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The Cover
November 6, 2002

Four Figures on a Step

Author Affiliations

The Cover Section Editor: M. Therese Southgate, MD, Senior Contributing Editor.

JAMA. 2002;288(17):2083. doi:10.1001/jama.288.17.2083

Like those of so many others, the works of the 17th-century Spanish painter Bartolomé Estéban Murillo (1617-1682) have come in and out of favor as rapidly as sun and shadow across a stormy sea. He was one of the major lights of Spain's Golden Century, a contemporary of Velázquez, Ribera, and Zurbarán. According to his biographer, the slightly younger Antonio Palomino (who was to Spanish artist biography what Vasari was to Italian artist biography), Murillo was Andalusia's favorite painter. Moreover, compared to artists outside of Spain, Palomino tells us, a painting by Murillo was more highly esteemed than one by Van Dyck or Titian. Murillo was called "the Spanish Raphael," an epithet related to the excellence of his numerous Madonna paintings. Most of his works were, in fact, of religious subjects; they were commissioned by convents, monasteries, and churches, including the cathedral in Seville, and were executed within the dictates of the Council of Trent. Murillo did, however, complete a number of smaller, more portable works for private homes; most of these, Palomino tells us, disappeared, taken out of Spain when their owners left. As a portraitist, Murillo was considered "eminent." So life-like, in fact, was a small English dog he included in the portrait of a Seville priest that real dogs barked at it and wondered "why it does not bark back," or so the story goes. Moreover, Murillo was not only an eminently skilled painter; as Palomino tells us, he also possessed "goodness and amiability, humility, and modesty . . . he never refused to take corrections offered by anybody."