirty Years' War, Velázquez met the Marqués de Spinola and painted his famous Surrender of Breda celebrating Spinola's earlier victory. Spinola was struck[citation needed] by his ability to express emotion through realism in both his portraits and landscapes; his work in the latter, in which he launched one of European art's first experiments in outdoor lighting, became another lasting influence on Western painting. Velázquez's friendship with Bartolomé Esteban Murillo, a leading Spanish painter of the next generation, ensured the enduring influence of his artistic approach.

Velázquez's most famous painting, however, is the celebrated Las Meninas, in which the artist includes himself as one of the subjects.

The Birth of the Virgin by Francisco de Zurbarán

Francisco de Zurbarán

The religious element in Spanish art, in many circles, grew in importance with the counter-reformation. The austere, ascetic, and severe work of Francisco de Zurbarán exemplified this thread in Spanish art, along with the work of composer Tomás Luis de Victoria. Philip IV actively patronized artists who agreed with his views on the counter-reformation and religion. The mysticism of Zurbarán's work - influenced by Saint Theresa of Avila - became a hallmark of Spanish art in later generations. Influenced by Caravaggio and the Italian masters, Zurbarán devoted himself to an artistic expression of religion and faith. His paintings of St. Francis of Assisi, the immaculate conception, and the crucifixion of Christ reflected a third facet of Spanish culture in the seventeenth century, against the backdrop of religious war across Europe. Zurbarán broke from Velázquez's sharp realist interpretation of art and looked, to some extent, to the emotive content of El Greco and the earlier mannerist painters for inspiration and technique, though Zurbarán respected and maintained the lighting and physical nuance of Velázquez.

It is unknown whether Zurbarán had the opportunity to copy the paintings of Michelangelo da Caravaggio; at any rate, he adopted Caravaggio's realistic use of chiaroscuro. The painter who may have had the greatest influence on his characteristically severe compositions was Juan Sánchez Cotán.[4] Polychrome sculpture—which by the time of Zurbarán's apprenticeship had reached a level of sophistication in Seville that surpassed that of the local painters—provided another important stylistic model for the young artist; the work of Juan Martínez Montañés is especially close to Zurbarán's in spirit.

He painted directly from nature, and he made great use of the lay-figure in the study of draperies, in which he was particularly proficient. He had a special gift for white draperies; as a consequence, the houses of the white-robed Carthusians are abundant in his paintings. To these rigid methods, Zurbarán is said to have adhered throughout his career, which was prosperous, wholly confined to Spain, and varied by few incidents beyond those of his daily labour. His subjects were mostly severe and ascetic religious vigils, the spirit chastising the flesh into subjection, the compositions often reduced to a single figure. The style is more reserved and chastened than Caravaggio's, the tone of color often quite bluish. Exceptional effects are attained by the precisely finished foregrounds, massed out largely in light and shade.

Bartolomé Esteban Murillo

Immaculate Conception by Murillo

Bartolomé Esteban Murillo began his art studies under Juan del Castillo in Seville. Murillo became familiar with Flemish painting; the great commercial importance of Seville at the time ensured that he was also subject to influences from other regions. His first works were influenced by Zurbarán, Jusepe de Ribera and Alonso Cano, and he shared their strongly realist approach. As his painting developed, his more important works evolved towards the polished style that suited the bourgeois and aristocratic tastes of the time, demonstrated especially in his Roman Catholic religious works.

In 1642, at the age of 26 he moved to Madrid, where he most likely became familiar with the work of Velázquez, and would have seen the work of Venetian and Flemish masters in the royal collections; the rich colors and softly modeled forms of his subsequent work suggest these influences.[5] He returned to Seville in 1645. In that year, he painted thirteen canvases for the monastery of St. Francisco el Grande in Seville which gave his reputation a well-deserved boost. Following the completion of a pair of pictures for the Seville Cathedral, he began to specialise in the themes that brought him his greatest successes, the Virgin and Child, and the Immaculate Conception.

After another period in Madrid, from 1658 to 1660, he returned to Seville, where he died. Here he was one of the founders of the Academia de Bellas Artes (Academy of Art), sharing its direction, in 1660, with the architect, Francisco Herrera the Younger. This was his period of greatest activity, and he received numerous important commissions, among them the altarpieces for the Augustinian monastery, the paintings for Santa María la Blanca (completed in 1665), and others.

Other significant painters

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