Theater & art

Frame by Frame

‘Rosa of Viterbo,’ with eyes of a survivor

Worcester Art Museum

WORCESTER — The big, black, watery eyes in this painting belong to a young girl who has something to say to you. You know it from the expectant set of her beautiful mouth, the tender tilt of her head, and the exhorting look on her face, which arrest me every time I meet them in the galleries of the Worcester Art Museum.

This child is special, almost spookily so. It turns out she has endured a life of poverty, devoted to praying and penances in her father’s house, and preaching piety, fidelity to the Roman Catholic Church, and good deeds for the poor.

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She has also, so the story goes, survived three hours in the flames of a burning pyre (from which she emerged unscathed); raised a dead relative back to life; and tried, when she was but 15, to establish a monastery.

She is Rosa of Viterbo, a 13th-century saint. Her image here — so like an icon in one sense, yet so incredibly lifelike, too — was painted in Seville by Bartolomé Estebán Murillo (1618-82), who for a long time was the most famous Spanish painter of the Baroque.

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For two centuries, Murillo was as popular — and arguably as influential — as Raphael. Only in the late 19th century was his reputation eclipsed by El Greco and Diego Velazquez.


Murillo was the youngest of 14 children, and his parents were dead by the time he was 10. Apart from a trip to Madrid (where Velazquez was court painter) in 1658, he spent his entire life in Seville, a flourishing city, rich from the bounty of its busy trade with the New World.

During his formation as an artist, he was heavily influenced by Seville’s other great painter, Francisco de Zurbaran (1598-1664). He painted this image of St. Rosa around 1650, in a manner that already sees him evolving beyond Zurbaran’s austere tenebrist style into something brighter, kinder, more tender.

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Somehow, though, the image remains free from the sentimentality that many say weakened Murillo’s later, so-called “vaporous” style. Its edges are soft, its local colors — those pink and blue flowers especially — softer still. But the image is too urgent, too direct, to be accused of sentimentality.

If the painting’s date is correct, it was created in the immediate aftermath of an utterly devastating plague that halved Seville’s population, and from which the city never fully recovered.

So imagine yourself now, if you will, a survivor of that plague — an orphan, perhaps, like the artist himself — attending Mass in a church in Seville, and looking up to contemplate this beautiful child-saint’s face, her sincere, shadowed, imploring eyes — the eyes of a survivor — and the effect they might have on you.

Past Frame by Frame columns

Sebastian Smee can be reached at ssmee@globe.com.
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