Coello’s St. Louis Worshipping the Holy Family (c.1665-8)

Some artists, like Salvador Dali, make the common language of art more evident than that in the subtler and more veiled work of their colleagues. Claudio Coello, an earlier Spanish artist, is one of them. He painted a thirteenth-century King of France adoring the Holy Family. However, instead of letting the figures from different ages share the same reality as in some donor portraits, Coello placed the Virgin and Child on a carpeted stage-set with the later king separate, stepping off a stone floor. His figure is fully lit and properly rounded; the figures behind, mostly in shade, less life-like.

Are they outside or in? The stone floor under the king provides no clue though the landscape ironically confirms the space as indoors. The trees which a literalist might claim are unrealistic and poorly painted are, in fact, a painted backdrop. They look poorly painted because they are meant to look painted. I am not sure, though, whether we see the Holy Family posing in a studio  or whether we see the king-as-artist in front of his painting of "The Holy Family". If the latter, all but the foreground figures are "in a painting." Whichever way, the setting is quite close to Manet's Le Déjeuner sur L'Herbe two centuries later.

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Captions for image(s) above:

Coello, St. Louis, King of France, Worshipping the Holy Family (c. 1665-8) Oil on canvas. Prado, Madrid.

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St. Louis the king is the artist's alter ego directing or painting the scene. He approaches the "stage/painting" with a sword and crown of thorns as "brush" and "palette". Each item shares the shape of what it represents: a long thin paintbrush and a rounded palette. (See "Brush and Palette") The crown also suggests suffering and ultimate redemption, the common journey of creative minds. Kings and saints are complex symbols of authority and perfection. The king in some esoteric traditions like alchemy represents spiritual purity. Louis, king and saint, combines all in one figure.

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Captions for image(s) above:

Coello, St. Louis, King of France, Worshipping the Holy Family (c. 1665-8)

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Although Coello "directs or paints" the scene in armor, he also appears as the infant John the Baptist. Like the king the Baptist is in the foreground and he looks at us while pointing towards his "painting": the Virgin and Child. His arm and pointing finger are spot-lit. We have shown elsewhere how an over-the-shoulder pose like this indicates an "artist painting" and, separately, how a pointing figure paints

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Captions for image(s) above:

Detail of Coello's St. Louis, King of France, Worshipping.....

 

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In confirmation, the Baptist's face resembles the artist's. Given the gap in age between the child-like face of the Baptist and this self-portrait from two decades later, the likeness is striking. Both share curly hair, large wide open eyes, high forehead, puffy cheeks, bulbous tip to the nose, slight smile and a small prominent chin. The Baptist is the "artist" too.

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Captions for image(s) above:

Left: Detail of Coello's St. Louis Worshipping.....

Right: Detail (inverted) of Coello's Self-portrait (1680's)

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It is not uncommon for an artist to appear twice in the same painting.1 Coello, like many other artists before and since, has depicted the moment of  the painting's own creation. In his imagination he sees himself and perhaps his studio assistants creating a painting of the Holy Family. It should more correctly be titled "Coello as King and Baptist paints "The Holy Family"

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Captions for image(s) above:

Coello, St. Louis, King of France, Worshipping the Holy Family

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The true scene in Coello's painting is fairly self-evident once the viewer is aware of what artists do. If not, the scene remains what the title suggests and that is illustration. An illustrator can only be praised for his design, brushwork or colors because his intellectual contribution to the subject, St. Louis worshiping the Holy Family, would have been minimal. The writer who created the written source would have been the thinker. The painter in this scenario would remain a mere craftsman and that, as all art historians would readily acknowledge, cannot be so.  

More Works by Coello

Notes:

1. Think Raphael in The School of Athens or a firing squad of painters in Manet's Execution.

Original Publication Date on EPPH: 02 Mar 2011. © Simon Abrahams. Articles on this site are the copyright of Simon Abrahams. To use copyrighted material in print or other media for purposes beyond 'fair use', you must obtain permission from the copyright owner. Websites may link to this page without permission (please do) but may not reproduce the material on their own site without crediting Simon Abrahams and EPPH.