Tag Archives: Spanish Baroque

Juan de Valdés Leal – In Ictu Oculi

4 Feb

“Now I have neither happiness nor unhappiness.

Everything passes.

This is the one and only thing I have thought resembled a truth in society of human beings where I have dwelled up to now as in a burning hell.

Everything passes.

(Osamu Dazai, No Longer Human)

Juan de Valdés Leal (1622 – 1690), In Ictu Oculi, 1670-1672

In 1670-72 Spanish Baroque painter Juan de Valdés Leal was commissioned by the Brotherhood of Charity to paint two paintings, “In Ictu Oculi” and “Finis gloriae mundi”, for the Hospital de la Caridad in Seville. The sombre and dark paintings fit perfectly with the mood that characterised the sixteenth century in Spain. The “vanitas” genre of painting captures the mood of the times because it unites the themes of the religious spirit bordering with fanaticism, the fascination with death and the obsession with the transience of earthly life. A dark, dramatic and foreboding atmosphere is seeping out of this painting like spilt ink colouring the white paper in the sea of darkness. Arising from the dark background is the figure of a grim reaper who is holding a scythe and a coffin and with his right hand pointing at the letters written above a candlestick “In ictu oculi” meaning “in the blink of an eye”. How nice of the grim reaper to point out the title of the painting for us. His left foot is standing on the globe; how very dainty. Bellow the grim reaper stretches a cluttered landscape of earthly life, filled with material possession such as books, globe, jewellery, crowns; everything that the soul cannot take to the spiritual realm. The colours – hushed down, sombre, faded, apart from that shiny pink and red – serve to convey the mystical and dark mood. Motif of transience was all the rage in the Spanish Baroque poetry and here is a poem by Pedro Calderon de la Barca called “These flowers, whose pomp“:

THESE flowers, whose pomp was joyous to behold,
When the white dawn awoke them out of sleep,
At eve shall be a ruin fit to weep,
Lulled in the darkling night’s embraces cold.
This posy bright with listed hues of gold,
Snow-white and purple, rivalling heaven’s bow,
Will be a warning to our life below;
So doth one day its little life enfold.

To flower, the rose displayed her buds at morn,
And to grow old and wither, did she flower;
One is her cradle and her grave forlorn.
So men behold brief fortune’s earthly dower,
To die upon the day when they were born,
For the past ages are but as an hour.

The verse “the past ages are but as an hour” goes well with the motif of the painting “In Ictu Oculi”; a rose blooms and withers quickly, compared to the rose our human life is long, but compared to eternity it is not. We are surrounded by things that remind us of transience and yet we dread it the most. The other painting, “Finis Gloriae Mundi”, further emphasises not only the passing of everything on earth but also the pointlessness of success, reputation and everything humans spend (or waste?) their life chasing after. The main part of the painting are the two coffins positioned in different directions and they hold the rotting, decaying bodies of a bishop and a knight who both enjoyed fame and repute, though of a different nature, but are both now – dead. In the dark background, another skeleton and a pile of bones and skulls are also painted. Can things get any creepier here? There are times and day when nostalgic thoughts and trips down memory lanes rip my heart in two, but on other occasions thoughts of transience fill me with bewilderment and passion at once because if life passes quickly, if “life is a dream” as Calderon de la Barca wrote, then why waste a single second of it not enjoying it, not being ecstatic that you are alive – while you are alive. In a second you’ll be ashes, so rejoice while you can.

Juan de Valdés Leal, Finis gloriae mundi, 1672