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The Hospital of Charity

The Spaniards possess to the fullest degree the art of evoking devout emotions, and in their various churches may be experienced every phase of religious feeling. After the majestic size and the solemn mystery of the Cathedral, nothing can come as a greater contrast than the Church of the Hermandad de la Caredad. It was built by don Miguel de Maņara, who rests in the chancel, with the inscription over him: 'Aqui jacen los huesos y ceņizas del peor hombre que ha habido en el mundo; ruegan por el'--'Here lie the bones and ashes of the worst man that has ever been in the world; pray for him.' But like all Andalusians he was a braggart; for a love of chocolate, which appears to have been his besetting sin, is insufficient foundation for such a vaunt: a vice of that order is adequately punished by the corpulence it must occasion. However, legend, representing don Miguel as the most dissolute of libertines, is more friendly. The grave sister who escorts the visitor relates that one day in church don Miguel saw a beautiful nun, and undaunted by her habit, made amorous proposals. She did not speak, but turned to look at him, whereupon he saw the side of her face which had been hidden from his gaze, and it was eaten away by a foul and loathsome disease, so that it seemed more horrible than the face of death. The gallant was so terrified that he fainted, and afterwards the face haunted him, the face of matchless beauty and of revolting decay, so that he turned from the world. He devoted his fortune to rebuilding the hospital and church of the Brotherhood of Charity, whose chief office it was to administer the sacraments to those condemned to death and provide for their burial, and was eventually received into their Order.

It was in the seventeenth century that Maņara built his church, and consequently rococo holds sway with all its fantasies. It is small, without aisles or chapels, and the morbid opulence of the decoration gives it a peculiar character. The walls are lined with red damask, and the floor carpeted with a heavy crimson carpet; it gives the sensation of a hothouse, or, with its close odours, of a bedchamber transformed into a chapel for the administration of the last sacrament. The atmosphere is unhealthy: one pants for breath.

At one end, taking up the entire wall, is a reredos by Pedro Roldan, of which the centrepiece is an elaborate 'Deposition in the Tomb,' with numerous figures coloured to the life. It is very fine in its mingling of soft, rich hues and flamboyant realism. The artist has revelled in the opportunity for anguish of expression that his subject afforded, but has treated it with such a passionate seriousness that, in his grim, fierce way, he does not fail to be impressive. The frame is of twisted golden pillars, supported by little naked angels, and decorated with grapes and vine-leaves. Above and at the sides are great saints in carved wood, and angels with floating drapery.

Murillo was on terms of intimacy with don Miguel de Maņara, and like him a member of the Hermandad. For his friend he painted some of his most famous pictures, which by the subdued ardour of their colour, by their opulent tones, harmonise most exquisitely with the church. Marshal Soult, with a fine love of art that was profitable, carried off several of them, and their empty frames stare at one still. But before that, when they were all in place, the effect must have been of unique magnificence.

It must be an extraordinary religion that flourishes in such a place, an artificial faith that needs heat like tropical plants, that desires unnatural vows. It breathes of neurotic emotions with its damask-covered walls, with its carpet that deadens the footfall, its sombre, gorgeous pictures. The sweet breeze of heaven never enters there, nor the sunlight; the air is languid with incense; one is oppressed by a strange, heavy silence. In such a church sins must be fostered for the morbid pleasure of confession. One can imagine that the worshippers in that overloaded atmosphere would see strange visions, voluptuous and mystical; the Blessed Mary and the Saints might gain visible and palpable flesh, and the devil would not be far off. There the gruesome imaginings of Valdes Leal are a fitting decoration. Every one knows that grim picture of a bishop in episcopal robes, eaten by worms, his flesh putrefying, which led Murillo to say: 'Leal, you make me hold my nose,' and the other answered: 'You have taken all the flesh and left me nought but the bones.' Elsewhere, by the same master, there is a painting that suggests, with greater poignancy to my mind because less brutally, the thoughts evoked by the more celebrated work, and since it seems to complete the ideas awakened by this curious chapel, I mention it here.

It represents a priest at the altar, saying his mass, and the altar after the Spanish fashion is sumptuous with gilt and florid carving. He wears a magnificent cope and a surplice of exquisite lace, but he wears them as though their weight were more than he could bear; and in the meagre, trembling hands, and in the white, ashen face, in the dark hollowness of the eyes and in the sunken cheeks, there is a bodily corruption that is terrifying. The priest seems to hold together with difficulty the bonds of the flesh, but with no eager yearning of the soul to burst its prison, only with despair; it is as if the Lord Almighty had forsaken him, and the high heavens were empty of their solace. All the beauty of life appears forgotten, and there is nothing in the world but decay. A ghastly putrefaction has attacked already the living man; the worms of the grave, the piteous horror of mortality, and the darkness before him offer nought but fear, and what soul is there to rise again! Beyond, dark night is seen and a turbulent sea, the dark night of the soul of which the mystics write, and the troublous sea of life whereon there is no refuge for the weary and the sick at heart.

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Then, if you would study yet another phase of the religious sentiment, go to the Museo, where are the fine pictures that Murillo painted for the Capuchin Monastery. You will see all the sombreness of Spanish piety, the savage faith, dissolved into ineffable love. Religion has become a wonderful tenderness, in which passionate human affection is inextricably mingled with god-like adoration. Murillo, these sensual forms quivering with life, brought the Eternal down to earth, and gave terrestrial ardour to the apathy of an impersonal devotion; that, perhaps, is why to women he has always been the most fascinating of painters. In the Madonna de la Servilleta--painted on a napkin for the cook of the monastery--the child is a simple, earthly infant, fresh and rosy, with wide-open, wondering eyes and not a trace of immortality. I myself saw a common woman of the streets stand before this picture with tears running down her cheeks.

'Corazon de mi alma!' she said, 'Heart of my soul! I could cover his little body with kisses.'

She smiled, but could hardly restrain her sobs. The engrossing love of a mother for her child seemed joined in miraculous union with the worship of a mortal for his God.

Murillo had neither the power nor the desire to idealise his models. The saints of these great pictures, St. Francis of Assisi, St. Felix of Cantalicio, St. Thomas of Villanueva, are monks and beggars such as may to this day be seen in the streets of Seville. St. Felix is merely an old man with hollow cheeks and a grey, ragged beard; but yet as he clasps the child in his arms with eager tenderness, he is transfigured by a divine ecstasy: his face is radiant with the most touching emotion. And St. Antony of Padua, in another picture, worships the infant God with a mystic adoration, which, notwithstanding the realism of the presentment, lifts him far, far above the earth.


William Somerset Maugham