Picture of the month

Read about one of our exciting new acquisitions – a rare painting by Juan de Zurbarán

This beautifully-lit still life, the first work by Juan de Zurbarán to enter a UK public collection, is filled with allusions to love and faith.

Detail from Juan de Zurbarán, Still Life with Lemons in a Wicker Basket, about 1643-9

While constituting a striking composition, the different elements of the panting – the fruit, flowers, cup and bird – carry symbolic meanings which would have been readily understood by the audience of the time.

The lemons, lilies, and roses were all associated with the Virgin Mary; lemons were symbolic of fidelity in love, lilies represented her purity and chastity, and roses were associated with her love of God and with charity.

The carnation, because of its bright red colour, was also understood as a symbol of love and often appears in paintings of the Virgin and Child. The buds of the blue delphinium were thought to look like tiny fish, a symbol of Christianity.

The goldfinch, perched on the lip of the Chinese porcelain cup, was also a Christian symbol as, according to legend, a goldfinch plucked a thorn from the head of Christ on his way to Calvary, hence forever staining its head with red. Meanwhile, the tulips and Chinese Kraak bowl are symbols of prosperity.

Long overshadowed by his more famous father, Francisco, Juan de Zurbarán is one of the greatest still-life painters of 17th-century Spain. His works are extremely rare: barely a dozen paintings survive, all of them still lifes. Having trained with his father in Seville, Juan’s career was cruelly cut short in 1649 by the plague that halved the city´s population. He was just 29 years old.

Juan de Zurbarán
about 1643-9
 Juan de Zurbarán, Still Life with Lemons in a Wicker Basket about, 1643-1649