One of the great features of Easter in Murcia, as in many other parts of Spain, is the parades which seem to bring out most of the local populations. If the Easter Parades held in Lorca are among some of the best known, those in Murcia City itself are also quite spectacular. Many involve thousands of participants and onlookers and, for example, that from the Iglesia del Carmen includes several bands of muffled drums and horns accompanying various groups of religious figures carried on decorated platforms. What amazed us, was that the parade set out from the Church at sunset, returning back in the early hours but that, as the head of the procession was turning to return, the tail was just setting out!
What has all this to do with Francisco Salzillo and, indeed, who exactly is (or was) this particular individual? In fact, Salzillo was a famous Murcian sculptor of religious figures in the 18th Century. When we first came across Salzillo and his claim to fame, we were somewhat sceptical about this being of much interest. How wrong we were! Even if, like us, you do not think of religious sculpture as being something which is likely to interest you, other than, perhaps, in passing, in the Murcian context you really have to think again. Knowing something about it, and what it represents, is essential to a greater understanding of Murcia, its people and their culture.
First, Francisco Salzillo himself. Salzillo’s father, Nicolás, arrived in Murcia from Naples (which was, at that time, part of Spain) at the end of the 17th Century and his son, Francisco, was born on 12 May 1707. He was one of eight children of Nicolás and his Murcian wife Isabel Alcaraz. When his father died in 1727, Francisco took charge of the family business. He subsequently married Juana Vallajo and they had only one child who survived, a daughter, Maria Fulgencia. Other children died in infancy and it is said that the sadness of these events, as it affected his wife, was used by Salzillo in some of the facial expressions in his sculpting. It appears that Salzillo was extremely proud of his home city, and, we were told by one knowledgeable guide, that he only ever left Murcia once, for a quick visit to Cartagena!
Throughout his life, Salzillo had many commissions for his work from the region of Murcia and beyond, but above all from his native city, where the Ayuntamiento gave him the title of “Escultor y Modelista de la Ciudad” in 1755. Patrons were generally the religious brotherhoods (cofradías) and rich nobles. When he died on 2 March 1783, the occasion was one for local mourning.
If that is Francisco Salzillo, what about his work? It was emphasised to us when we were touring some of Salzillo’s works in Murcia, that he had a very distinctive style in his major pieces, sculpting different parts of the body in cypress wood before sticking them together and skilfully covering the joints. The clothed areas would be covered in gold leaf before being over-painted. The superimposed colours would then be scratched off to expose the gold leaf as necessary in his intricate designs. He also paid especial attention to the eyes and developed a new technique of using glass rather than painted egg shells, in order to give greater realism. In addition, he seems to have been someone who felt himself very close to his fellow Murcians and tried to make his figures relate to them wherever possible, whether in their form or in their dress which would sometimes be typical of 18th Century Murcia even if depicting a figure from Biblical times, as can be seen in some of his works to be found in many of the churches in the city.
Today, there is an important museum in Murcia City located by the Plaza San Agustín devoted to Salzillo and his works. It is very well worth a visit and, indeed, at least one local guide book states that the blue painted Museo Salzillo is one location to which all foreign tourists should pay an obligatory visit! It contains many examples of Salzillo’s work. The adjacent Iglesia de Jesús, which you can visit after looking around the museum, also contains Salzillo statues, many of which are still paraded at Easter.
Many other Churches around the city contain treasured Salzillo Statues. Thus, that of San Pedro, just by the Plaza de Flores, has a number of Salzillo works. One is the statue of the Virgin of the Dolorosa (1756) which has a particularly interesting feature – only the head, hands and feet are actually carved. Behind the robes which cover it, the statue is effectively a stick! There is a good reason for this – it made the statue far cheaper and affordable, as well as much easier to carry in a procession! There is also a Salzillo statue by the altar of the patron saint of shoemakers which is discernible through its portrayal of an expensive and fine pair of shoes! But there are many, many others in such Churches as Santa Ana, San Bartolomé, Santa Catalina and San Miguel to name but a handful.
Many of Salzillo’s statues are undoubtedly fine works of art in themselves, but their importance goes way beyond this. They represent Murcia and its people and their way of life in the 18th Century as well as now playing an important role in the modern day. Do visit the museum at the very least if you can. Perhaps you, like us, will be pleasantly surprised.
Taken from “Exploring Murcia – Murcia City”, by Clive and Rosie Palmer, which is available, from www.lulu.com (price £8.98 plus p&p), or contact firstname.lastname@example.org Copies may also be available from Cosas y Cosas, Cehegin and Best Wishes, Camposol.