Francisco de Zurbarán – Saint Agatha

10 Feb

Francisco de Zurbarán, Saint Agatha, 1630-33

In the first half of the seventeenth century Francisco de Zurbarán, perhaps the spookiest painter of the Spanish Baroque, painted a series of portraits depicting female saints and virgin martyrs which is surprisingly vibrant in colour and mood, at least compared to his other paintings. Zurbarán painted around twenty such portraits and all of them present the image of youth and delicate beauty: the saints are painted as rosy-cheeked girls, elegant and serene, and most importantly – beautifully dressed in sumptuous fabric in all colours and shade, from mustard yellow and rich red to greens, blues and even some splendid Veronese pink. In his time Zurbarán got his fair share of criticism for portraying the virgin martyrs in such a lavish way, accentuating more their worldly beauty and rich attire rather than their humility and piousness. And indeed, they look more like dainty princesses than martyrs. Still, there is something that clearly marks them as saints and not princesses: their attributes; a visual symbol that helps us recognise which saints is presented in the painting. Our sweet little saint Agatha here is painted carrying her cut off breasts on a platter and that is how we know the painting shows Saint Agatha and not some other saint.

Agatha of Sicily (c. 231-251) was an early Christian saint born in Sicily and the story goes that, according to Jacobus de Voragine’s “Golden Legend”, the young Agatha took a virginity vow and, on many occasions, rejected the romantic offers of Roman prefect Quintianus. This all happened during the persecutions of Decius and eventually Quintianus reported Agatha to the authorities. He imagined that Agatha, when faced with torture and death, would give in to his demands, but instead she prayed to god for courage. Part of her torture included her breasts being cut off with pincers. She was suppose to be burnt at the stake but an earthquake prevented this and then she was sent to prison where St Peter the Apostle appeared to her and healed her wounds. She died in prison, remaining faithful to her ideals.

In Zurbarán’s portrait, not a trace of suffering, torment or pain can be seen on her delicate pale face, only perhaps a tinge of wistfulness. Her slender figure is arising from the darkness of the background like a beautiful sculpture and there is nothing in the painting that distracts us from the real motif: Saint Agatha. She’s gazing in the distance with her large dark eyes while her breasts, so pale and so beautifully sculpted, stand on the platter like two delicious cupcakes. Around her neck a pearl necklace, her dress falling beautifully. I like other female saints portraits as well but Agatha showing off her cut off breasts is perhaps the most interesting to me because it’s kinda provocative and naughty. Just imagine what an outrage these tits would cause if the theme of the painting wasn’t religious but worldly. Here are some other paintings from the same series:

Francisco de Zurbarán, Santa Dorotea, 1648

Francisco de Zurbarán, Saint Dorothy, 1640-50

Francisco de Zurbarán, Saint Ursula, 1635-40

One Response to “Francisco de Zurbarán – Saint Agatha”

  1. Peace Tom 13th Feb 2021 at 4:30 pm #

    This is so interesting! To me, there is something quite morbidly funny about her cut-off breasts and how they interestingly add to her ideals and virtue of maintaining virginity. The colours are gorgeous and I love a good bright red!

    Liked by 1 person

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