Martin Gayford

O come, let us adore him

Two dazzling Adorations by Juan Bautista Maíno are currently on show at the National Gallery and demand your attention

On 27 July 1613 a man prostrated himself in the church of San Pedro Mártir in Toledo, having first made a solemn declaration: ‘I, Juan Bautista Maíno, make profession and promised obedience…’ Thus he became a Dominican friar. At the time, Maíno was halfway through painting ten canvases for the high altar of this very same church. Two of these, the most glorious and seasonally apposite, are currently on loan from the Prado and on show in Room 1 at the National Gallery (until 29 January).

They open a window on to a little-known episode in Spanish art — and the spiritual life of an intriguing man. Maíno (1581–1649) is not a well-known figure, even in his native land, though perhaps he would have been had he continued to paint many more pictures like these.

The two Adorations are brilliantly assured, almost hyper-real in their carefully rendered textures and surfaces: the silky hair of Melchior, the elder of the Three Kings (or Magi), and his highly polished bald pate, the sumptuous textiles in which he and his companions are clothed, the steaming breath of the ox in the ‘Adoration of the Shepherds’.

Along with the surface realism, however, there is what one might call devotional correctness. Joseph, for example, is not presented — as he often is in art — as a senior citizen, but as a youthful figure, leaning forward to kiss the child. This was the way that the saint was supposed to be depicted in Counter-Reformation art: as a vigorous father and provider. According to X-rays, Maíno first painted Joseph as an older man, with greying hair, then repainted him decades younger.

Understandably, he was keen to get everything right. In a contract for another altarpiece he undertakes to depict the subject, with ‘all the decorum that is required in such holy things’, but also using all his ‘study and diligence’, and in addition the most colourful ornaments possible.

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