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This Holy Family in the Workshop of Nazareth was painted by Juan del Castillo (c. 1590–c. 1658) for the main altarpiece of the church of the Dominican convent of Monte Sion in Seville, Spain. The altarpiece was destroyed in 1936 when anti-clerical activists razed the church. Some works of art were saved from the vandalism, including this one, now on display in the collection of Seville’s Museum of Fine Art.
Juan del Castillo, a modest Seville painter of Spain’s “Golden Age” (c. 1550–c. 1680), was a supporting artist to the renowned masters of the time. He principally devoted himself to the creation of dozens of small works that adorned the prodigious thematic altarpieces typical of the Andalusian baroque. He was very close to Alonso Cano (1601–1667), for whom he stood bail when Cano was imprisoned on suspicion of his wife’s murder. He probably also worked with Zurbarán (1598–1664).
The art of Juan del Castillo is fairly unremarkable, especially with respect to the quality of the draughtsmanship. However, rather than comparing it to the work of the great masters, we do better to consider what lends it its charm: his deliberately naïve style. Highly original and thoroughly charming, his naturalistic approach adds a very personal touch to his work. It was in this vein that Juan del Castillo created a whole series of realistic and engaging popular scenes. Assimilated and reworked, these models would eventually characterise the Seville school, especially when raised to the summit of artistic expression through the genius of Murillo (1617–1682). There is nothing surprising in this, since the orphaned Murillo had been placed as a boarder-apprentice in the workshop of Juan del Castillo in 1633, where he remained for perhaps five years and very probably worked on the Monte Sion altarpiece itself.
In the baroque style, the retable placed behind the altar was designed as the point of fusion between human and sacred history, the eschatological meeting place of the human with the divine. To best achieve its catechetical aim, the reading and interpretation of the altarpiece had to be as explicit as possible, as a whole as well as in each of its details, of its episodes, so to speak. Here, the Holy Family busies itself in the workshop of Nazareth. The message is clear: man finds his prime redemption through work, a true evangelical preparation which remains ever indispensable, as attested by the one sole Redeemer who did not disdain applying himself to it. This message engaged in a polemic very topical at the time, which denounced the “deleterious idleness” of some consecrated religious life. Thus we find Joseph, Mary, and Jesus labouring with their hands to accomplish their works.
The second message is equally clear: the Son of God did not seek to avoid the mission of education and human formation incumbent upon his parents. This stresses the unique importance for parents to fulfil that mission to the best of their abilities and, for children, to submit to it as gracefully as they can. It is in his role as true man, and here as true child, and in his interaction with all that constitutes human life, that Jesus, from birth to death, is the Redeemer. These clear messages do not exclude others, more symbolic, requiring perhaps a bit more decoding. For example, is that not a cross Joseph is teaching Jesus to construct? And is that not a white linen shroud that Mary stitches?
The Holy Family in the Nazareth Workshop (c. 1634–1636), Juan del Castillo (c. 1590–c. 1658), Museum of Fine Arts, Seville, Spain. © Leonard de Selva / Bridgeman Images.
For one hundred years, a statuette of Elizabeth and Mary has enchanted visitors to the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s medieval collection. Crafted during the 14th century in the workshop of Heinrich of Constance, this “Visitation Group,” as scholars often refer to it, was originally housed within the convent of Katharinenthal, a Swiss foundation of cloistered Dominican nuns.
Standing two feet tall, the pair are united in a jubilant embrace. Well-preserved polychromy vivifies the wooden figures with rosy cheeks, creamy flesh tones, and spirited expressions, while delicate gilding highlights their golden locks and flowing mantles. Mary and Elizabeth’s abdomens are both inset with luminous cabochons. These polished rock crystals once magnified images of the fetal Jesus and John the Baptist.
The Visitation Group, as a devotional image for the monastics of Katharinenthal, functioned as a visual aid for meditation. How did its artistic peculiarities inform and guide the nuns’ meditations on this familiar scriptural story?
Ark of the Covenant
Our first interpretive key is the scroll Elizabeth clasps to her chest, which unfurls from beneath her palm as if overflowing from her heart. Miniature gold leaf letters communicate her famous query: And how is it, that the mother of my Lord should come to me? (Lk 1:43)
The Gospel writer placed four phrases on Elizabeth’s lips during this momentous meeting, and the artist’s choice of this one—to the exclusion of the others—is not arbitrary. To understand this choice, we must return to the Biblical episode. Mary had traveled for several days—eighty-one miles as the crow flies—from Nazareth to the Judean hill country (Lk 1:39) outside Jerusalem. There, she was welcomed into the home of her kinswoman Elizabeth and remained with her for about three months (Lk 1:56). Elizabeth’s question—How is it, that the mother of my Lord should come to me?—powerfully evokes a similar story in the Old Testament. The Second Book of Samuel, chapter 6, describes King David’s travels with the ark of the covenant through the very same hill country of Judea. Awed by the mighty power of the Lord’s presence—the shekinah of his glory contained within the ark—David exclaims: How can it be, that the ark of the Lord has come to me? (2 Sm 6:9). David chooses the residence of a trusted person in the hill country; there he houses the ark for three months (2 Sm 6:11).
Steeped in Scripture, the Dominicans of Katharinenthal would have immediately recognized the connotation. In the Visitation Group, Mary is—quite literally—a container. A representation of Christ was once nestled into a deeply carved cavity in her abdomen. She is the vessel bearing the divine presence—the Ark of the New Covenant.
I will make my dwelling place among you; I will be your God and you will be my people (Lv 26:11-12). An ingredient in this nuptial formula—which established the old covenant—is the promise of divine immanence. The ark of the covenant, once the locus of God’s presence on earth, is replaced in the New Testament by Mary, the dwelling place of God with men (Rv 21:3). Through her, God renews his vows to his people in the most astonishing way.
John’s leap in Elizabeth’s womb (Lk 1:41) refers to an ancient Israelite wedding tradition: a male relative of the bridegroom and member of the wedding party performed this distinctive râqad to initiate the “dance of two companies” bringing bride and bridegroom together. John, the cousin of Jesus, recognizes the arrival of the divine Bridegroom and leaps in ecstatic joy, thus commencing the nuptial dance that will unite Christ with his Bride, the Church.
Mary and Elizabeth’s youthful exuberance in the Visitation Group recalls that of maidens rejoicing at the Bridegroom’s arrival: Sing and rejoice, daughter of Zion! Behold, I come to dwell in your midst (Zec 2:14). Their right hands are solemnly joined in the dextrarum iunctio, underscoring the scene’s marital connotations. In Christian art, this sacred handclasp evokes an exchange of vows.
The partnership between the women in the Visitation Group also calls to mind the heroines of ancient Israel who often worked in tandem to save their people. From this perspective, Mary and Elizabeth can be understood as allies rapt in the exultation of victory. They stand united on equal ground, with eyes beaming in unanimous jubilation.
Elizabeth’s exclamation Blessed are you among women (Lk 1:42) recalls two Old Testament episodes in which this exact phrasing was used: to extol Jael (Jgs 5:24) and Judith (Jdt 13:18). Both women collaborated with a female accomplice to infiltrate the enemy army and literally crush the head of its leader. By assigning this designation to her young cousin, Elizabeth indicates Mary’s fulfillment of the Genesis 3:15 prophecy: the head of the ancient adversary will be crushed through her.
Bridging Old and New Testaments
The women in the Katharinenthal sculpture bear a strong physical resemblance. Unlike most depictions of this scene, no sign of age or status distinguishes one figure from the other. Their gleaming wombs, youthful faces, and luxurious garments are arranged in mirror-like identicality. The graceful lines of their slender arms guide the viewer’s eye back and forth to consider each woman, forming a gestural bridge that unifies the pair into a composite whole. The Visitation Group acts as a bridge for those who meditate with it, guiding the mind’s eye seamlessly from New to Old Testament verses. Its figural composition—characterized by the union of a mirrored pair—evokes the complementarity and typological similarities of Sacred Scripture.
In particular, the intertwined arms and mirrored forms of Mary and Elizabeth recall John the Baptist’s traditional appellation as “bridge” between Old and New Testaments. The last in a long line of prophets, John is uniquely privileged to usher in the Messianic age. Isaac’s haunting question—Father…where is the lamb for the sacrifice? (Gn 22:7)—echoes throughout the Old Testament, awaiting John’s reply in the presence of the Lord: Behold the Lamb of God (Jn 1:29).
Studied theology in Rome and art history at Yale.
The Visitation (c. 1310–1320), Attributed to Master Heinrich of Constance, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Photo: Public domain.