Ca. 1640. Oil on canvas, 252 x 186 cm.
The apostle Saint James is shown kneeling with his hands together in prayer, offering his neck up to the sword of the executioner whoprepares to decapitate him. Standing before the apostle, wearing a curious sort of headdress, is the authority who decreed his death. Behind Saint James are soldiers with halberds and various other figures who probably represent Herod Agrippa and the Jews who, according to the Acts of the Apostles (12:1-2), were pleased with the death of the man they considered their enemy. Their identification as Israelites has been demonstrated by a comparison of their clothing with that of some of the prophets or the sons of Jacob painted by Zurbarán. Above them all, a little angel carries a crown of flowers and a palm frond, the attributes of Christian martyrs. And, on the far right, the head of a dog is visible, the significance of which is not clear but it constitutes one of the painting's most successful fragments. The expansive landscape visible in the background is interrupted by the lower portion of a column set upon a substantial base, a motif that probably alludes to the apostles' status as columns of the Church. The work's sizable dimensions together with its subject matter suggest that it was executed for the altar of a church. When the work was sold in Paris in 1853, the records indicate that it came from a convent in Extremadura. That piece of information has led some to speculate that it might have been painted for the Church of Our Lady of Granada in the city of Llerena, whose altarpiece was commissioned from Zurbarán in 1636. Llerena was a dependency of the military order of Saint James, which would justify the presence of this painting in the church. Another possibility is that it was painted for the Church of Saint James in the same town. Nevertheless, there is no certainty regarding either of these hypotheses. What is evident, however, is that this ambitious composition reveals Zurbarán's abilities as a painter of large religious scenes. Its monumentality is not only due to its size, but also because of the low point of view that the artist has adopted and the scale of the figures, which occupy most of the painted surface in the foreground and are executed with fullness and clarity of definition. Unlike the artist's early works, in this case the play of chiaroscuro (light and shade) is limited to the shadows produced by the light entering from the left, which serves to more sharply model the figure of Saint James and to direct the viewer's attention towards him. The presence of the witnesses helps emphasise the grand scale of the composition, for they stand in very rigid, static poses, producing an atmosphere of calm, silence and meditation around the saint and his executioner. In this sense, the scene is represented in a manner very different from what was, by this time, habitual among Spanish and other European painters, who typically placed a greater emphasis on the pathos, violence, expectation and dynamism associated with martyrdom. The work's monumental qualities, variety of colour, sharply defined volumes and narrative clarity and restraint provide justification for the typical dating of the painting to the second half of the 1630s. This corresponds with a prolific period in the artist's life when he undertook some his most mature and serene works, such as those that were part of the altarpiece in the Carthusian monastery known as the Charterhouse of Jerez de la Frontera. In order to compose his work, Zurbarán drew on pre-existing models. The arrangement of figures has been related to two prints depicting the life of Saint Catherine of Alexandria by Anton Wierix II (1555/59-1604), while one of the profiles was inspired by an Albrecht Dürer print. Zurbarán would often utilise these sorts of models according to his own individual requirements and here he has translated them in a descriptively precise manner to create a form of concentrated, climactic meditation (Portús, J.: Portrait of Spain. Masterpieces from the Prado, Queensland Art Gallery-Art Exhibitions Australia, 2012, p. 140).