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Badajoz 1512–1586

Luis de Morales was a singular and highly successful Spanish sixteenth-century painter whose intense devotional panels catered to a prevailing local taste for images of fervid religiosity. He produced numerous versions and replicas of a relatively limited range of subjects, all religious, mainly the Ecce Homo, the Holy Family and the Pietà. For this he became known as ‘El Divino’. According to his biographer, Palomino, he was trained in Seville, probably by the Flemish artist, Peeter de Kempener (1503–86), known as Pedro Campana; certainly, Morales’ hyper-realism recalls the Hispano-Flemish tradition as well as Spanish religious sculpture. He is unlikely to have actually visited Italy, but he was aware of Leonardo’s innovations as well as those of Raphael. In particular, Morales’s use of sfumato and his emotional directness recall Leonardesque artists such as Giampetrino and Luini. However, over a career of about forty years there was little evolution in his style.

Morales earliest dated work is the Virgin with the Little Bird (Madrid, Private Collection). It is dated 1546 and was painted for the parish church of La Conception in his hometown, Badajoz. Morales was invited by Philip II to paint at the Escorial but “since his ability was not suited to other things, nor to works on a large scale” (Palomino, op. cit.), he returned to Badajoz where he remained for the rest of his life. His most important patron there was the Bishop Juan de Ribera, of whom he painted a rare portrait (Museo del Prado, Madrid). Morales would have been aware of the writings of contemporary Spanish mystics such as St Peter of Alcántara and Juan de Ávila whose call to spiritual meditation is echoed by Morales’ preferred iconography, for which there was such a huge demand. In the 1560s Morales was also busy with larger commissions such as the high altar of Nuestra Señora de la Asunción in Arroya de la Luz, Cáceres and for the Dominican church of San Domingo in Evora, Portugal. These, however, betray his uncertain mastery of perspective and inability to organize multi-figural compositions. 

Despite Morales’s conservative piety, he was aware of contemporary humanist currents as the Holy Family in the New York Hispanic Society makes clear. Its iconography refers not only to Erasmus’s commentary on the Gospel of Saint Luke but, in the diagram of the horoscope of Christ which he includes, the De astorum iudiciis, an edition of a work by the Greek astronomer Ptolemy, published in Basel in 1554. Even if they had major stylistic differences, Morales’s nearest artistic equivalent is El Greco (1541–1614) who replicated images of similar spiritual intensity.


Top Auction Results for Luis de Morales

The Virgin and Child, or La virgén del sombrero
Sold for £1,609,250 ($2,540,653)
London, Sotheby’s, 8 December 2010, Old Master & British Paintings Evening Sale, lot 3 

The Birth of the Virgin
Sold for £588,000 ($960,000)
London, Sotheby’s, 10 July 2003, Old Master Paintings – Part One, lot 41

Virgen del sombrero con niño (Virgen gitana)
Sold for €550,000 hammer ($727,224)
Madrid, Sala de Subastas, 20 December 2012, Subasta Extraordinaria, lot 649


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