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Video transcript

(light rhythmic music) - [Steven] We're in the National Museum of Art in Mexico City, and we're looking at a brilliant small painting of two hermits, Saint Anthony and Paul the Hermit. - [Lauren] And this painting by Baltasar de Echave Ibia is exceptional because this painting on copper allows for this really rich buildup, this luminosity to shine through. - [Steven] We usually think about paintings, oil on canvas, perhaps tempera on wood, or fresco, but there's a long tradition of artists painting on metal plates, and there was a very different quality. One of the things that makes this painting so beautiful is not only this great blue-gray cast and a kind of luminousness, as you said, but also, there is a precision, a heartiness that makes everything seem so real. - [Lauren] And it really invites close looking. This would have been either a private devotional piece or something placed into the bottom of an altarpiece where you could actually get close to it because there are some really wonderful details that you can't see from even just across the gallery. - [Steven] Well, in the era before there were motion pictures or videos, painting was something that you spent time with, and a painting like this really does invite you to look in closely as the story unfolds. - [Lauren] And we have this wonderful continuous narrative where we're seeing Saint Anthony, this 90-year-old hermit, who's heard that there's an even older and wiser hermit out in the desert, and so he makes this journey to go find Saint Paul. - [Steven] And a hermit is somebody who has given up their worldly possessions to live in nature, to live in isolation so that they can devote themselves to a spiritual life. The first scene is very difficult to see. It's on the right side towards the middle ground, and we see Saint Anthony who is speaking to a monstrous figure that's half-man and half-horse. - [Lauren] This legend, this story comes from The Golden Legend, this medieval text that compiled all of these saints' stories. - [Steven] Right, and it's important to remember that this is not in the Bible. These were stories that were meant to fill in some of the gaps around the biblical stories. - [Lauren] And so it mentions this encounter with this satyr who we're unsure whether he is the devil or if he is benevolent, but he points in the direction of where Anthony could find Saint Paul in the wilderness. - [Steven] And gives him a little bit of fruit along the way. And at the same moment, we see just to the bottom left of that Saint Paul the Hermit in a cave in isolation, that is, of course, the person that Saint Anthony is seeking, but the main section of the image that takes up the entire left half of the plate shows the two hermits together in Saint Anthony's cave. - [Lauren] And this is the climax of this story, the encounter of these two important hermits. And what we're seeing here in the left half of the composition is Saint Anthony who is gesturing of humility and reverence and respect to Saint Paul, whose arms are held aloft, as if he is imparting some wisdom, or in this case, potentially relating to Saint Anthony, how God has been bringing him bread for the past 40 years. - [Steven] And in fact, if you look up a little bit to the top center of the canvas, you can see that there is a raven that's bringing two loaves of bread to them. This is a clear indication of God's favor. And I love the way that the loaves themselves are bisected by the horizon line, suggesting that this bread is moving from the celestial spiritual realm into their physical world. But maybe my favorite part of the painting is at the feet of the two hermits where we see all this wonderful wildlife. There is a duck, there is a stream, there is a rabbit, there are oyster shells. - [Lauren] And even a snake and a salamander. And the rabbit almost reminds me of Durer's Hare. - [Steven] I think there is no question that the artist here in the New World was influenced by the Northern Renaissance interest in this really careful rendering of the natural world. - [Lauren] And beyond that, if we're thinking symbolically, many of these animals had associations with lust or greed, bad negative connotations, and so here, they are functioning perhaps to remind us that these hermits are rising above the sins of humans. - [Steven] I wanna go back to that idea that there are some precedents here because the entire landscape is so fanciful but recalls the landscapes of Flanders, of the 15th century. Look at that rock outcropping and even the bluish tones, that atmospheric perspective back into space. All of this looks like the kind of work that would have been done by German or Flemish artists. - [Lauren] And we're supposed to be in the middle of the desert here, and we really don't get that sense of a desert. There are a few indications. We see a palm tree that rises behind Saint Paul, but this really looks like lush forests brilliantly illuminated, almost as if we've taken this legend and placed it into this paradise related to the Americas. - [Steven] And this artist comes from an important artistic family and is known specifically for his blue tones, which I think are even more heightened here because of the copper underneath. - [Lauren] Baltasar de Echave Orio comes from Spain, and he is one of these early immigrant artists to come to the Americas to seek new fortune, new patronage, and he establishes this incredibly important artistic dynasty. And so Baltasar de Echave Ibia, the artist of this oil on copper painting, is his son, and he really is famous for these blues. He is actually known as Echave of the Blue Tones. - [Steven] But we're only actually halfway through the story line. - [Lauren] If we leave the left portion of the composition here where we see the two saints talking and we go back to this central portion where we see Saint Paul in the cave, we can actually read that as a later moment in the narrative as the moment where he is about to die and in fact will die in the wilderness, and we can make that assumption because just before him on the edge of the canvas in the middle ground, we see two lions, and we know that in this legend, Saint Paul's lifeless body is actually found by Saint Anthony, and lions helped to bury him. - [Steven] And we see Saint Anthony just beyond that ground plain who is looking up to heaven, and at his feet are Paul's garments. And if we follow his line of sight, we look up into the sky and we see this luminous nude body that is ascending into heaven, and we know of course that this is Paul, who has been blessed because of his deeply spiritual life. And I love the way that he is almost being clothed by the angels that surround him. Light emanates from that body and is so beautifully contrast against the dark clouds behind him. - [Lauren] And you see the use of the blue Flemish-inspired landscape that Echave Ibia is so famous for in many of his other works, some of which we're seeing in the galleries here just to the left of the painting that we're looking at. - [Steven] So we're seeing this really complex relationship between an ancient story, an ancient legend that is important both in Europe but also here, has been transplanted into the Americas by an artist who was born here in Mexico and is drawing on the Spanish and Northern tradition to create a painting for an audience in New Spain. 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