Andrew Graham-Dixon explores Spain's art history. He discovers how a brutal empire brought a Golden Age of art of the 16th and 17th centuries.
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The plains of Castile,
the bleak heart of central Spain.
In the sixteenth
and seventeenth centuries,
this barren landscape nurtured some
of the most dramatic art in history.
From the mystical world of El Greco
to the dark visions of Zurbaran
this was an art inspired
by fervent Catholicism
and a yearning for contact with God.
Out of such fervour would come
darkness and even savagery -
religion and violence intertwined.
And as the Inquisition struggled
to maintain control, Spain would
descend into crisis and paranoia.
I'm travelling through
the heart of Spain,
through some of the country's
most extraordinary landscapes,
to discover how a history so harsh,
could have produced some
of the greatest art ever seen.
FLAMENCO STYLE MUSIC
My journey begins in a place where,
in the 16th century,
a great project was born -
one that would shape Spain's art,
history, and religion
for more than 100 years -
the Escorial Palace.
Look at it!
I've never seen El Escorial before.
I've seen pictures, but nothing
to prepare me for the size of it.
They say it took 21 years to build.
When I first read that,
"That's not going very quickly".
But in fact, 21 years is lightning
fast to build something that size.
I don't know any
builders who could do it!
was built for Philip II,
the King of Spain and the
most powerful man in the world.
His empire stretched from Holland
to Italy, and included the
vast territories of the New World.
This was a citadel
fit for an emperor.
But this is no romantic fairytale
palace to delight and enchant.
It's monumental, austere,
From this angle,
with its high watch towers,
it almost looks like a prison.
It's the very emblem of Philip's
determination to rule
through fear and control.
Despite his power and wealth,
Philip was struggling to govern
an empire that was in
a state of religious emergency -
attacked both by the Muslims
in the East
and the Protestants in the North.
This vast building, with its state
apartments and magnificent library,
was a defiant statement of
Spanish invincibility, and the
nerve centre of Philip's reign.
But at its heart is a tiny chamber.
Now, these were Philip II's
And you've got to remember
the scale of the Escorial and here,
this is where he is.
And it's so simple, so austere.
Just four rather Spartan rooms.
This is where he would
pore over the affairs of state.
This is his writing room.
This is a little, very small,
very modest drawing room.
And this is Philip II's bedroom,
And you think this is the bed of the
most powerful man in the world!
It's really rather small.
It doesn't look very comfortable.
But even more telling -
this is my favourite bit.
This is absolutely amazing!
Here's your bedroom.
You're Philip II.
You get out of that very
uncomfortable bed, and you
come into your oratory to pray...
Look where his bedroom leads to!
Come out here.
Straight onto the high altar
of one of the most
fantastic basilicas every built!
This mighty basilica is a muscular
declaration of Philip's faith -
and a direct appeal
to God for help in difficult times.
Philip called it "a new Jerusalem",
and founded a monastery here
to pray for his soul for all time.
That monastery is the key to the
Spain of Philip II - with religion
at the centre of everything.
It seems to me that he was a man who
felt that his power very much
depended on his relationship to God.
That he ruled by the grace of
God and that he had to do his best
to keep in God's
good books, if you like.
Yes, I would say that because he was
really a person living with faith.
Trying to do his best.
According to some opinions,
this monastery was a kind of sign
for the strength of the church.
For example, you enter the main
entrance and you are
walking towards the East,
where is Jerusalem,
where the sun rises.
And because the sun
is a symbol of Christ,
when you are entering the church,
you are walking
in the direction of Christ.
So, even in the architecture,
there is the expression
of theological doctrine?
Yes, of course.
Philip wanted to unite his people
through piety -
but that piety had to conform
to the strictest laws
of the Catholic Church.
He wanted to spread the one
true faith, but also to control it -
and what better tool for that,
New rules were laid down
Religious images were to tell
clear, direct, unambiguous stories.
There were to be no
distracting or irrelevant details.
The images of the saints were to be
humble, direct calls to prayer.
These were the new criteria
by which ALL art would be judged,
and Philip II
rigorously enforced them.
One artist who passed the test
was Juan de Navarrete,
whose paintings fill the Basilica.
In works like this vivid,
of Saints Peter and Paul,
he created straightforward aids
to devotion -
exactly what Philip wanted.
But one artist failed to
comply with Philip's rules.
came to the Escorial from Greece,
and the picture he painted
for the king would become one of the
masterpieces of 16th-century Spain.
Its subject is
the death of Saint Maurice -
an early saint
martyred by the Romans.
The painting shows his arrest
CHURCH BELLS TOLL
reckoned on his patron's
extreme religious sensitivities.
And while the King
praised the picture
for its flair and originality,
he took issue
with one cardinal error -
of the beheaded martyr's body
in the obscure middle distance.
As far as Philip was concerned,
it should have been
centre stage for everyone to see.
Theotocopoulos had failed
on the one essential criterion -
The king dismissed him.
He would never work for him again.
What Philip didn't realise
was that he had just sent away
the greatest artist of the age -
El Greco - "The Greek".
El Greco's work was too
original for Philip II.
There was only one other place
for an ambitious painter to try
his luck - the city of Toledo.
I'm not the only one.
We'll fight our way through.
See if we can get a view of
the city that inspired El Greco.
It is a great view.
When El Greco arrived, Toledo was a
beacon for Catholics across Spain.
And it still is today.
Madrid might be the political
capital of Spain, but Toledo is
definitely its religious centre.
And in a deeply Catholic country,
this is the closest
you can get to being in Rome.
Everyone's in on the business.
You sell a lot of images of saints.
Is there a kind of
top ten of saints?
Is there a particular saint
that you sell the most of?
The most popular one would be
who's supposed to
bring health, money and work.
And he gives you health.
What would be your number two?
St Teresa is also very popular.
She used to be a writer.
She has the pen to write.
And the pigeon, the pigeon of peace.
St Anthony is very popular,
because it tradition that all the
girls that are single, single girls,
they go to church and they go to
the convent where St Anthony is.
They kneel down
in front of St Anthony.
They say a prayer to St Anthony,
and St Anthony will provide them with
a good-looking and rich boyfriend.
It actually works out.
Sometimes they get married
within the year!
This kind of deep,
popular devotion to the saints goes
back a long time in Toledo.
And El Greco encountered
much the same thing,
although in a different form,
at the very heart
of the city's cathedral.
This is the great altarpiece.
It's a multi-coloured
wall of sculpture,
with much the same doll's
as the displays of statuettes
in Toledo's modern gift-shops.
Made by an army of anonymous
craftsmen, it's like a 3-D
billboard of Christian messages.
Art for the masses - just
what Philip II would have liked.
And it was in this world where
the church was all important,
and the individual artist
was subordinate to its
majesty, might and splendour.
It was this world that El Greco
was going to have to try
and find a way through.
In 1577, he got his chance to
prove there could be more to
Spanish art than pious folksiness.
The cathedral authorities
gave him a commission.
The Disrobing of Christ -
Jesus about to be stripped
before his Crucifixion.
absolutely wonderful picture.
I'd never seen it before.
It's just a tour de force of
everything that makes El Greco
the greatest painter of his age.
And he's pulled out all the stops.
This wonderfully original vertical
composition, crowded with figures,
in which you get
an extraordinary combination of
Look at the armour of Herod.
Look at that old man at the
back of the painting
with his hand pointing out at us -
which is a classic painter's
way of showing off
that he can paint that
foreshortening of perspective.
And yet on the other hand,
you've got this tremendous
departure from realism.
Look at the scale
of the body of Christ.
Look at the way in which
the whole composition seems
in contradiction of the fact
that he's about to be crucified.
It seems to be
whooshing him up to heaven.
Hard to believe, but the
cathedral authorities disapproved.
that there shouldn't be any figures
above Christ in the picture -
separate the Lord from heaven.
El Greco had broken the rules
to express his own artistic vision.
He'd never work in
the cathedral again.
The irony is that it was precisely
because El Greco was
rejected by these two great patrons,
the Spanish king
and the cathedral authorities,
that he was able to find
the freedom to develop
his own imaginative vision.
If at first you don't succeed,
try again. And El Greco had
good reason not to give up.
Away from the cathedral, a circle of
priests and scholars were practising
an intense form of spirituality -
a devotion to God so extreme
it became a physical experience.
El Greco's experiments -
the way he brought his own roots
in the shimmering art of the Greek
east, and planted them in Spain.
In his pictures,
the figures yearn towards heaven
and writhe with energy.
It's as if they're
bursting out of the frame.
And when he came to paint Toledo
itself, he filled the landscape
with that same mystical spirit.
He turned Toledo into a brooding
cauldron of spiritual energy.
The clouds overhead signal
the apocalypse -
the impending religious showdown
for which all of Spain and
all of Christendom was preparing.
El Greco didn't
paint the real Toledo.
He painted a Toledo of the
imagination, and that imagination
was intensely spiritual.
In his vision,
the end of the world is nigh.
The city's buildings
are quivering with a kind
of spiritual electricity.
It's as if the whole place is
about to be whirled up to heaven.
He painted Toledo
as the holiest of holy places.
And he could have
given it no greater gift.
People in those days really believed
in visions, spirits, angels.
But this could become a contagion,
breeding morbid obsession.
And El Greco captured that too
in his greatest work of all -
The Burial of the Count of Orgaz.
It depicts the moment when two
saints descended from heaven
to take the soul of the
devout Count up to God.
It's stunning, with these
radiant colours, these forms that
flicker and ascend like flames.
It's as if
the whole wall is on fire.
we have flesh and blood human beings
witnessing solemnly the miracle.
But as the miracle takes place, as
the soul is transported into heaven,
all of the forms dissolve.
The Count of Orgaz
becomes pure spirit and
as that happens, El Greco's
style turns into pure spirit.
So that the forms become more fluid.
Look at the figure of
John the Baptist, for example.
It's not a body,
it's like an emanation of spirit.
It's like a flame.
There's a wonderful tenderness about
the way in which the two saints
are lowering the Count's body
into the tomb.
It's as if they're placing a
new born infant in the cradle.
And I think THAT ultimately is
what this picture is all about.
It's a picture that says that
death IS a form of rebirth.
It expresses the belief that death
is what you live for,
death is the fulfilment,
death is the beginning of the
great adventure that will take your
soul into the world of the spirit.
El Greco could never have thrived
without the mystics of Toledo.
But all over Spain,
a uniquely strong sense of piety
was flourishing - an obsession with
saints, their lives, their relics.
I'm on my way to the home of
the most extraordinary female
mystic of 16th century Spain -
St Teresa of Avila.
She was born in Avila in 1515
and was so fascinated
by the lives of the saints,
that at the age of seven
she ran away to the South,
hoping to become a Christian martyr
at the hands of the Moors.
Her family rescued her, but Teresa
went on to become a nun,
founding convents all over Spain.
Five hundred years on,
pilgrims come to Avila
from all corners of the world.
She was a saint who
understood the everyday
problems of ordinary people.
And in her writings
she spoke openly about her
struggles with her own faith.
She preached a simple message
to people whose lives
were short and often very hard.
"Life on earth," she said,
"well, it's no more
than a night in a cheap hotel."
Here in this convent,
Teresa stripped Christianity back
to its basics -
love, charity, poverty.
She even went so far as to turn
the expression of her faith into
an uncanny form of performance art.
When Santa Teresa first entered
the convent, she was appalled by
the other sisters' lack of piety.
So to make her point, she staged her
own personal re-enactment of Christ
being dragged to his crucifixion.
She got on all fours,
she had herself saddled up
with a mule pack full of stones,
and she got one
of the other sisters to lead her
around the convent on a halter.
These are the rooms where
Teresa experienced her visions.
She claimed that Christ appeared
to her, right here, tied to
the pillar on which he was scourged.
Later, the power
of the Holy Spirit
took hold of her so strongly
that her body shook
and she began to levitate.
And then there was the most
baffling phenomenon of all.
A transverberation of the heart, in
which she felt she had been speared
through the heart by an angel
and infused with the Holy Spirit.
Teresa had such an
intense relationship with God
that she actually
felt it within her own body.
She died in 1582
and was canonised 40 years later.
But after her death, the
question was, how to tell her story?
The answer was art.
Teresa had become a folk hero,
an inspiration to thousands.
And her image appeared in countless
paintings, by artists including
Flemish master Peter Paul Rubens
and the Spaniard Claudio Coello.
But paintings weren't enough
for St Teresa's followers.
They would demand something
far more graphic.
This is the convent of
Alba de Tormes, where Teresa died,
and her final resting place.
Above the altar is a gold-trimmed
casket designed to receive her body.
But the casket is incomplete.
Nine months after she died in 1582,
her body was exhumed,
and conclusive evidence
of her purity was found.
Her body was said to have been
In fact, witnesses said
it even smelt of perfume.
But devotion to Teresa
soon became a cult.
Over the following centuries, her
body was exhumed countless times.
On each occasion,
parts of it were removed for relics.
This is her arm, encased in crystal.
flesh still clinging to the bone.
But the greatest
treasure is this object -
St Teresa's heart, displayed
in a gold and silver reliquary.
When we talk about Spanish art
of the Golden Age,
we tend to think very much of
painting and sculpture, the sort
of art that you see in museums.
But I think that these
reliquaries are in themselves
tremendously eloquent works of art.
They take us straight
to the centre of that combination
of mysticism and morbidity
which is right at the heart
of Santa Teresa's legend.
There's the angel with the spear
said to have pierced her heart.
And then, right at the centre of it,
is her heart itself.
A piece of her actual body.
It's that interplay between
the sense of the flesh itself,
the body - the fact
that we're all going to die -
and the hope
that we'll all go to heaven -
enshrined in that object.
In a final twist
to the legend of the angel,
when the heart was removed
from St Teresa's body,
it was said to be perforated.
Today, her fingers are in Avila,
her jaw is in Rome.
Such was the power and persistence
of Santa Teresa's legend,
that throughout his dictatorship,
kept her hand beside his bed.
The fate of St Teresa's body
is a symbol of the deep fascination
with saints and martyrs
that gripped 17th century Spain.
Pain had become the mark of piety -
God's sign -
written into your very flesh, that
you had become one of his Chosen.
And the most visceral artist of
this pain was Jusepe de Ribera.
Ribera specialised in martyrdoms,
which he painted
with extraordinary realism.
This is this is the Martyrdom
of St Philip, captured in the
moments before his crucifixion.
Ribera doesn't paint him
ON the cross,
but as he's being
agonisingly winched into place.
At his crucifixion,
St Andrew submits stoically as the
executioner binds him to the cross.
And then there's the martyrdom
of St Bartholomew, one
of Ribera's favourite subjects.
Bartholomew was executed
by being skinned alive.
There's a tremendously strong
emphasis in all of these works
on the sheer visceral pain
that goes with being a saint.
These are religious paintings,
but they have the immediacy of
portraits, and what they show us
is real flesh-and-blood
human bodies being subjected
to appalling torments.
You see the sweat, the blood,
the straining sinews.
There'd been violence of this kind
in religious art before.
But in Spanish art,
everything is more intense.
It's as if the
volume's been turned up.
But the dark
in this world of light and shade,
could be very black indeed.
Spain's preoccupation with martyrdom
would be used to justify atrocities.
I'm travelling through the province
of Extremadura, one of the
remotest parts of the country.
The literal meaning of Extremadura
is "extremely hard".
you can feel that about this place.
It's bleak, it's isolated.
The landscape is parched.
In the summer, it's unbearably hot.
And the people from here
have a reputation
for being extremely hard too.
They certainly bore that
out in the 16th century.
In the middle of this
is an unlikely treasure -
the birthplace of one of the darkest
figures in Spanish history.
It's an architectural jewel
of 16th-century Spain - Trujillo.
The first thing you notice when
you walk into the town square
is the architecture.
how unexpectedly imposing it is.
In fact, the whole place is
like a 16th-century film set.
So how did a little
like this come to be so rich?
In the early 16th century,
an illegitimate swineherd,
named Francisco Pizarro,
set off from Trujillo to make
his fortune in the New World.
He and his band of conquistadors
discovered an extraordinary
civilisation - the Incas -
and wealth beyond
their wildest dreams.
It started out as a trickle of gold,
and soon became a torrent of silver.
And the king got 20 percent
of the spoils.
The wealth brought
back by the conquistadors
would fuel the Spanish Empire.
When the conquistadors
returned home from Peru,
they were determined
to show off that money.
Here in Trujillo, they built a
Renaissance ideal city in miniature.
Streets of elaborate palaces,
to the size of the town
and the economy of the region.
At first sight, these buildings look
like traditional displays of wealth.
But look a little closer,
and something else is going on.
The owner of this palace built his
chimneys to resemble Inca temples,
like the ones the Spanish plundered.
On the Pizarro family palace,
the parapet is decorated
with Inca-style statues.
And at the centre of
the coat of arms,
groups of Inca prisoners
are bound together with chains.
The architectural equivalent
of a head on a stick,
this is the triumphant
architecture of conquest.
During the course of the conquest
of Peru, thousands of Incas died,
some from European diseases,
but many as the result
of Spanish butchery.
Francisco Pizarro was
one of the most brutal of
all the conquistadors.
He raped and pillaged,
and he duped the king of the Incas,
persuading him to give him all
his gold in exchange for his life,
and then just garrotting him
The blood of the Incas
is the cement that holds all of
these magnificent palaces together.
But the conquistadors
were more than mercenaries.
They saw themselves as missionaries,
and their conquest of the New World
was just another front
in the great religious war that was
consuming 16th-century Spain.
If you want to understand the
you have to realise that it was
widely believed throughout Spain
that God had given
to these Catholic people
the New World and all its treasures,
precisely so that they could combat
the enemies of Catholicism -
the Protestants, the Muslims.
They genuinely believed
that God was on their side.
Francisco Pizarro's descendents
were awarded an aristocratic title,
and still live in Trujillo today.
Ramon Perez de Herraste is the
current Marquis of the Conquest.
How do you think Francisco Pizarro
has gone down in history?
Is he a hero, is he a villain?
When you think of,
particularly Francisco Pizarro,
do you think
he was a very religious man?
In the twisted logic of
the brutality of the conquistadors
became the expression
of their piety.
By advancing his faith at
the expense of a whole civilization,
would become a Spanish hero.
Before the conquistadors
set off for the New World,
they made a public display
of their piety.
To pray for safe passage,
they visited one of
the holiest shrines in Europe,
and a wellspring of extreme
Catholic fervour -
the monastery of Guadalupe.
Around the year 1290,
the Virgin Mary was said
to have appeared to a shepherd,
and guided him to a statue
buried in the ground on this site.
What the shepherd found became
one of the most sacred treasures
of the Catholic world -
the Virgin of Guadalupe.
Perched high above the altar
and blackened with age,
she's so small,
you can barely see her.
But there is a way to get closer.
To change her elaborate robes,
the monks use a special chamber
at the back of the altar.
For centuries, the Spanish had
prayed to the Madonna of Guadalupe.
Christopher Columbus in 1492
came here to pray to her before
setting sail for the New World,
and the reason was that
they believed that this was no
This was a portrait of Mary,
Mother of God herself,
carved by none other than St Luke.
And you can still feel
that intensity of veneration
in the splendour with
which she's housed today.
But the Virgin of Guadalupe
is just the centrepiece of a vast
complex of piety and prayer.
In the 17th century,
it was a group of Jeronymite monks
who had the task
of looking after the Virgin.
Inspired by the 4th-century scholar
and monk, St Jerome,
the Jeronymite Order was one of
the most powerful and influential
forces in Spain.
And to assert the authority of
their order, they turned to art.
In 1637, the friars of the order
commissioned the greatest Spanish
religious artist of the day,
Francisco de Zurbaran,
to paint eight pictures
commemorating the ways
in which they strove to keep
the spirit of St Jerome alive,
and this was the result.
It's one of the most
In fact, it's the only space in all
of the monasteries of all of Spain
where you can still see a great
cycle of religious paintings in the
place for which it was designed.
Now, you might have expected
to find here a set of paintings
illustrating the life of St Jerome,
but that's not what you see.
What you see are
a series of portraits
of members of the
Spanish Jeronymite order
apparitions and visions.
He shows us Brother Pedro
of Salamanca having a vision
of a great fire in the sky that
portends a great battle to come.
But how simply Zurbaran
has painted it.
He just shows us two men
in the dark,
one of them gesturing
towards the vision.
There's almost nothing to look at
except for their awestruck faces.
But over here, this is my
favourite picture in the room.
I think it's a real masterpiece.
For me, it's perhaps Zurbaran's
and what it shows us is a young
25-year-old brother of the order.
He's received a vision from God,
in which he's learned that
he's going to die on this day,
and he's gone to get
the other brothers in the order.
He's told them the news,
and they're all praying together.
He is about to die. That's
the moment that Zurbaran's painted.
What's extraordinary about this
as a work of art,
and why I think Zurbaran is the
greatest artistic interpreter
of this monastic, austere
ideal of life,
is because he has found an
equivalent in painting
to the extremism of the piety
that it represents.
This is a form of painting that has
rejected, as the monk rejects,
all the things of this world.
It's almost like a kind of
There's only the black
and the white of the monk's robes,
and I think it absolutely expresses
the sense that for these people,
black and white is all there is.
Either you're in God's light,
or you're cast out into darkness.
Zurbaran's paintings for Guadalupe
would represent the last great
flowering of religious art in Spain.
this was a society in crisis.
While the monks of Guadalupe
were models of piety,
were asking awkward questions.
The black and white doctrines
of the church
were being tested by some
of the sharpest minds in Spain.
A storm was brewing.
This is Salamanca, one of
Europe's most beautiful towns.
Its chief glory is the university,
the oldest in Spain,
Its chief glory is the university,
the oldest in Spain,
and, in the 16th century, one of
the great European seats of
But its open spirit of inquiry would
attract the attention of the most
draconian organisation in Europe,
the Spanish Inquisition -
a tribunal set up to enforce
The results would be devastating.
This is Fray Luis de Leon,
one of the great intellectuals
in the university's history.
He was a revered theologian
whose progressive scholarship and
were part of the mystical tradition
of El Greco and St Teresa.
And this is his lecture theatre,
just as it was when he taught here
in the mid 1500s.
This was where he expounded his
own unique vision of faith -
questioning, a deep personal
engagement with the Bible.
It while he was lecturing
in this very room
that Fray Luis came to the attention
of the Spanish Inquisition.
His crime had been to produce
his own translation
of one of the most erotic passages
in the whole Bible,
the Song of Songs.
Now this dangerous text was
being sold and circulated in the
street just outside this building.
That had to be stopped, and
it had to be stopped immediately.
And so on 27th March 1572,
the officers of the Inquisition
stormed into this room.
Fray Luis was lecturing up there.
They arrested him,
they dragged him away,
and they imprisoned him
for five years.
The Inquisition had
succeeded in stifling
one of the most humane voices
in a climate of increasing paranoia.
But it wasn't just
that the Inquisition repressed.
Professor Jose Luis Marcello
is the guardian of a unique text,
one that shows how the Inquisition
invented the dark art
of thought control.
So cover the pages up!
What other methods did they...?
These are dangerous ideas.
In the case of this book,
what are the dangerous ideas?
But censorship was the mildest
of the Inquisition's techniques.
All over the country,
ordinary people were being
forced to provide proof
of their Christian bloodlines.
This is the Plaza Mayor, the
great central square of Salamanca.
Such squares are a feature
of nearly every Spanish town,
the place for bullfights,
carnivals and civic events.
But during the Inquisition,
they also served another purpose.
All over Spain, squares like this
were used to stage elaborate public
rituals known as trials of faith.
Those accused of heresy were
brought here by the Inquisition
to face questions from
priests and officials,
and it all took place in front
of a bloodthirsty crowd.
On their inevitable conviction,
those accused of heresy
were sentenced to death,
and they were executed
by being burned at the stake,
a lengthy process
that gave them plenty of time
to plead for forgiveness
in their dying moments.
This was religious enforcement
as a kind of grisly public theatre.
In one of the few paintings
of a trial of faith,
Francisco Rizzi shows
a public square crammed
with officials and onlookers.
The condemned heretics, wearing tall
hats, are paraded around the square,
and urged to repent
by priests and monks.
This is religious persecution,
painted as if it were
a spectator sport.
Pedro Berruguete paints
the moment of execution itself.
Flames lick around
the feet of the condemned,
but for the executioner,
it's just another tedious day's
Burning at the stake
had become part of everyday life.
Much of Spain was descending
into a kind of madness.
The nation's devotion to God was
increasingly darkened by obsession,
and the relentless focus
on Church doctrine
had climaxed in a bloodbath.
This was a country
starting to devour itself.
And while religious conflict
was consuming the nation,
the Empire was starting to unravel.
Philip had spent millions leading
a campaign against the Protestants
in northern Europe,
a campaign that failed disastrously.
His famous Armada against England
had also ended in failure.
Throughout this period,
it was the Castilians who funded
their kings' foreign wars,
and provided most of the soldiers.
Even today, this has the feeling
of a war-scarred landscape.
The people were exhausted,
a fact subtly expressed in one
of the unsung art forms of the day.
Still life paintings traditionally
reflect on mortality,
but in Spain,
they become a cry of despair.
In Zurbaran's Agnus Dei,
the lamb of God is a dead sheep
on a slab, its feet trussed up,
ready for the butcher's block.
In Antonio de Pereda's
Still Life with Walnuts,
the cracked nuts spill out of
their shells onto a table,
like brains from smashed skulls.
And in even the simplest of
Juan Sanchez Cotan's beautiful
painting of vegetables,
the carrots are rotten and black.
But before imperial Spain
vanished into darkness,
there would be
one extraordinary final act,
and it would be played out
in the capital, Madrid.
The old order was changing.
In 1598, Philip II died.
His son, Philip III,
squandered his power,
to his courtiers.
His grandson, Philip IV,
would be the king to lead
the Empire into its final moments.
Philip IV spared no expense
in turning this city
into one of the most glittering
capitals of all Europe.
He filled Madrid with lavish palaces
and monuments to his own glory.
But all was not well.
While Philip was busy rebuilding,
his empire was falling apart.
Religious wars had emptied
the nation's coffers,
the gold rush of the New World
had dried up,
the economy was on its knees.
The great Spanish galleon
was running aground,
while the captain
twiddled his thumbs.
The beliefs that had sustained
Spain for a century
were starting to crumble.
And one artist would reveal the
truth beneath - Diego de Velazquez.
And it was on streets like these
that he found his inspiration.
For centuries, the art of Spain
had been overwhelmingly religious,
but he turned away from that
to paint real life.
He painted ordinary working people
in simple settings.
In taverns and kitchens,
he captured moments of humanity,
with immense wisdom and sympathy.
In this picture,
an old woman poaches eggs.
Everyday life has been given
a miraculous vividness.
The wrinkles on the woman's face,
the simple utensils she uses,
the perfect depiction of
half-cooked, milky egg-whites.
In these pictures, Velazquez painted
ordinary people living their lives.
With immense respect,
he gave them great dignity,
but he didn't sentimentalise them
in the slightest bit.
There are no religious mysteries
here, no arcane symbolism, no codes.
He simply painted what was
in front of his eyes.
But this painter of ordinary people
was also destined to become
the greatest court painter
of the age.
Some would say the greatest painter
ever to have lived.
And in Philip IV,
he found the perfect patron.
Philip IV collected art
with an astonishing enthusiasm,
and on an incredible scale.
At one point, he had half the
studios in Rome working for him.
It's as if he wanted the
beautiful illusions of art
to fill the real power vacuum that
was developing during his reign.
But his favourite artist
who painted for every occasion.
He painted his few
such as The Surrender at Breda.
He painted Philip himself,
resplendent on horseback,
he rides through the landscape.
The horse symbolising
the unruly populace that
he keeps under his firm control.
Far from the truth.
And here, Velazquez paints
Philip's son and heir.
Again, astride a horse,
but on this occasion, the painting
starts to develop something uneasy.
You sense that Velazquez can feel
that this rather sickly boy
may not live long, which, indeed,
turned out to be the case.
And this begins to take us
to the heart of the painter,
and his strange, remarkable
relationship with the king,
because what Velazquez ended up
giving Philip IV,
and it's what makes Velazquez such
a great, such a profound artist,
was something much deeper
than merely official propaganda.
But there's one picture by Velazquez
that encapsulates all the delusion,
glory and grandeur
of 17th-century Spain,
and finally sounds its death knell.
It's often been described
as the world's greatest painting,
and it's called Las Meninas -
Every time I see this picture,
I just think what an artist
The painting is often said
to be a great mystery,
but I don't think it is a mystery,
I think it's wonderfully clear
what's going on,
although what's going on
is an incredibly daring thing.
No one had ever painted this before.
What Velazquez has painted
is not a portrait of the king.
He's painted a picture
of what the king sees as
he's having his portrait painted.
And what does the king see?
He sees his daughter,
who's come to see him being painted,
lit by this brilliant shaft of light
in this rather dark room.
He sees his court entertainers,
a dwarf, a midget. He sees his dog.
He sees Velazquez himself,
with his paintbrush in his hand.
He sees himself in the mirror,
and he sees his queen.
But what do they look like?
They look like ghosts.
Everything in this picture
is about transience.
Look at the way in which Velazquez
paints the fabrics,
the skin, the hair.
Look at the way in which
he paints the dwarves.
Everything is hovering on the brink
Some of the forms are
almost out of focus.
It's as if these figures
will turn and move,
that the scene will disperse,
that the moment will pass.
The message seems to be that no
matter how powerful you are,
in the end,
your experience is transitory.
Spanish power, Spanish might,
all its glory and magnificence.
It's all come down to these figures
in this dark room.
They will pass, they will die,
everything will come to an end.
Velazquez's masterpiece was
a full-stop to the extraordinary
century that preceded it.
He'd introduced a dangerously
an utterly secular view
of the world.
The Golden Age of Spain was over.
It had been an era in which Spain
had been consumed by religion,
by a fascination with piety,
Its artists, from El Greco
had looked to God for inspiration,
capturing a spiritual realm,
invisible to the eye.
In the end, the greatest
Spanish painter of all
dares to turn his back
on all of that,
and the most basic and subversive
message of his art
is that this life, brief though
it is, is all we can be sure of,
and maybe that's enough.
Subtitles by Red Bee Media Ltd
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Critic and art historian Andrew Graham-Dixon travels from southern to northern Spain to tell the story of some of Europe's most exciting and vital art. He journeys to the country’s scorched centre to explore Spanish art of the 16th and 17th centuries. From the mystical world of El Greco to the tender genius of Velazquez, this was a moment so extraordinary it became known as the Golden Age. But beneath the glittering surface was a dark and savage heart. Travelling from the architectural jewel of Toledo to majestic Madrid, Andrew Graham-Dixon traces the rise and fall of the Spanish Empire, the brutal conquest of the New World, and the religious madness of the Inquisition, to discover how a history so violent could produce some of the most beautiful art ever seen.