The Reign of Spain

The splendor of the Old World is on view at a new museum in Dallas—and at San Antonio's most famous mission.
POWER AND GLORY: The Immaculate Conception, by Bartolomé Murillo (1655-60), at the Meadows.

Throughout the more than three centuries that Spain ruled much of the New World, no Spanish monarch ever set foot in his vast American empire, much less its far-flung and chronically neglected border outposts in Texas. The king and queen of Spain did drop by, however, for the March opening of the new home of Dallas’ Meadows Museum, to inspect a collection of Spanish art so formidable that the museum is often called “the Prado on the Prairie.” Sequestered for years in a cramped corner of Southern Methodist University’s student arts complex, the Meadows’ Velázquezes, Goyas, and Picassos have now moved across the street to palatial digs, where the campus’ indigenous Georgian-style architecture has been interpreted with muscular Spanish baroque flair by the Chicago-based firm Hammond Beeby Rupert Ainge.The climax of this elegant architectural drama is an immense second-floor gallery dedicated to the Siglo de Oro, the Spanish golden age, which spanned most of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. There, on sunflower-yellow walls, lit by coffered skylights, hang imposing gold-hued canvases like Bartolomé Murillo’s monumental baroque icon of the Virgin Mary ( The Immaculate Conception, 1655-60), testaments to the explosive fusion of Spain’s New World wealth and Old World religious fervor. The gallery is a dazzling vision of bygone glory, an image of imperial prestige and mystical authority that seems almost entirely alien to twenty-first-century Texas.

But the splendor of imperial Spain is not as remote as we might think. Last year curators at no less a Texas icon than the Alamo were astonished to discover faint remnants of Spanish colonial-era frescoes on the walls of the same sacristy that probably served as a last redoubt for Texan defenders in 1836. Recently stripped of the 150-year-old coat of whitewash that had both concealed and protected them, the frescoes are ghostly snippets, a few fragmentary, rust-colored bands of floral and geometric patterns that once circuited the walls and outlined the ceiling vault. But these phantom images vividly remind us that the Alamo started out as San Antonio de Valero, one of more than two dozen missions scattered across the breadth of Texas, each a monument to the same combustible mixture of faith and power that lit up Spain’s golden age. The eight surviving missions still teach an important lesson: The history of the arts in Texas isn’t limited to a few nineteenth-century pioneers followed by a long struggle toward a late-twentieth-century florescence; it also includes a startlingly sophisticated eighteenth century. Well before Tejas was even a glimmer in the eye of Anglo American filibusters and Stephen F. Austin’s colonists, her tiny frontier population took part in a complex cultural dialogue between the New World and the great art centers of the Old World.

The Meadows Museum offers an eloquent summary of the Old World end of that conversation. The collection attests to the persistence as well as the generosity of the late Dallas oil magnate Algur H. Meadows; a stubbornly uninformed neophyte duped into buying a fortune in fakes in the late fifties and early sixties, Meadows wrote off his losses, hired an expert, and went on to acquire masterpieces ranging from the medieval to the modern. The collection is strongest from the sixteenth through the early nineteenth century, when Spain won and then struggled to hold on to an empire that once extended from Sicily to the Netherlands in one hemisphere and from Argentina to California in the other. Throughout this age of somewhat shaky world hegemony, Spain was a paradox, priding itself on its fervent defense of Roman Catholic orthodoxy while at the same time soaking up the heretical culture of subject populations. One of the earliest objects in the Meadows collection is an eight-foot-tall, late-fourteenth-century Catalonian eucharistic cabinet (used to store communion bread) that opens like an altarpiece to reveal a crucifixion scene and attenuated, Gothic-style angels. But the outer faces of the doors are carved in intricate geometric designs, an Islamic-inspired decorative style known as Mudéjar that would remain a vital element in Spanish art long after the despised Moors had been expelled from Spain.

Most Spanish painters never fully embraced the secular idealism of the Renaissance, preferring instead the emotionally charged, Counter-Reformation-inflamed styles of mannerism and the baroque. Seville, which monopolized Spain’s New World trade, also became its art capital, nurturing the genius of Diego Velázquez before he was summoned to Philip IV’s court; many scholars think that the work that won him the royal appointment was the Meadows’ Portrait of King Philip IV (1623-24), a marvelously penetrating examination of the austere yet ineffectual young monarch.

With Velázquez in Madrid, the stars of the Sevillian scene were Murillo and Francisco Zurbarán. In the mid-1600’s the latter abandoned the signature black background of his early works for the luminous atmosphere of The Mystic Marriage of Saint Catherine of Siena, typical of the sumptuous baroque imagery favored not only by Sevillian patrons but also by Zurbarán’s New World clientele. (Zurbarán was so dependent on the income from consignments of his paintings to New Spain that on one occasion he was forced to defer payment on his daughter’s dowry when the return galleon was delayed.)

If Sevillian patrons often preferred their saints cloaked in sweetness and light, a much more ascetic spirituality also fired the popular imagination. Born in Crete, El Greco (Doménikos Theotokópoulos) spent most of his career in Toledo, where he painted Saint Francis Kneeling in Meditation (c. 1605-1610). Framed against a dark grotto, clad in his characteristic coarse gray robe, the contemplative Italian saint gazes in beatific rapture at a crucifix and skull, symbols of the worldly denial espoused by the austere mendicant order he founded in 1209. But the Franciscans, who took a vow of poverty and held their meager property in common, were also a potent worldly power; joined by Dominicans and Augustinians, they followed the conquistadores across the Atlantic with unprecedented evangelical zeal. By the early seventeenth century, according to one count, the New World had 70,000 churches.

Many of these churches were rudimentary structures of wood and

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