The Virgin Mary appears to the patron saint of Spain, Saint James the Greater, as he prays beside the Ebro River. He extends his arms ready to receive the statuette of the Virgin and Child and the column of jasper being carried by a swirling mass of putti (winged infants). The Virgin instructed Saint James to build an oratory to house the statuette on the spot where he had his vision. In the late seventeenth century it was held at the Cathedral Basilica of Our Lady of El Pilar in Zaragoza.
Bayeu’s painting was inspired by Antonio González Velázquez’s fresco of 1753 in the dome over the central chapel of the Basilica, which is compositionally similar but different in style. The painting might seem like a sketch for a larger painting, but it is probably an independent work of art intended for private devotion. The reverse of the canvas is signed and dated, which would be unusual for a preparatory sketch.
The Virgin Mary appears to the patron saint of Spain, Saint James the Greater, who wears red and green and wears a barely visible pilgrim’s shell on his left shoulder. He extends his arms ready to receive the statuette of the Virgin and Child and the column of jasper on which to place it. These objects are carried by a swirling mass of putti surrounding the Virgin like a golden halo. The celebratory nature of the apparition is emphasised by the angels making music among the clouds. In the earthly sphere below Saint James is surrounded by the apostles, some of whom are sleeping while others appear as ghostly figures bewildered by the sight.
Although the sky suggests a daytime scene, the apparition was said to have taken place at night while Saint James was praying with the apostles next to the Ebro River, which passed through the Spanish city that subsequently became Zaragoza, and is shown in the bottom left corner. The Virgin instructed Saint James to build an oratory on the spot where he had his vision to house the statuette on the jasper column, which came to be known as the Virgen del Pilar (Virgin of the Pillar), and she became the patron saint of Zaragoza. Several churches housed the sculpture before the current Cathedral Basilica of Our Lady of El Pilar was erected in the late seventeenth century.
Bayeu taught the young Goya and, like his pupil (and later brother-in-law), he was born and active in the region of Zaragoza. He painted this scene there, inspired by Antonio González Velázquez’s fresco of 1753 in the dome over the central chapel of the Basilica of El Pilar. The paintings are compositionally similar, with the Virgin at the centre surrounded by putti and flanked by Saint James and the apostles, but they are quite different in style. Bayeu’s fluid brushwork and bright colour palette are more akin to those of the Italian artist Corrado Giaquinto, who was based in Madrid from 1753 to 1761. Giaquinto’s work was displayed at the city’s Royal Academy of San Fernando and at the Royal Palace, where he was court painter. Bayeu would have seen Giaquinto’s paintings during his short stay in Madrid in 1758, before returning to Zaragoza to focus on church and convent commissions. He also painted other versions of this subject and frescoed the ceilings in the Basilica of El Pilar.
The free handling and small format of this picture might suggest that it is a sketch for a larger painting or fresco. The existence of a highly finished preparatory drawing in a private collection, however, suggests that it was probably made as an independent work of art and was intended for private devotion. Also unusual for a preparatory sketch is the fact that the canvas is signed and dated by the artist on the reverse.
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