A canvas attributed to Bartolomé Esteban Murillo has ignited debate among experts in Spain, with some claiming that the Baroque artist was not the one behind an Immaculate Conception scene currently on view in a Seville church.
The work first arrived at the San Vicente Mártir parish under mysterious circumstances sometime around 1840. At the time, it was unclear who painted it. In September 2019, the work underwent a brilliant restoration, and was rehung in a place of honor by the church’s baptismal font.
Among those who came to see it was Ignacio Cano, curator of the Museum of Fine Arts in Seville, who, after studying the work for several months alongside Antonio Romero, deemed it a genuine Immaculate Conception scene painted by Murillo sometime between 1640 and 1645. Until then, the oldest work by Murillo depicting the Vigin Mary was the enormous canvas Las Colosal, which dates to 1650.
A leading expert in Murillo has disputed the team’s findings, which were recently published Ars Magazine. Enrique Valdivieso, professor of art history at the Hispalense University and author of the biography Murillo (2011), said in a statement to the Spanish-language publication El País, “It doesn’t seem to me that this Immaculate Conception belongs to Murillo. It lacks the characteristics that are present in youthful works by Murillo.” He also claimed not to have noticed the “inescapable influence” of Murillo’s early teacher, Juan del Castillo, in the work.
Cano defended his Murillo attribution to El País, saying, “It is a work that no other Sevillian painter of that time [was] capable of doing.”
Murillo was the foremost religious painter in Seville in the late 17th century—and one of the most imitated artists in the region. His early works are heavily influenced by the warm palette of del Castillo, a popular, though less enduring, figure in Spanish Baroque art history, while later works reflect a turn towards the bold brushwork and high-contrast lighting popularized by Diego Velázquez and the Flemish masters.
During his lifetime, Murillo painted around two dozen versions of the Immaculate Conception scene. One of them is currently held by the Museo del Prado in Madrid and ranks among his most famous works.
In the majority of Murillo’s depictions, the Virgin Mary appears in a luminescent white robe, her hands crossed, with a crescent moon resting by her feet. In June, conservators in Spain called for tighter restoration laws after two botched restorations of one of Murillo’s Immaculate Conception paintings left the work unrecognizable.