European studies blog

18 June 2014

Baroque death or the Death of the baroque?

Nobody knows the etymology of ‘baroque’: a strangely shaped pearl, a syllogism?  Nobody wants to say when the Baroque ended: presumably some time in the long seventeenth century, though the 2009 Baroque exhibition at the V&A ran up to 1800.  Most people agree it soldiered on in the periphery when it had sputtered out in the metropole.  And most people know it when they see it – or read it.

This book is a case in point:

Aclamacion posthuma. Inmortal fama. Panegyrico clarin de virtudes. Trompa funebre de egemplos, y de desengaños, con que el Illustrissimo Cabildo de la Santa Iglesia Cathedral de la ciudad de Orense publicò al mundo averle faltado el heroe mas famoso ... D.D. Diego Ros de Medrano ... Pronunciose el lugubre panegyrico de tanta pèrdida el año passado de 94. por el señor doctor D. Jacinto Andres Phelipes .. (Granada, 1715). British Library RB.23.a.19103

It is a description of the obsequies of Bishop Diego Ros de Medrano in Orense Cathedral in 1694. One of the Bishop’s achievements was to build a spendid new chapel to house a figure of the Crucifixion (see ‘La Imagen de Cristo en Ourense’).  Although the Bishop seems not to have been honoured with an elaborate catafalque, the orations, in true baroque style, constantly draw verbal  imagery from the visual arts, at least partly in recognition of Ros’s contribution to the fabric of the cathedral.  

The cultural context of the exequies was surely the elaborate multimedia ephemeral funerary art of the time, with its towering catafalques, decorated with mottoes and emblems, and accompanied by music and poetry.

Sometimes these gave rise to splendid memorial books, such as Rodríguez de Monforte, Descripcion de las honras que se hicieron a la catholica magestad de D. Felipe Quarto … en el Real Convento de la Encarnacion (Madrid, 1666; 605.e.30(2); 605.e.31(1)); studied by Orso.

In other cases the books were less lavish than the occasion they recorded.  In Spanish literature by far the most famous example of the genre is the Neptuno alegórico. This is an account of a trimphal arch devised by Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, nun of Mexico, dubbed  the Tenth Muse, to mark a viceregal entry in Mexico City in 1680 (see Alatorre).  

Sor Juana’s book was published without pictures, doubtless on account of the expense of making the plates (see Infantes). Our book is also text only (with the exception of a portrait and a sprightly Grim Reaper).


When Margaret of Austria, consort of Philip III, died in 1611 catafalques were raised across the Empire (see Morata Pérez).

In Cordoba, the exequies were recorded  in a book,  Relacion de las honras que se hizieron en la Ciudad de Cordoba a la muerte de la serenissima reyna Señora nuestra, which included poems of praise by the most eminent Andalusian poets, including Luis de Góngora, who was an ecclesiastic of the cathedral. To it he contributed three serious sonnets. But in manuscript Góngora was less flattering about rival constructions in other Andalusian cathedrals:

Oh, bien haya Jaén, que en lienzo prieto
De luces mil de sebo salpicado
Su túmulo paró, y de pie quebrado
En dos antiguas trovas sin conceto.

Écija se ha esmerado, yo os prometo,
Que en bultos de papel y pan mascado
Gastó gran suma, aunque no han acabado
Entre catorce abades un soneto.

Todo es obras de araña con Baeza,
Donde el fiel vasallo el regimiento
Pinos corta, bayetas solicita:

Hallaron dos, y toman una pieza
Para el tumbo real o monimento
¡Nunca muriera doña Margarita!

[Oh, congrats Jaén, you’ve raised a tumulus on black canvas sprinkled with tallow in a thousand colours, with two old hobbling and tuneless songs.
Ecija, I assure you, has pushed the boat out: she spent a lot of money on statues made of papier mâché and chewed-up bread, but fourteen abbots couldn’t produce a proper sonnet between them […]
If only Doña Margarita hadn’t died!]

Góngora,  like so many of his contemporaries coprophilous when satire demanded it, neatly points out the consituent parts of a catafalque – paintings, statues and verses – while exposing the poor quality of materials.

Big tomb, little man? Although Bishop Diego Ros de Medrano figures in the Diccionario de historia  eclesiastica de España, his achievements seem to have been outscaled by his monument.  Nor can I explain the time delay between the event in 1694 and the publication in 1715.

As these texts constantly remind us, all must perish, and these elaborate, intentionally ephemeral ceremonies eventually ran their course: the latest Spanish  example in the BL is, I believe, that for Philip V from 1747 (9930.d.26).

Barry Taylor, Curator Hispanic Studies


Antonio Alatorre, ‘En torno al Neptuno alegórico de sor Juana’, Nueva Revista de Filología Hispánica, 58 (2010), 269-78. Ac.2693.ce

James Stevens Curl, A Celebration of Death (London, 1980) X.421/11168

Diccionario de historia  eclesiastica de España, 5 vols (Madrid, 1972-87)  HLR 274.6

La Imagen de Cristo en Ourense

Víctor Infantes, ‘La presencia de una ausencia. La emblemática
sin emblemas’

Jesús M. Morata Pérez, ‘ Honras granadinas en la muerte de la reina Margarita de Austria (1611). Edición y notas’.

Steven N. Orso,  Art and Death at the Spanish Habsburg Court (Columbia, 1989) YV.1990.b.1269

Renaissance Festival Books


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