10 stories behind the objects in 'Spain and the Hispanic World'
Published on 20 March 2023
Our landmark exhibition draws together 4,000 years of rich and surprising histories from the Spanish-speaking world, through 150 crafted, painted, woven, and sculpted objects. Here are some not to miss.
1. A story about hidden treasures
Let’s start with some of the oldest objects in the exhibition: jewellery made around 172-50 BC. They were found inside ceramic and metal vessels, some buried beneath the floors of houses, others thrown into wells. We presume they were stowed away in a moment of instability (likely caused by the encroaching Roman empire), with the hope of recovery after danger had passed. Instead, they were unearthed in 1911 by construction workers preparing to lay a railway.
Crafted in silver, gold and electrum, these treasures were made by local Celtic people whose ancestors had settled and assimilated into life on the Iberian Peninsula (the land we now call Spain and Portugal). Some think they were worn by people in their daily lives, or in times of war. Others think they were used as dowries for brides or offerings to the gods.
Whatever their intended use, their discovery gives us a glimpse into a moment of seismic change for the lands that would become Spain. After years of conflict with local tribes, the Roman Empire would come to control the peninsula for more than six centuries. In fact, Roman coins were found mixed in with these Celtic treasures.
2. A story about Muslim innovation in ceramics
In the 700s, Arab and Berber armies began conquering much of the Iberian Peninsula, which became known by its Arabic name, al-Andalus. With this invasion came new influences that can still be seen in the culture of Spain today.
This plate is a glistening example of some of the major artistic techniques brought to the region by Muslim potters. It’s made of tin-glazed earthenware, and has been given an iridescent finish by applying a very thin layer of metal oxide. Potters would glaze with tin, lead, copper, silver, gold, or platinum, depending on availability and the desired outcome. For added extravagance, some of the dynamic patterns have been painted in vibrant (and very expensive) cobalt blue.
Designs like this were ostentatious showpieces for Europe’s rich and powerful. The two small holes at the top of this plate indicate that it was designed to be hung as art on a wall rather than piled with food on a table. In the centre is a coat of arms of one of the oldest aristocratic families in Catalonia, the Despujol.
3. A story about Europe's quest for power
At the turn of the 16th century, Spain was determined to expand its global influence. The monarchy commissioned navigator Cristoforo Colombo to establish a western sea route to Asia – but he instead found the lands we now call the Americas. His voyages there initiated centuries of brutal exploitation of people, land and natural resources.
The Spanish focused on conquering the native civilisations they encountered as quickly as possible – not least because Britain, France, and the Netherlands had similar colonial ambitions. This map was made in 1526, just two decades after Colombo returned, and already several red and white squares of the Castile and León flag mark the east of the land.
This map was a copy of the padrón real – Spain’s master nautical chart, which was kept in a secret location in Seville, since colonialism was a competitive business. It’s thought this ornate version was a gift for King Charles V. It includes decorative details such as ships in the ocean, camels and elephants across Africa, a collapsing Tower of Babel, and a Red Sea coloured vivid scarlet.
4. A story about religious feuds
Domenikos Theotokopoulos, nicknamed El Greco – “The Greek” – came to Spain around 1576. He arrived during the heat of the Counter-Reformation, when the fiery division between Catholics and Protestants was burning through many European countries. In the previous decade, the Catholic Church had decided (among many other things discussed during 18 years of council meetings) that their art should connect with ordinary people by invoking strong emotions. El Greco’s highly-charged, expressive works were apt for the task.
This painting depicts one of the quintessential Catholic saints, Jerome. El Greco depicts him here sat in a grotto, repenting for his sins by beating his chest with a flinty rock, with his red Cardinal robes hanging beside him, and his Latin translation of the Bible in front of him – all practices contrary to Protestant belief.
Many of El Greco’s stylistic hallmarks can be found in this painting. Saint Jerome’s body seems to glow with light in his dark cave. His elongated limbs and the vivid red of his robe heighten the drama of the composition. Sketchy brushstrokes give a feeling of soft focus, as though he appears as a vision.
5. A story of two favourites
Favourite one: Diego Velázquez, creator of this portrait, one of the 17th century’s most celebrated painters, and beloved official artist for the Spanish monarchy for much of his career. Favourite two: Gaspar de Guzmán, subject of this portrait, 3rd Count of Olivares, 1st Duke of Sanlúcar la Mayor, prime minister of Spain from 1623 to 1643, and King Philip IV’s válido (favourite) for much of his life.
Velázquez makes sure to remind us we are looking at a powerful figure of the Spanish court. Tucked into Olivares’ belt is a golden key: the symbol of the Master of the Bedchamber, indicating he was in charge of the Monarch’s most intimate meeting rooms. The hat on the table is a nod to his special privilege of keeping his headwear on in the presence of the King.
To further impress us, Velázquez has highlighted Olivares’ confident stare with his characteristic use of chiaroscuro (dramatic contrasts between light and shadow), and surrounded him with deftly painted textures of rich velvets and silks.
6. A story about Mexico’s most iconic garment
A large rectangular shawl with fringed ends, the rebozo is perhaps the most enduring of all traditional Mexican garments. It was first recorded in the 1580s, and is still worn by women across the country today. Uses range from providing sun protection, to proposing marriage, supporting the body during labour, carrying babies (or other bulky items) hands-free, and shrouding the dead.
But this particular rebozo was intended only for show, since it’s extraordinarily luxurious. Made with threads of gold, silver and linen in fine woven silk, it has meticulously hand-embroidered designs of pomegranates, flowers, vines, deer, dogs, and birds. Silkworms had been brought to Mexico by Spanish colonisers intending to exploit people's labour in order to keep up with European demands for silk production.
This rebozo would undoubtedly have been owned by a wealthy, high-ranking white woman. In fact, Spanish rule made it illegal for a woman of lower status to wear it – part of a suite of laws enforcing which ethnicities could wear certain designs and materials. Colonial Mexico was structured by racial hierarchies, but increasingly people of various ethnicities were intermingling and categories were blurring. Seeing this as a threat to social order, the Spanish wanted clear visual markers of a person’s position.
7. Four stories about death
These 18th-century Ecuadorian sculptures address the age-old question of what happens when you die. According to Catholicism (which was imposed on Ecuador and other Latin American societies by the Spanish state), it’s a story with a few possible endings. First the body decomposes (the first sculpture in this row, complete with bugs feasting on the bones!). What happens next depends on how the person’s soul is judged.
If they died in unforgivable sin, they would suffer eternal hell (second sculpture, chained, clawing at his own flesh, with a toad on his arm). If they sinned, but nothing too terrible, they would go to Purgatory to temporarily suffer in order to become worthy of heaven (third sculpture, surrounded by flames, with glass teardrops of repentance). If they died free of sin, they would go straight to heaven (final sculpture, wearing a luxurious robe and surrounded by clouds).
Although the subject matter recurs time and time again in art, these sculptures are considered unique. Their detail and artistry make them exceptional, and the decision to sculpt figures from the waist – rather than shoulders – is unprecedented.
8. A story about a Duchess not afraid to make eye contact
This life-size portrait features the larger-than-life Duchess of Alba, María del Pilar Teresa Cayetana de Silva Álvarez de Toledo y Silva Bazán. When Francisco de Goya painted her in 1797, he stayed for several months at her estate near Cádiz, where she was mourning her recently deceased husband.
Goya has rendered her mantilla (a traditional Spanish head and shoulder covering) with a freedom of brushwork that builds layers of striking black lace in contrast to the soft, muted landscape. She looks confidently at the viewer, lips slightly pursed, one hand on her hip, the other pointing to words in the sand: “Solo Goya” – Only Goya.
One of several portraits of the Duchess by Goya, it’s thought this one held particular personal significance for the artist, since he kept it in his studio long after her death.
9. A story of an unknown boy from the coast
Although we don’t know who this boy is, he’s been identified as coming from Mexico’s Gulf Coast. The region was the main docking point for European colonialists selling enslaved people that they brought over from Africa. Mexico’s indigenous population had been decimated by Spanish invaders’ new diseases and sheer violence, and so the colonial order sought other sources of labour to work on their lucrative sugar and coffee plantations.
Painted by José Agustín Arrieta in the 1840s, the boy stands confidently, life-size and filling the canvas, silhouetted against a plain background, dressed in a richly painted white shirt, with a slight smile on his lips.
Yet the reality confronting Afro-Mexican communities echoes through this painting. For example, the boy’s presentation of fruits suggests he may have been a domestic worker. After the official abolition of slavery in 1837, such undervalued and underpaid positions were common for Afro-Hispanic people in the long shadow cast by enslavement labour structures.
10. A short story about a long painting
When the Hispanic Society held an exhibition of Joaquín Sorolla’s work in 1909, its founder Archer M. Huntington wrote to his mother that “Everywhere the air was full of miracle… There was eternal talk of sunlight”. Following the extraordinary success of the show, he gave Sorolla the biggest commission of his life: a series depicting the regional identities of Spain, on monumental canvases totalling 70 metres in length, for a purpose-built gallery at the museum.
The murals, known as Vision of Spain, dominated the rest of Sorolla’s life. He spent seven years travelling around the country capturing regional customs, landscapes, and people in-situ, with traditional costumes and props that he provided. From dancers in Aragón, to bullfighters in Seville, markets in Extremadura, and bowling games in Guipúzcoa, Sorolla brought Spain to life on his canvases.
This preparatory gouache sketch (nearly eight metres long!) is one of 80 that have survived. Like expressionist artists of the day, Sorolla focused on conveying the emotions of the scene rather than external reality. He used techniques (such as paper collage, or papier collé) from Modernist artists who were rejecting conservatism and history in favour of future-oriented experimentation.
Visit 'Spain and the Hispanic World'
Discover the rich story of Spanish and Hispanic art and culture in our first major exhibition of the year. With over 150 treasures coming to the UK for the first time, see masterpieces by Goya, Velázquez and Sorolla, as well as dazzling objects from Latin America – and much more.