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Gil de Siloé, A Renaissance St. James as pilgrim

Gil de Siloé (Burgos, Castile-León, Spain), Saint James the Greater, c. 1489–93, alabaster with traces of paint and gilding, 45.9 x 17.4 x 12.5 cm (The Cloisters, The Metropolitan Museum of Art), an Expanded Renaissance Initiative video speakers: Dr. Lauren Kilroy-Ewbank and Dr. Beth Harris. Created by Smarthistory.

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Video transcript

(soft piano music) - [Dr. Kilroy-Ewbank] We're standing here in the Cloisters Museum in New York City looking at an alabaster sculpture of St. James the Greater. And this sculpture was produced in Spain, where they would refer to him as Santiago. - [Dr. Harris] St. James was one of Christ's 12 apostles. St. James was also, importantly, the patron saint of Spain. - [Dr. Kilroy-Ewbank] The artist was from the Netherlands, or Northern Europe, who came to Spain to find work. And his name was Gil de Siloe. And we've heard it pronounced multiple ways. He was considered one of the best, if not the best sculptor in Spain at this point in the 15th century. - [Dr. Harris] And it wasn't unusual for there to be artists from Northern Europe from Flanders working in Spain, particularly for Queen Isabel. - [Dr. Kilroy-Ewbank] So, Queen Isabel of Castile commissioned the sculptor to produce a very large tomb for her parents in the Cathusian Monastery of Miraflores near Burgos. This sculpture formed a small part. - [Dr. Harris] And so, Isabel is gathering some of the greatest artists in Europe to come to work for her. - [Dr. Kilroy-Ewbank] But the tomb that Isabel commissioned had life-sized effigies of her parents Juan the Second and Isabel of Portugal. And surrounding the life-sized effigies of them were all these smaller figures, including the apostle St. James that we're seeing here. - [Dr. Harris] And we think that his position was near her head or by her shoulder. - [Dr. Kilroy-Ewbank] At some later point, the sculpture was removed. And if we're looking at it, we see that there has been gilding applied to it. And we don't believe that the gilding was original. We think this was added later after it was removed from the tomb, and potentially even installed on a different type of altar piece. - [Dr. Harris] It is so clear to me that this is by a great master sculptor. The fineness of the carving is extraordinary. His right hand, for example, I see the bones in his hand, the sense of skin laying on the bones. A real sense of studying of human anatomy. even just in the small areas of bare flesh that we can see. - [Dr. Kilroy-Ewbank] And I love how the folds fall particularly in his cloak. These are deep folds, but they fall very naturalistically. That he used alabaster as the material to produce this sculpture is important as well. Alabaster is not something we typically think of when we think of Renaissance sculpture, but was actually incredibly common at this time in Spain as well as Northern Europe. And they didn't necessarily differentiate it from marble. There are some strengths to using alabaster. It's softer to carve than marble, and it has a more translucent quality. - [Dr. Harris] There are some negatives. It does not do well outside. It is more prone to breaking. - [Dr. Kilroy-Ewbank] Still, alabaster in part allowed for some of these very naturalistic details to be developed here. - [Dr. Harris] The beard, in particular, is very naturalistic. You can almost see the individual hairs growing from his face, and these lovely curls in the beard that frame his chin. And this incredibly expressive face. He's so clearly individualized. He's not a generic figure. - [Dr. Kilroy-Ewbank] Let's talk about the iconography here. St. James was an early Christian martyr, one of the apostles of Christ. So how does he become the patron saint of Spain? And why is he being shown as a medieval pilgrim? - [Dr. Harris] Often, in the Middle Ages and in the Renaissance, people paid homage to relics, and the relics of St. James miraculously appeared in Spain in what is today Santiago de Compostela. - [Dr. Kilroy-Ewbank] And St. James miraculously appears on the battlefield to help Christians battle Muslims during the Reconquest in the 8th century, so centuries after he died. Which is part of the reason that his relics are celebrated in Northwestern Spain at Santiago de Compostela. And they're so celebrated that it becomes the third most important pilgrimage site of the Middle Ages. - [Dr. Harris] Many people during the Middle Ages and Renaissance would want to take a spiritual pilgrimage. They could go to Rome, they could go to Jerusalem, and the next most popular spot was Santiago de Compostela. And all along the pilgrimage route, you could stop and visit relics at various churches, ultimately making your destination to the great pilgrimage church of Santiago de Compostela. - [Dr. Kilroy-Ewbank] And pilgrims who completed the journey were given a cockle shell. And we're seeing a reference to that three times here, in fact. We see it on the satchel that he has across his waist. We see it clasping his cloak together, and we see it on his pilgrim's hat. - [Dr. Harris] And he's dressed like a modern pilgrim. He's not dressed like an apostle. - [Dr. Kilroy-Ewbank] Yeah, he's wearing a pilgrim's cloak, he's wearing that satchel that you see, he's wearing this hat, and he's carrying a walking staff that has a water gourd tied to it. These are all the types of things that you would see pilgrims using and wearing as they were making that journey to Santiago de Compostela. - [Dr. Harris] Let's not forget that journey was a really arduous one and could take months or even years and mostly on foot. And made to atone for sins, perhaps to heal, perhaps seeking a miracle cure of some sort. - [Dr. Kilroy-Ewbank] So let's talk more about where this was originally located. We mentioned that Isabel of Castile commissions the artist to create this much larger tomb structure in this monastery. Part of the reason that she commissions this very well known sculptor, was to not only commemorate her deceased parents. Her father had actually been the one to gift this monastery to the Carthusians. So it was a way to commemorate them, but it was also a way of connecting herself to her father. She needed to legitimize her reign because her mother, Isabel of Portugal, was actually her father's second wife. And so she needed a way to make that dynastic claim to the throne of Castile. Art is so often politically motivated to make a claim about power and legitimacy. - [Dr. Harris] But simultaneously, on a tomb, beside an enormous altar piece, in a monastery, in this very spiritual setting, this joining of the spiritual and the political. (upbeat piano music)