Visualizing Imperium: The Virgin of the Seafarers and Spain's Self-Image in the Early Sixteenth Century*

By Phillips, Carla Rahn | Renaissance Quarterly, Fall 2005 | Go to article overview
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Visualizing Imperium: The Virgin of the Seafarers and Spain's Self-Image in the Early Sixteenth Century*


Phillips, Carla Rahn, Renaissance Quarterly


The year 2003 marked the five-hundredth anniversary of the founding of the Casa de Contratacion, or House of Trade, in Seville. Barely a decade after Christopher Columbus (ca. 1451-1506) returned from his first voyage across the Ocean Sea, and long before any European knew the full extent of the lands that he and others were exploring for the Spanish crown, Queen Isabel (1451-1504) and King Ferdinand (1452-1516) moved to assert royal control over whatever those expeditions might find. They gave the House of Trade jurisdiction over commerce, as the name implied, and also over shipbuilding, navigation, map- and instrument-making, and migration. In effect, the royal bureaucracy would govern the new lands in the name of the crown, while the House of Trade would oversee virtually every official contact between Europe and the embryonic Spanish Empire. (1)

To commemorate the quincentenary, the Spanish government sponsored an exhibition in Seville from December 2003 to February 2004. Installed in the handsome Casa de la Provincia, the exhibition included maps and portraits, artifacts and ship models, samples of medicinal plants, and the like--all evoking the exchanges overseen by the House of Trade. For the cover of the exhibition's catalogue, the organizers chose the painting now known as The Virgin of the Seafarers, although it did not appear with the rest of the exhibition. Instead, it remained nearby in the Sala de Audiencias (Hall of Audiences) for the House of Trade's original quarters, inside the Reales Alcazares (Royal Fortresses). Sometime before 1536, officials at the House of Trade commissioned the painting as the central panel of an altarpiece that they installed in the Hall of Audiences, so that the room could also serve as a chapel. Scholars date the painting to 1531-36 and now attribute it to Alejo Fernandez (ca. 1470/75-1546). Flanking the Virgin are panels depicting St. Sebastian, St. James the Great (called Santiago in Spain), St. Elmo, and St. John the Evangelist. These panels are thought to be the work of someone other than Alejo, perhaps a member of his workshop or another known artist. (2) When Josephe de Veitia Linaje wrote his famous analysis of Spain's Atlantic Fleet system in 1672, the chapel of the House of Trade still "formed in effect a single body with the place destined as the Hall of Audiences," presumably with its altarpiece still intact (fig. 1). (3)

Many functions of Spain's Atlantic trade moved to Cadiz in 1717, along with its merchants, leaving the sixteenth-century Casa Lonja de Mercaderes (Merchants' Exchange) near the Alcazares largely unused. From 1785 onward the Casa Lonja became the General Archive of the Indies, housing the millions of documents produced by Spain's imperial bureaucracy and the House of Trade. (4) The altarpiece in the House of Trade's sixteenth-century chapel and Hall of Audiences did not make the move to the Casa Lonja, and at some point it was disassembled. When Narciso Sentenach y Cabanas wrote about the art and architecture of Seville in 1885, he mentioned only "some panels representing St. Sebastian and other saints in the chapel of the Alcazar," but he did not associate them with an altarpiece, nor with the painting now known as The Virgin of the Seafarers. (5) Seven years after Sentenach wrote, Spain celebrated the four-hundredth anniversary of Columbus's first voyage across the Atlantic and the beginning of the Spanish Empire, which by 1892 existed only as a few scattered pieces of territory and a widespread cultural presence in its former dominions.

[FIGURE 1 OMITTED]

After a brief war with the United States of America in 1898, Spain lost the last remnants of its empire in America and Asia, prompting Spanish intellectuals to make an anguished reexamination of Spain's national identity and goals. Some analyses questioned the value of empire altogether and blamed Spain's imperial career for many of the national failings they perceived in their own times.

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