Virgin and Child in Glory
Unsurprisingly, the seventeenth-century Spanish painter of this enormous, shimmering altarpiece - Bartolome Esteban Murillo - was fond of children. He was always surrounded by them, being one of fourteen, orphaned young - and then having nine of his own. Here the infant Christ, his podgy body held tenderly by his mother Mary, sleepy head resting against her neck, holds our gaze with dark, troubled eyes - hinting perhaps at the suffering to come. A multitude of cherubs frolic among the puffy clouds. At the bottom one is being gathered up by a cloud to join his playmates. Two clutch reassuringly at Mary's skirts. Towards the top faces and clouds merge, eventually becoming insubstantial. Murillo's comforting vision of heaven - combining the touchingly human with a hazy, golden suggestion of divine light - appeals directly to our emotions. This style, known as the Baroque, was used by the Catholic Church to re-engage people with its beliefs - then under attack from Protestantism. It was Murillo who invented much of the religious imagery we're familiar with today. This image is rare - Mary is usually on her own, or sitting with the Christ child in a domestic setting. Murillo, a socially conscious Catholic, helped famine and plague victims in his home city, Seville. His pictures of beggar-children were highly prized by collectors the following century, even in Protestant Britain where he was admired by artists like Gainsborough. The King of Spain imposed an export ban on all his paintings to try to keep them in the country. Their value explains the fate of this one - known as 'The Cut-up Virgin'. This altarpiece was made for the Archbishop of Seville's private Palace chapel. In the eighteenth century, around the time of the export ban, Mary's upper body with the Christ-child was cut out and sold - and a copy inserted. Thirty years or so later, the Palace was the French headquarters during the Peninsular War. One Marshal Soult looted the painting, and took it back to France. Incredibly all the parts - the original cut-out, and the original surround with replacement insert - made their way to Britain. In 1862 a trustee of The National Gallery had the two original sections reunited. The painting was presented to the Walker in 1953 to celebrate the Queen's Coronation.