A courtesan without a name looks levelly along her shoulder. Saint Sebastian leans against a tree trunk and gazes at the sky. Hercules shoulders his club, and Susannah cups up water from a pool. And they are almost as bare as the day they were born.
These paintings once hung in the palaces of the Kings of Spain, in a royal hunting lodge, at the Escorial and Buen Retiro and in the Alcázar, the old palace of the Islamic city state — in secret rooms.
Italian and Flemish painters explored the naked body in the relentlessly conservative Spain of the Inquisition, and their paintings survived 200 years of fanaticism and fire.
In “Splendor, Myth and Vision: Nudes from the Prado,” the Clark Art Institute in Williamstown and the Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid, have gathered 28 works by old masters, 24 never shown before in the U.S. They come from the collection of Philip II, king of Spain 1556 to 1598, and his grandson, Philip IV, 1621 to 1665.
The show has grown out of a collaboration going back more than six years, said Kathleen Morris, the Clark’s interim senior curator.
Miguel Falomir, deputy director of the Museo Nacional del Prado, spoke warmly of the space and breadth of the show. Here, he said, the paintings have room to breathe.
The Clark has grouped them to show the relationships between the artists and the royal court, and each other. When the liberal pageantry of Venice met the closed society of Spain, a scene drawn around nakedness could become broad-minded and honest or arrogant and brutal.
The show is rooted in a paradox, said Lara Yeager-Crasselt, Interim Curator of Paintings and Sculpture at the Clark.
“Philip II is staunchly Catholic,” she said. “He defends the Inquisition across the empire morally, supporting the church. There are revolts in the Netherlands he quells quickly.
Within the palace walls — not within Spain or Madrid — as a monarch and the most powerful in Europe, possibly in the world,” he collected these images of Pagan goddesses, Old Testament scenes and even saints.
But even the king could not show these paintings in public. They caused too much controversy to hang in the halls. Into the 19th century, they appeared only in private spaces, in salas reservadas, reserved rooms that only select people could see.
Philip was tapping into a new artistic world, she said. The nude form was becoming an artist’s greatest expression of creativity. And in Europe it was new. Artists had not shown the human body unclothed since Classical times.
“In the medieval period, there is no tradition at all” of painting the naked body, she said. “It emerges in the Renaissance.”
It emerges with Titian, possibly the best-known artist in the European world in his lifetime. He painted some 60 scenes for Philip II from Ovid’s “Metamorphoses,” the Roman collection of poems and myths of gods and people transforming: “My intention is to tell of bodies changed to different forms …”
Titian is a visual poet, Yeager-Crasselt said, telling ancient stories in sensual images. He was competing with Ovid. And he, too, changed bodies. When he painted women lying naked at their ease, he was leading a revolution in his Venetian studio. In 16th-century Europe, this shift could only happen in the humanism and the artistic culture of Venice, she said, in a worldly place with an open attitude toward sensuality.
In Philip II’s day, artists in in Italy and the Netherlands were leading a movement to liberate painting from a craft to a liberal art, to show their work as intellectual and elevated. The change happened much later in Spain, she said. Under the weight of the Inquisition, Spanish artists were more limited in what they were allowed to learn and express.
And yet Philip brought that artistic revolution into his private places.
“Collecting of art was a display of power,’ she said, ‘of his ability to commission work from top artists of the day, to collect in vast amounts. There was pleasure in it. There was a culture of collecting.
“And as a further paradox — he loved nudes and erotic paintings. He was learned; he had a humanist education, and he spent time outside Madrid.”
When he received Titian’s “Poesie” in the 1550s and 1560s, V” Philip could have read the original poetry in Latin.
And so, while Spanish artists might be forbidden to paint these scenes and subjects,
artists crossed the Holy Roman Empire to learn in Madrid. Rubens was fascinated by Titian, Falomir said, and came twice to Philip II’s court to study Titian’s works.
The scenes both Philips collected vary from spare to overflowing and the naked figures from powerful to powerless.
Small cabinet paintings on copper are rollicking with exuberance. In Jan Breugel the Elder and Hendrik de Clerck’s “Abundance with the Four Elements,” women embodying Earth and Water lie in the grass and look across a landscape teeming with life — fruit and sea shells, guinea pigs, a lobster in the foreground and a cat in the trees — while two men, air and fire, glide overhead entwined. In a corner, the putti seem to be feeding the ducks.
Their work stands in stark contrast to Rubens’ “Rape of Hippodamia” and the chaos of an assault. The pale, half-naked woman at the center reaches back, ashen-faced in terror as she is dragged onto the back of a centaur.
In some works, voyeuristic and even violent themes can be disturbing, Yeager-Crasselt said.
And some artists made that clear.
Guercino’s “Susannah and the Elders” lays bare the violation and vindication in that Old Testament story, Morris said.
Susannah is bathing, and she is absorbed and at peace. She is not aware of the two old men spying on her. One man leans out of the bushes toward her, and the other looks out of the frame with a warning hand raised as though to say “be quiet.” The early light glimmers on her shoulder and casts the men into shadow.
So Guercino sets anyone looking at the painting in the same place as these treacherous men, watching her.
“It implicates us,” Morris said.
Images like this one show a darker edge to the Catholic kings setting these works apart for themselves and the male members of their family — few women ever came into the salas reservadas.
Philip II may have begun the practice in the 1560s, when Titian sent his Ovid “Poesies.” In the 17th century, Philip IV had a room in his lower summer quarters where he would retire in the afternoon for lunch and a siesta. Many travelers’ accounts of Madrid going back to 1560, but only one of this room, Torre de la Parada, Falomir said. It was that carefully guarded from view.
Later, under Charles III, the paintings left the palace altogether — and were nearly burned.
“They were under threat,” Yeager-Crasselt said. “They were seen as lascivious and immoral, and it was only because of people like court painters that they were saved.”
Image at the top: Guido Reni’s ‘Saint Sebastian’ appears in the Clark Art Institute’s summer show, ‘Splendor, Myth and Vision.’ Image courtesy of the Clark Art Institute and the Museo Del Prado, Madrid