The treasures of the Holy Charity’s Chapel. A trip between paintings by Murillo, Valdés Leal and Roldán, searching for the real meaning of charity. With the key help of art historian Doña Marisa Caballero Infante, head of the Tourism and Cultural Management of the Holy Charity, we go into the chapel of the Brotherhood. A chapel rich in treasures, with an unknown history but which deserves to be fully appreciated and valued. In fact Miguel Mañara wanted to decorate the chapel leaving a very clear message to the faithful. And to do it, he commissioned paintings of inestimable value to great artists of that time; Murillo, Valdés Leal and Roldán. The iconographic reading of the chapel is divided into three main parts: the first area of low choir called "Hieroglyphs of Death" that send the message of the fleetingness of life. The second explains the seven works of mercy. The third one speaks about the importance of humility.
In Ictu Oculi - Juan de Valdés Leal
This painting shows a skeleton representing death. Such skeleton, with one hand, is putting out the flame of life. Underneath, the symbols of power, glory and wealth of the 17th century are represented. At its feet, these objects are thrown with contempt, meaning that death despises worldly goods and that once we pass away towards the beyond, we will have nothing in the final judgment. Additionally, we will be judged only on the basis of our capital sins and charitable works carried out during our earthly life. To further reinforce the message of this painting, the skeleton steps on a world map as symbol of the power of death over everything.
Finis Gloriae Mundi - Juan de Valdés Leal
The second painting, whose theme is also death, can be seen in the interior of the chapel. It was also painted by Juan de Valdés Leal. The title, in Latin, is "Finis Gloriae Mundi". The painting shows the inside of a crypt: the Church is represented by the image of the corpse of a bishop, the People pictured as a skull and the Nobility as the mortal remains of a knight from the Calatrava Order. At the top of the painting, Jesus Christ’s hand is holding scales with two plates where the seven charity works and the seven deadly sins are represented. Some inscriptions complete the picture. During our life, according to our works fulfilled, the scales will bounce towards one side or the other. At the top on the left we can see an owl: according to Greek mythology, it is guiding the soul to eternal life with its singing.
The Exaltation of the Holy Cross – Juan de Valdés Leal
Miguel Mañara died in 1679 and therefore he could not complete the third and final part of the iconographic message. However, he wrote down what it should be done and it was entrusted to Juan de Valdés Leal in 1685. The painting tells us how the Emperor Heraclius takes the Holy Cross to Jerusalem. When he gets to his destination, he is incapable of carrying the relic himself. At that time the sky opens and the prophets descend and communicate him that he can only enter Jerusalem humbly, as Jesus did. Heraclio then gets off the horse and takes off his armor and rich robes and he carries the Cross on his shoulders, so finally the city gates open. The painting shows the importance of humility. All works of mercy that we carry out should stay between us and the Lord, otherwise they may turn into pride. This is a condition and an obligation for the brothers of the Holy Charity.
St. Elizabeth of Hungary taking cares of the sick - Bartolome Esteban Murillo
This picture is part of the eight Murillo paintings commissioned by the Holy Charity. It represents St. Elizabeth of Hungary, who in the 13th century built a hospital in her palace where she healed the sick affected by typical diseases of his time such as leprosy, Black Death and ringworm. Apart from giving the sick shelter and food, Saint Elizabeth daily healed their wounds. Her most important work, beyond the medical function, as to accompany, give affection and comfort to patients doomed to die alone. In fact in those days, people affected by these diseases were exiled in real ghettos to avoid contagion. Here the main function of the Holy Charity was reflected, give love, comfort and company to those who are alone.
Saint John of God carrying a sick man on his back - Bartolomé Esteban Murillo
The picture tells us the story of St. John of God who, returning to his home in Granada, found a sick man along the way. Without asking who he was or what had happened to him, he carried him on back and took him home to take care of him. The painting shows the time when an exhausted Saint John falls down and then the Angel, sent by Jesus, helps him and tells him that the sick person is God himself who had appeared to him to thank him for his love and kindness towards the others. The message makes an explicit reference about the obligation of the Brothers to transport sick and poor found in the street, besides being the metaphorical image of someone who has everything and helps those who have nothing and live in poverty.
The healing of the paralytic - Copy of Bartolomé Esteban Murillo (The original is in the "National Gallery" of London, UK)
In this painting one of the major works of mercy is represented: visiting and accompanying the sick. According to Miguel Mañara, if we actually accomplish this during our earthly visit, this work of mercy will lead us to eternal life. In the painting, the evangelical scene of Christ healing the Paralytic at the Pool of Bethesda is represented. In the background we can see the pool, which was formerly considered as a place of purification and healing. Near the pool lies a paralytic that cannot get himself immersed in the medicinal waters on his own. At that time Jesus arrives with his apostles, who helps him, accompanies him and also just by touching him, heals him. The painting depicts the work of mercy of visiting the sick, those who are alone and have no one to accompany them.
The release of Saint Peter - Copy of Bartolomé Esteban Murillo (The original is in the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, Russia)
This picture represents another work of mercy, the release of prisoners who were worthy of salvation. Saint Peter, as the Acts of the Apostles say, had been imprisoned with the accusation of preaching the word of the Lord and telling the Jews about the resurrection of Christ. After his prayer to the Lord, He sends an angel opening the prison door, letting him escape and returning to freedom just to continue attesting the good news of Jesus Christ, the Gospel, and guiding the Church that was being born, task entrusted to Peter by Jesus before and after his death and resurrection. The painting depicts the work of mercy of redeeming the captive.
Abraham and the Three Angels - Copy of Bartolomé Esteban Murillo (The original is in the "National Gallery" of Ottawa, Canada)
The scene is taken from the history of the Old Testament and it is strongly evocative. Abraham finds just in front of his home three visitors returning from a long trip. They are tired and hungry after travelling for many days and arrive to Abraham’s place who opens the doors to let them rest and feed them. The three pilgrims are then transformed into three angels sent by the Lord to thank Abraham his love for others and to communicate the arrival of his son Isaac. The painting depicts the work of mercy of sheltering pilgrims and giving a home to the ones who are in need of one. The three pilgrims are also seen by the Church as well as an image of the Holy Trinity, formed by the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.
The return of the prodigal son - Copy of Bartolomé Esteban Murillo (the original is in the "National Art Gallery" in Washington, United States)
This well-known scene is taken from the New Testament, from a parable related by Jesus. The younger son in the parable asks his father to share his inheritance in life and once had squandered his fortune with a sinful living and having ended herding pigs, he returns to his father's household, thinking he could live at least as a servant. He asks forgiveness to his father, who instead of being angry, goes to meet him while he was coming back and asks his servants to bring clean garments, hid ring and he told his servants to sacrifice the fatted calf in order to celebrate his son’s return. The painting depicts the work of mercy of dressing the naked, giving clothes to those who have none.
Feeding the multitude - Bartolomé Esteban Murillo
The picture shows the Eucharistic miracle of Jesus Christ, feeding the multitude, it is one of the best known and represented of the Gospel’s episodes. The great Spanish painter draws precisely on the canvas the moment in which Jesus multiplied the five loaves and the two fish offered by a boy and collected by the Apostle Philip. All this to satisfy the hunger of the great crowd that had come to listen to him and could not get back home at a reasonable hour. The Gospel says that Jesus made people sit in groups of fifty and fed all, about five thousand men, not counting women and children. The painting depicts the work of mercy of feeding the hungry.
Moses striking the rock - Bartolomé Esteban Murillo
The fifth work of mercy tells a well-known story taken from the Old Testament: Moses and the rock in the desert. When Moses was fleeing from Egypt, he was followed by the Jewish people, after crossing the Red Sea, reaching the desert, they will wander with his people almost 40 years. The Jewish people could die of hunger and thirst, so Moses raises his prayer to God who sends manna from heaven to satisfy hunger and tells Moses to strike a rock three times with his stick. From this rock springs enough water to quench the thirst of all the people and so they will continue their long journey. The painting depicts the work of mercy of giving drink to the thirsty.
The High Altarpiece of the Charity - Pedro Roldán, Bernardo Simón de Pineda and Juan de Valdés Leal
It is probably the most beautiful baroque altarpiece in Europe, where the seventh work of mercy is represented. Several authors have collaborated in it. The relief of Christ’s descent is of Valdés Leal and the sculpture group is of Pedro Roldán, while the altarpiece was made by Bernardo Simón de Pineda. Three great artists working together on the same altarpiece. The main sculptural group represents the burial of Christ and refers to the work of mercy of giving a Christian burial to the dead. That image reminds us of what was one of the main obligations of the Brotherhood in the 15th century, giving a dignified Christian burial to the executed people. On the left we can see St. George with the dead dragon under his feet. The saint is also the patron of this church where a relic of his is kept. To the right we can recognize St. Roque, universal patron of epidemics, with the dog accompanying him with a piece of bread in its mouth. The altarpiece is crowned by three figures: Faith to the left represented by a female figure carrying the cross and chalice, Charity in the centre, represented by a female figure surrounded by children and finally Hope represented by a female figure with an anchor, symbol of those things which keep us tied to life. At the top of the altarpiece we can see a symbol usually appearing in the Baroque era: an inscription in Aramean language: “Yahweh”.
Altarpiece of Saint Christ of Charity – Pedro Roldán and Bernardo Simón de Pineda
The iconography of this sculpture, titular of the altarpiece by Bernardo Simón de Pineda, was suggested to the author, Pedro Roldán, by Miguel Mañara himself. In the registers of the Charity Brotherhood you can see the following testimony about this work: “Before Christ was entering Passion He prayed, and a thought which came to my mind told me that this would be exactly the way He was, and I ordered him to be sculpted alike”. Roldán emphasizes the high pathos of the moment with a powerful polychrome representing the completely bloodied body.
Altarpiece of Saint Joseph – Bernardo Simón de Pineda
For the area near the presbytery of the Chapel of the Holy Charity, Miguel Mañara orders two altars to the two major artists working in iconographic jobs: Bernardo Simón de Pineda and Bartolomé Esteban Murillo. One of the two altars is devoted to St. Joseph, the earthly father of Jesus and Holy Mary’s husband. The 18th century’s artist who made it was Cristóbal Ramos. The importance of the work also lies on the small image on its upper part, a painting depicting St. John the Baptist, Jesus's cousin, when he was still a child. This canvas painted on a board is from Bartolomé Esteban Murillo.
Altarpiece of the Virgin of Charity - Bernardo Simon de Pineda
The sculpture of the Virgin is original and dates back to the late Gothic period. This is one of the few artworks that remains of the original Chapel of the Brotherhood, one of the many artworks of inestimable value present in the chapel of the Holy Charity. However, the mantle’s polychrome is later and it was carried out by Valdés Leal, who as said, used to work in the chapel. As in the altar mentioned before, there is also a canvas painted on a board from Bartolomé Esteban Murillo, which can be found in the upper part of the altar and shows a child as its main figure, that is: Jesus depicted in his childhood.