JUAN ALONSO VILLABRILLE Y RON

Argul 1663 – Madrid, ca. 1728

Saint Joachim, Saint Anne and the Virgin Mary as an infant

Polychromed wood

76 x 64 x 41 cm

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As father of the Virgin Mary, Saint Joachim was often represented during the Middle Ages.  In 1572 (following the Council of Trent) he was removed from the liturgical calendar in the Brevarium Romanum, but with many religious orders defending their right to pray to him, he regained his place within a few decades. Joachim's representation usually figures in the context of one of the episodes in the life of the Virgin, usually the conception of Mary - in the Meeting at the Golden Gate - or immediately afterwards, in a group such as the one presented here. These stories come from the Apocryphal Gospels such as the Protoevangelium of James and the Pseudo-Matthew or Book of the Birth of the Blessed Mary. Jacobus de Voragine's Golden Legend brought them to a wide audience from the thirteenth century onwards.

Joachim, born in Nazareth, and Anne, from Bethelem, were unable to have children, having married late in life. They prayed to God constantly to give them grace, and during a pilgrimage to Jerusalem, an angel announced to them that they would have a daughter called Mary whose destiny would be critical for that of humanity. In accordance with this story, the parents in the sculpture presented here are depicted as elderly. Joachim hold his new-born daughter in his arms. He is on a slightly lower plane than Saint Anne, both figures on a rocky base which unites them as if in tender dialogue. Anne looks at her daughter with affection and seems to be caressing her.  All of this is the result of carving of a high technical quality, both of the drapery and of the faces. The polychromy is also beautiful, with a soft, harmonious palette, combining light tones (pinks, greens and reds) and various motifs reproducing the diverse textures of the cloth. The ensemble's elegance and sense of movement comes not only through the actions and positioning of the figures, but also from this treatment of the drapery.

The group has been attributed to the Murcian sculptor Francisco Salzillo (hence the modern label on the sculpture's base). It does recall other compositions by Salzillo such as those in his famous Bethlehem (at the Museo Salzillo), various Holy Families, and in the Last Supper, Saint Peters and Saint Jerome in Murcia Cathedral. Nevertheless, we suggest a new attribution to Juan Alonso Villabrille y Ron on the basis of our work's similarity to other works by the Asturian sculptor who was Luis Salvador Carmona's master.  Clearly the subject matter depicted here calls for sweet and harmonious forms, a long way from the tortured Baroque sensibililty so well exemplified by Villabrille's Head of Saint Paul in the Museo Nacional de Escultura (Valladolid). In fact - thanks to his great versatility - Villabrille unites in his works the extreme drama of his Saint Pauls (including the decapitated head in Valladolid and the representation of him as a hermit in the Meadows Museum in Dallas), with the ability to take on gentle themes, treating them with sweetness and tenderness.  The result is enchantingly luxurious and elegantly graceful in a manner close to Rococo.

Curiously, amongst the few works known to be by the sculptor it is the theme of Saint Joachim, Saint Anne and the Virgin that Villabrille represented most often.  Various verions are known, each one treated in a slightly different manner to avoid serial and mechanical repetition of types and postures.  Even so, the prototypes presented here are generally recognizable, and the quality and minute attention to detail  of the carving, the poses and elegance of the figures, and the use of glass eyes, abundant beards and dynamic curls in the elderly male figures stand out.  They can be compared to the pair of the same figures in the Madrid convent of the Trinitarians, which perhaps came from the monastery of the Caupuchins of the Pardo (which had a sculpture fitting this description according to Ceán Bermúdez); and another - no longer extant - in the chapel of Copacavana in Recoletos (also in Madrid). Another pair of the Virgin's parents is in the Colegiata de Pravias (Asturias), and there is also the family trio in the Museo Nacional de Escultura in Valladolid.  Yet another is the group from Las Calatravas, with which our own Saint Joachim shares a lively expression, and finally the one accompanied by the Virgin in the church of San Miguel in Segovia.

Álvaro Pascual Chenel

Technical data

JUAN ALONSO VILLABRILLE Y RON

Argul 1663 – Madrid, ca. 1728

Saint Joachim, Saint Anne and the Virgin Mary as an infant

Polychromed wood

76 x 64 x 41 cm

Private collection, Madrid