Angel and Prostitute by Velasquez

One of the strangest paintings by Velazquez is this St. Thomas Aquinas.


Temptation of St. Thomas Aquinas by Velasquez, 1632, Orihuela Cathedral Museum, Spain (Enlarge at (Wikipainting)

He is being comforted by angels after his great temptation.
What temptation?
See that woman running off at the top of the picture?

velasquez santo tomás fragment

Detail of The Temptation of St. Thomas

That’s a prostitute. She was sent to seduce Thomas by his brothers, with the approval of his very mother, the Countess of Roccasecca, who didn’t want her gifted son to become a Dominican monk and retire from the world.

Thomas drove the temptress away with the firebrand you see lying in the foreground, still smoking; and, when she was gone, he drew a cross on the wall with it.
Two angels appeared then and put that cincture or belt around his waist as a prize of perfect chastity.
The temptation must have been hard on him—he looks exhausted. It was the hardest and the last trial. His mother had had him locked up in the family castle for more than a year and his brothers tormented him constantly.

For many years this painting was thought to be the work of another painter. It wasn’t until 1906 that a critic made the Velazquez claim. Even now there are critics who refuse to believe it is his work. “He might have had a hand in that standing angel,” says Gomez Moreno. “But the rest is by Alonso Cano or somebody.”

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4 Responses to Angel and Prostitute by Velasquez

  1. iondanu says:

    What are the arguments of the critic from 1906? Is the painting signed by Velasquez? Is it mentionned in some document? Because, as far as I know, it is very uncertain if the attribution was made entirely based on the style… Painters, in Velasquez time, use to make copies and imitations of others (especially of great masters) as a method (and maybe a good one) of learning to paint…

  2. 100swallows says:

    Danu: No one seemed to have thought the painting was by Velazquez, even as far back as 1632 (just after it was painted!). Already then, according to a critic named Lafuente Ferrari, it was in the colegio of the Dominican friars at Alicante and considered to be the work of somebody called Nicolás de Villacis. In 1906 a critic named Tormo declared it to be by Velazquez. He said it had been painted shortly after his return from his first trip to Italy. Tormo pointed out stylistic similarities with the two big “Italian”paintings—Vulcan’s Forge and Jacob Being Shown Joseph’s Tunic. Most critics went along with the attribution after a cleaning job in 1953 showed “preciosísimas tonalidades grises” like the ones in those other two paintings. My source (The Complete Works of Velazquez, Noguer-Rizzoli) doesn’t say why Mr. Gomez Moreno refused to go along.

    The painting is part of an exhibition in the Prado Museum of Madrid now—I just saw it–but is usually in the Diocesan Museum of Sacred Art of Orihuela (Murcia).

  3. Anonymous says:

    It is hard to believe that Velazquez would have produced a painting about such an intrinsically silly subject, silly even taking account of the sexual attitudes that may have prevailed in the Dominican order in the 13th and 17th centuries. The girl in the background looks like she had a genuine longing to be associated with St. Thomas, he possibly felt the same way about her and had to brandish a burning brand to banish his feelings. I guess that is the point of the picture. I’m not sure what term was used for this girl in the hagiography of St. Thomas or in 17th Century Spain, but today in the USA we would not use the term floozie to describe a woman, nor the kindred term “blowsy,” an adjective formerly used to describe a floozie who had spent too many seasons on the cocktail circuit. This is because women today have equal rights to long for men (didn’t Jane Austin establish this point?), and such feelings for a man may range from merely lustful (as in the Sex in the City program) to a more ethereal level, comparable to the feelings that Dante and Petrach had respectively for Beatrice and Laura. Possibly women would never have quite the same feelings because they would realize that no man is good enough to inspire them. Incidentally, a male floozie would be a roue or a womanizer, already more respectful terms, even though pejorative. Regarding the attribution of the painting, the activity at different depths does suggest other paintings of Valazquez, you are right that the angel on the left is more interesting. However, the arrangement of objects along the right wall of the room that is depicted, small stool, space on the wall for a crucifix, giant blank fireplace looking like the Hoover Dam (its fancy architectural features add insult to injury), back of that a large area of blackness, this seems like a poor composition. Finally the painter would surely have recalled that St. Thomas in his later years was renowned for his expanded midsection –hence why draw attention to this aspect of the legend by having angels fasten a belt around his youthful waist? Incidentally, St. Thomas would probably have been pleased last year when the Pope said that Christianity (Catholicism at least) was based in part on Greek philosophy -it is St. Thomas who brought in the thinking of Aristotle.

  4. 100swallows says:

    You’ve made so many points, Anonymous, I don’t know where to start. I chose the word “floosie” because it sounded funny in this context. It IS a little off–OK. My source for the story, an introduction in Spanish to the Summa, spoke of a “loose-virtued woman”–one that would accept this kind of job. I don’t know what Jane Austin “established”.
    The story does sound apocryphal. But I don’t question the attribution to Velazquez on the basis of the subject. He painted many pictures which illustrated stories of all kinds. Artists mostly don’t inquire too deeply into the veracity of the stories they paint. Myth and good stories are their medium.
    It wasn’t my observation that the angel on the left is more “interesting”.
    I think the woman looks more like a Tintoretto creation than a Velazquez one. I don’t like that collection of objects in the foreground either. They do look like what an imitator of Velazquez would put into a picture to convince the critics.
    I don’t see why awarding the eighteen-year-old Thomas with a belt for chastity should recall his big belly of twenty years later.
    I don’t know what the Pope said last year but he needn’t have said such an obvious thing.

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