Zurbaran – Two Views of Still Life With Lemons, Oranges and a Rose


The weekend edition of the Wall Street Journal offers subscribers a break from the frenetic pace of the world financial markets, with the latest reports of turbulence or destruction or fraud or other minor acts of malfeasance. Instead of a hurried read over the one cup of java before work, the weekend edition invites a more leisurely read, served up, hopefully, with a nice breakfast, a pot of coffee, and some time for reflection and introspection.

One of the highlights is any edition with a piece on the great artworks of the world. This weekend did not disappoint, with an article on one of the great works by Zurbaran. If I may, and I shall, what follows is an excerpt from the piece, written by Morten Lauridsen:

Francisco de Zurbarán’s “Still Life With Lemons, Oranges and a Rose” normally hangs on a back wall of one of the smaller rooms in the Norton Simon Museum of Art in Pasadena. Like a large black magnet, it draws its viewers from the entry into its space and deep into its mystical world. Completed in 1633, it is the only canvas the early Baroque Spanish master ever signed and dated.

We are shown a table set against a dark background on which are set three collections of objects: in the center, a basket containing oranges and orange blossoms; to the left, a silver saucer with four lemons; and, to the right, another silver saucer holding both a single rose in bloom and a fine china cup filled with water. Each collection is illuminated and placed with great care on the polished surface of the table.

But it is much more than a still life. For Zurbarán (1598-1664) — known primarily for his crisply executed and sharply, even starkly lit paintings of ascetics, angels, saints and the life of Christ — the objects in this work are symbolic offerings to the Virgin Mary. Her love, purity and chastity are signified by the rose and the cup of water. The lemons are an Easter fruit that, along with the oranges with blossoms, indicate renewed life. The table is a symbolic altar. The objects on it are set off in sharp contrast to the dark, blurred backdrop and radiate with clarity and luminosity against the shadows.

Very nicely said, and there is nothing in the words with which one can find much disagreement. But I did forward the article to a friend who has a good eye, a way with words, and enough familiarity with great art to form his own opinions.

He writes:

Thank you for this link. And I agree with your assessment of the article, for several reasons.

One is that he simply describes the painting without offering any insight into it’s majesty, which even the symbolism does little to convey. In reality, few people (academics excepted) stand in front of this piece and ‘see’ the purity of Christ and the virgin; and even the scholars just ‘think’ about it; they don’t really envision Mary or Jesus.

The other reason is based on my having looked at this piece in the museum there for long stretches at a time; 20 and 30 minutes sometimes without moving on to the other paintings; just looking and looking (it is a jewel of a painting). Yet from that and from my related readings about it, it’s ‘mystical quality’ as he calls it has little to do with symbolism and most to do with 2 other things:

The first is its astonishing realism: every detail in every object is perfectly rendered without the objects losing their strong human quality, especially the basket which is truly exquisite.

The basket is also the compositional anchor of the painting, and it is the composition–its balance–that is considered unrivaled in still-life painting. It set the highest standard for this critical, architectural aspect of doing still life. Even perfectly rendered and beautiful objects fall short on canvas if they are not well poised in their space (especially a space with no background, as in this case where the objects must rely on only each other’s size, shape, color, and placement for counterpoise and collective balance).

It is this precise balance of solid, beautiful objects in empty space that creates the deep sense of stillness, purity, and mystery. And standing receptively in front of this painting evokes the same within the viewer.

I am afraid that this simple truth gets lost in the explanation about religious symbolism.

There is much to gain from both perspectives, but for my money, my friend’s analysis is a richer, more meaningful expression of both the painting and the painter. For we dilettantes, it is helpful to have the technique of an artist, and how that technique forms a great work, explained so that we may marvel at the skill and thought involved in the creative process.

5 Replies to “Zurbaran – Two Views of Still Life With Lemons, Oranges and a Rose”

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