Dr. Houghton Lectures on Art in Spain

By Melissa Gemballa

"Las Meninas"

Penn State New Kensington continued its Year on Spain activities on Nov. 4 with a lecture and slide presentation on art in Spain by Dr. Charlotte Houghton, Associate Professor of Art History at University Park.

Houghton began by emphasizing the eclectic nature of art in Spain. Although Americans are aware of the great influence Spain has had on other countries and cultures since the 16th century, Spain itself has been influenced by the many civilizations that have inhabited its land, such as the Romans, the Goths and the Moors. The effect of such globalism can be appreciated in the magnificent architecture, sculptures and paintings that contribute to the rich and diverse collection of art in Spain today.

The Romans, who conquered Spain in the second century BC, left testaments to their occupation in the familiar form of aqueducts and amphitheatres. The Goths, who began their reign in the fifth century AD, constructed several churches characterized by the intricacy of their relief work and by the inclusion of numerous arches. The latter feature was incorporated by the Moors into their own architectural style after they conquered the Goths in the eighth century AD. This feature figured prominently in structures such as the Great Mosque of Cordoba with, as Houghton phrased it, “a forest of pillars and arches.”

The Christians regained power three hundred years later, but the intermixing of cultures resulted in some of the most world-renowned edifices of today, such as the Alhambra and the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela.

Houghton, who specializes in European art between 1400 and 1750, turned next to the paintings of that period. Having spent time at the Museo del Prado in Madrid pursuing research as a graduate student, Houghton marveled that its collection, currently comprised of over 7500 paintings, belonged for most of its history to one family: the royal family of Spain.

The palace of Charles V, constructed within the fortifications of the Alhambra, provided a unique, competitive environment for resident artists and one in which styles from all over the world were frequently “borrowed.” Charles V and his son, Philip II, played key roles in amassing paintings from various countries, including the works of master Flemish artists Rogier van der Weyden and Hieronymus Bosch and Italian artist Titian.

As might be imagined, the Prado possesses the world’s largest collection of Spanish paintings, featuring works from artists Bartolomé Bermejo, Luis de Morales, El Greco, Francisco de Goya and most prominently Diego Velázquez.

Velázquez, entering the court of Philip IV as a portrait artist which was considered a rather low-ranking position, attained a much more prestigious appointment as palace chamberlain after many years of service.  One of his paintings, Las Meninas, translated as “The Maids of Honor,” is regarded as the Prado’s most famous work. Its primary subject at first glance appears to be Margarita (front center), the king’s daughter, but the presence of Velázquez (left) as well as the reflected figures of the king and queen (back center) have made the painting a subject of much study and opposing interpretations.

Students participating in the campus trip to Spain during spring break will have the opportunity to visit the Museo del Prado and view this painting and many other works of art firsthand. For more information on the trip, contact Maria Franco-de Gomez, Instructor in Spanish, at mxd37@psu.edu or Bill Hamilton, Assistant Professor of Biology, at hw7@psu.edu.

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