Still Life with Vessels by Francisco de Zurbarán

Francisco de Zurbarán

Still Life with Vessels , c.1650, Oil on canvas, 46 x 84 cm, Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid; Bequest of Francisco de Asís Cambó, 1940, P002803, Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid, Spain / Bridgeman Images

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Treasure in Earthen Vessels

Individual Commentary
Commentary by
Ursula Weekes

Paul’s life was full of affliction, perplexity, and persecution, but through these trials he was able to say that he was not crushed, not driven to despair, not forsaken and not destroyed (2 Corinthians 4:8–9). He knew that in Jesus, he had treasure of unsurpassing worth, and that his body was like an earthen vessel (4:7) displaying the extraordinary power of eternal life in the face of death (4:11–12).

This seventeenth-century Spanish Still Life with Vessels by Francisco de Zurbarán has a wonderful asceticism, not so much in the objects themselves, but in the way they are arranged with ordered simplicity. Zurbarán spent much of his career in Seville painting monastic figures and saints, and this painting with its strong chiaroscuro lighting imbues the vessels lined up on a shelf with a spiritual atmosphere. We contemplate them intimately, close to the picture plane, with a dark background that does not allow for any recession.

There is a silver gilt goblet with little dragon handles, standing on a pewter plate at the left. Next to it is a water jug, and on the far right a white vase, both of which are from Triana in Seville, and made of a type of porous earthenware that cools water through evaporation, known as eggshell. In between these, is a terracotta vase from the Indies, at that time part of the Viceroyalty of New Spain.

There are many aspects of the painting that do not conform strictly to the rules of perspective and the fall of light. Most prominent is the fact that the tall Triana water jug does not cast a full shadow onto the terracotta vase to its right, and different vessels are seen from slightly different vantage points in relation to the shelf.

Paul in 2 Corinthians visualizes jars of clay, and imagines them filled with treasure (4:7). Zurbarán seems to treasure the possibilities in the earthly vessels that are his subject. And, maximizing the play of light on their surfaces in order to emphasize their volumes, he like Paul makes us think about the possibilities of what they contain.

 

References

Delenda, Odile, and María del Mar Borobia Guerrero et al. 2015. Zurbarán: A New Perspective (Madrid: Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza)