The Painting Diego Velazquez was one of the foremost Spanish painters of the 17th century. And one of his greatest paintings was The Christ of San Placido which was painted in 1638 for the convent of San Placido, but now resides in the Museo de Prado in Madrid. This stirring depiction of Christ just after His death offers an open invitation for the viewer to meditate on this epic moment. The body of Christ on the cross stands alone on the backdrop of a black sky. The crucifix has no flourishes or embellishments.
Velazquez chose to portray this solitary Christ with His head hanging and the right side of his face covered by his hair. (Diego) This veil of hair has prompted many explanations. The Museo de Prados explanation is that Velazquez could not copy Christs expression on that side of His face and so he opted to cover the left [right] side with His falling hair instead. Another analysis assumes that this disruption of the composure of the body was done to recall the torture and the cruelty that Christ suffered.
Yet another attributes this half-hidden face to the artists intention to lead the viewer of the painting into the spiritual world. (The Painted) Whatever the artists purpose might have been, it cannot be denied that this purposely simple representation of the dead Christ, dripping blood can inspire deep spiritual reflection. Its Inspirational Connection to Poetry Ekphrasis Ekphrasis, purely defined, is: a literary description of or commentary on a visual work of art. (Ekphrasis-Merriam) This is, of course, a sterile definition that cannot begin to convey the true connection that art and poetry can enjoy.
The term goes back as far as Homers The Iliad, in which he vividly describes how the blacksmith god forged the Shield of Achilles. Modern ekphrasis tends to focus only on works of art; and not so much by extraordinary description as in the case of the Shield of Achilles as by how the art inspires or moves the poet. (Ekphrasis: Poetry) This is what Miguel de Unamuno undertook to do with his book-length poem El Cristo de Velazquez. Unamuno expressed his spiritual doubts through his poetry. With El Cristo de Velazquez he confronts the painting of Velazquez to define a uniquely Spanish Christ.
(Miguel) The stark figure of Christ on the cross elicited deep feelings from Unamuno, some mystical, some perplexing. He put these thoughts into lyrical form over the course of seven years producing a piece that is considered by some to be a most important religious poem. Its 2,538 lines are divided into four parts. They relate to Christ as a symbol of sacrifice and redemption, as a reflection of His many names, as God painted with the brush of Velazquez and they end with an invocation to the Holy Spirit to guide Unamuno as He guided Velazquez. (Nozick 178) The Personalization of The Christ of Velazquez by Unamuno
In his book on Unamuno, Martin Nozick speculates on why Unamuno would have chosen this painting by Velazquez rather than any of the myriad of others he could have chosen as the subject of his poem. He notes that Unamuno thought that the representation of Christ that was adopted by the king of Spain as his official symbol was bland as compared with the image of Christ painted by Velazquez and that the Christ of Cabrera was granitic and the Christ of Santa Clara more like a wooden mannequin. (179) It seems that the Christ of Velazquez was ordained to be his choice.
The posture of Christ in Velazquezs painting is somewhat unique in that it suggests that death has already occurred. His head is hanging limply while His face, now as lifeless as His body, is veiled by his mangled locks of hair. Undoubtedly this moved Unamuno to comment on Christ in Part One as the white Lamb of God whose death took away the sins of the world. (Section XVI) He continues with expressive commentary on Christ as the host of wheat ground under the millstone, an apt expression for one who had gone through so much suffering for mankind.
(Section XVII) The symbolic use of the colors of white and red to contrast the magnificence of Christ as the Son of God with the human suffering of the Son of Man run throughout this part of the poem especially. Unamuno stops to reflect on the white linen in which Christs body is so meagerly wrapped; and refers to Him as the white lion of the desert, among other references to the color white (white cloud, white light, white bull, etc. ). These references are juxtaposed against the stark images of the red blood that runs from the wounds of Christ.
Unamuno paints this in one line as he describes Christs whiteness dotted with bloody riddles. (Section XXIV) However he does not merely explain the vividness of the white dotted with red. It is evident through his verse that he is also deeply affected by these aspects of the painting. The exhausting effort that is manifest in this first part may have prompted a weaker, less driven man to end the poem there. But Unamuno forges on. In Part II the painting inspires a recounting of earthly forces such as fire and water and storm intertwined with deep insights into the soul of Unamuno.
This second part also reflects the biblical aspects of Christ and His mission of salvation. It evokes an historical aspect often citing events from the Bible as well as some of the many titles of Christ such as Lion of Judah, King of the Desert, Light of Life and more. From the powerful imagery of Unamuno in this part emerges the soul of a man who is trying to grasp the full meaning of salvation, seeing it as something that mankind was given as a gift but did not deserve. God the Father is seen by Unamuno as the sun; Christ is seen as the moon and the earth is the Virgin Mother.
As Cannon puts it, It is a mythic triad in accord with ancient beliefs in the magic and perfection of three-ness and in the family organization of the cosmos. (28) Cannon tells us that Unamuno even made a full-page drawing which he attached to the final manuscript representing this cosmological triad. This seems to infer that Unamuno saw in Velazquezs painting more than what was physically there. The painting evidently inspired a much greater vision in the mind of Unamuno one that portrays him as an intoxicated evangelist (Nozick 180)
Unamuno does come back to earth however in Part III by concentrating on the visible features of Christ in the actual painting His head, face, eyes, ears, arms, hands, etc. Consider this translation in the section dealing with the eyes of Christ. Shivering russet which dew on your eyelashes, Pearls of fire shudder liquid And going through the closure of the eyelids Viewed with dark eyes . . . . The imagery is magnificent and throughout this imagery are woven references, once again, to the Bible, both Old and New Testaments.
Unamuno himself calls this a sort of rhythmoid, dense prose. (180) This third part of the poem is probably the most descriptive of the painting itself whereas the prior two parts were more illustrative of the feelings that the painting evoked. As Unamuno leaves the more descriptive portion of his poetry behind, he approaches what Cannon considers the most famous part of the poem. (Cannon 28) It begins and ends in darkness, but in between Unamuno presents the luminous white body of the glorified Christ.
(28) Here again, Unamuno pulls hope out of despair, joy out of sorrow, expectation out of apathy. The images that the painting of Christ by Velazquez inspires in Unamuno are powerful ones that make a lasting impression on the reader. It may be that Unamuno has personalized Christ in a way that may not occur to the casual observer of this or any other painting of Christ on the cross and in this intense personalization Unamuno vitalizes the depiction of Christ with hope a way out of the darkness.
Velazquez painted his Christ on the cross to be a stark and solitary figure devoid of the sympathetic eye of the observers present at the crucifixion. Unamuno supplements the darkness of the artists work with a renewed sense of anticipation of his own death and rebirth in Christ. He ends his poem with a plea that he may enter the clear day that has no end, my eyes fixed on Thy white body, Son of Man, complete Humanity . . . my eyes fixed on Thine eyes, oh Christ, my gaze submerged in Thee, oh Lord!
His life was admittedly full of theological uncertainties, but the spiritual doubts that may have manifested themselves in the life of Unamuno are put to rest in this profusion of imagery inspired by The Christ of Velazquez that was written and rewritten over seven years by Unamuno. The sweeping dynamic of the painters brush met the commanding inspiration of the poets pen so that together they make an impact that neither of them alone could manage.
Cannon, Calvin. The Mythic Cosmology of Unamunos El Cristo de Vel¡zquez. Hispanic Review 28 (1960): 28 39.
Complete Works of Miguel de Unamuno. Ed. Ricardo Senabre. Vol. 4., Madrid: Jose Antonio Castro Foundation, 2006. Madrid: Biblioteca Virtual Miguel de Cervantes 20 Oct. 2008