The 44 pieces which were forcibly removed from the Museum of Lleida to the Sigena Monastery in Aragon in December 2017 was a major piece of news covered widely by the media. It obliged the museum, among other things, to reconsider and remodel some of the exhibition halls, such as the Renaissance and Baroque.
However, the upside of this remodelling has given us, the public, the chance to get to know a period — the Baroque – much better than we had before. We have works from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries from the museum’s interesting collection, especially works of sculpture and unique ceramic pieces.
Work carried out in the mid twentieth century by people such as Cèsar Martinell, Josep M. Madurell and Santiago Alcolea, among others, was critical for dusting off a period which until then had been labelled as decadent here, and one in which only the name of Viladomat shone through. Some decades later, the work continued by art historians such as Triadó and Joan Bosch and later a group of patient investigators who were gradually able to find out that the scene during those centuries was not the secondary one it may have seemed at first sight, following the tragic situation of the country following the defeat in in War of the Spanish Succession.
Actually, and at the risk of oversimplifying, we can say that in some disciplines such as sculpture, fine metals, wood carvings, Catalonia really had its own voice which differentiated it from other national artistic nuclei. Sculptors such as Agustí Pujol II, Joan Grau, Francesc Santacruz, Andreu Sala, the Roig brothers, Morató, Costa, Sunyer and the Abadal printers, among others, are not as unknown by specialists today thanks to the patient task of seeking out their work in the archives, libraries and collections of photographs from before the 1936 War. These artists greatly surpassed the stagnant atmosphere of the guilds with highly merited artistic production and managed to demonstrate that the Baroque was rooted in the heart of the Catalan genius, to become an individual style of its own (albeit not exempt from outside influences).
With this spirit of recovery and reclamation, once the pessimistic view had been quashed, we can look at the works from that century with pride and renewed knowledge. Walking through the baroque Hall of the Museum of Lleida you see a small but select sample of some of the best works to have come out of eastern Catalonia. Joan Grau, probably in collaboration with his son Francesc, was the producer of two small but magnificent reliefs of the life of St. John for the grand altarpiece in the old church of Sant Joan de Lleida (1677-78). The two panels that formed the predella of the altarpiece and were taken apart when the church was demolished in 1868, found their way into the collections of the municipal museum at the end of the nineteenth century, after a series of difficulties. One of them shows the Martyrdom of Saint John. You can see the Baptist kneeling between his executioners just before he was beheaded, while before him stands the sensual Salomé, accompanied by a servant, dressed in fine fabrics and holding the platter on which, seconds later, she would carry the head of the saint like a battle trophy.
The Birth of Saint John the Baptist is a more homely scene, doubtlessly indebted to the iconography of the Virgin. The Graus did not forget to include curious details such as the curtains, a table with earthenware or simply several drapes of the clothing with branch-like patterns and strong colours.
The Assumption by Francesc Santacruz II (1679-1680) comes from the main altarpiece of Torres de Segre parish church, is an outstanding example of the quality of work in the freestanding, carved central figure. In the words of historian Juan Bosch, it is “the best of all the works in wood by the artist that have been preserved”. On a human scale and designed to be look at frontally, probably inside a recess or shrine, the piece is hollow at the back and shows a triumphant image of the Virgin. She is dressed in a branched tunic with a cherubim’s head that acts as a clasp for a cloak decorated with plant motifs. The girl’s face is rosy cheeked and she has long, dark, wavy hair, which also exudes a certain sensuality. Two winged cherubim accompany her and also reveal the mastery of the sculptor in capturing the movement of their legs.
Virgin Girl is another treasure. It is a polychrome carving of unknown origin dating back to the eighteenth century. It shows the taste for introducing some of the sacred figures into daily life. Instead of the typical Immaculate Conception image or the Virgin Mary in a pink cloak holding the baby, here we see a girl dressed just like those of her time in the 1700s, with a friendly smiling face, and it is only the quarter moon and the devil – sin – at her feet that give us a clue as to her iconographical status.
A large glass showcase in the hall holds a selection of polychrome Lleida ceramics from the baroque period as well as piece from different places and origins acquired by the Catalan Government and by the regional council of Lleida in 2016 and 2017 respectively. For their quality, rarity and good condition, they form the best collection of this type ion the country. There are around twenty pieces in Lleida pottery (blue, but also some polychrome pieces in the form of apothecary jars, fruit bowls, plates, coasters and a barber’s bowl). One piece which particularly stands out is a polychrome Lleida pottery plate from around 1650-1675 which is 42 centimetres in diameter with a parrot as its central motif and a colourful border of floral plant decorations. These unusual themes and its large dimensions make the piece unique. The workshops in the east of the country produced very little and examples are difficult to find in the art market.
The showcase also contains around fifty works from the convent of Sant Bartomeu de Bellpuig, from the 17th and 18th centuries, following the surprising archaeological discovery in the 1960s of a silo in the church with more than a thousand plates in it (mostly from Lleida but also from workshops such Muel in Aragon and Alcora in Valencia). They were thrown there after being used for the last rites of the sick and dying, and since they contained holy oils, they were disposed on as a form of ex voto or offering. This practice is a remarkably unusual case and has enabled much broader study of the liturgical uses of these objects with anthropological and religious readings. In terms of the types of ceramics found, there are examples of Ditadas, with marking resembling finger paintings, pottery from Poblet, the Botifarra with animal and plant markings and the typical sausage-shape marking, the delicately detailed faixes and cintes, ceramics from Banyoles, the Cirereta series, again with animal and plant themes, and pieces from Aragón, etc.