The apotheosis of St. Thomas Aquinas

Francisco de Zurbaran • Painting, 1631, 475×375 cm
About the artwork
Art form: Painting
Subject and objects: Religious scene, Allegorical scene
Style of art: Baroque
Technique: Oil
Materials: Canvas
Date of creation: 1631
Size: 475×375 cm
Artwork in selections: 9 selections

Description of the artwork «The apotheosis of St. Thomas Aquinas»

The Apotheosis of Thomas Aquinas is a huge, almost five meter high painting which Zurbarán created in 1631 for the College of St. Thomas in Seville. Once it adorned the altarpiece of the Dominican monastery, to which the College belonged, and now it is presented in the Seville Museum of Fine Arts.

There is a certain paradox of perception: for us, Zurbarán is associated primarily with almost monochrome individual compositions, stingy and strict, with a sharp chiaroscuro (as in Agnus Dei or St. Francis). But the artist’s contemporaries just considered his greatest work The Apotheosis of Saint Thomas Aquinas. This work is not quite in Zurbarán’s style, as it features many figures and colours.

The composition is divided into two tiers. It is schematic, but such a duple conception of earth and sky was traditional in the art of Zurbarán’s time. Moreover, Zurbarán managed to perfectly balance the monumentality of forms and attention to the smallest detail. 

In all likelihood, the customers inspired Zurbarán the theme of the painting. The Apotheosis of Saint Thomas Aquinas is dedicated to the solemn foundation of the St. Thomas College, which happened in 1517. On a purple velvet-covered table at the bottom of the painting is the Founding Act of the College. In the lower tier, we can see its founders, Emperor Charles V and Cardinal Diego de Deza. Behind the king are kneeling noble citizens of Seville, and behind the cardinal are the Dominican monks. As for the upper tier, all those who exercise the heavenly patronage of the College are concentrated in it. On the cloud to the right are Christ and the Virgin Mary. Opposite them, on the left, is God the Father, who talks with Saint Dominic with active gestures. The dove that overshadows the head of St. Thomas (in the centre of the composition) traditionally personifies the Spirit of God, or, according to a less common version, the divine inspiration that descended on Aquinas.

The theologian Thomas Aquinas, whose has become one of the Doctors of the Catholic Church, is depicted with a quill and a book in his hands. Around it are other eminent Doctors: on the right are Saint Jerome and Saint Augustine, on the left are Saint Ambrose and Saint Gregory the Great. Their gestures eloquently indicate that they are now checking some theological subtleties against the books.

Of particular admiration is the way the characters are realistically painted. At present time, we just assess how individualized and specific they are, whereas Zurbarán’s contemporaries recognized them as their acquaintances. In the round face of Thomas with his high forehead, they saw the housekeeper of the College Nuñez de Escobar, a friend of the artist; the man behind the back of the king was painted from the servant of González de Abreu.

In the second left Dominican monk, depicted in profile, some art critics see Zurbarán himself. The is known to leave no self-portraits, therefore researchers have been looking for Zurbarán incognito in his paintings for several centuries. The Dominican from The Apotheosis of Saint Thomas Aquinas is still (before any new facts or research methods emerge) competing for identification with St. Luke from the 1639 Crucifixion from the Prado Museum.

Author: Anna Vchorashnia