Sebastián López de Arteaga, Marriage of the Virgin

Sebastián López de Arteaga, Marriage of the Virgin (Los Desposorios de la Virgen), before 1652, oil on canvas, 223.5 x 170 cm (Museo Nacional de Arte, INBA, Mexico City)

[0:00] [music]

Dr. Beth Harris: [0:06] We’re in the National Gallery of Art in Mexico City, looking at a large painting of the Marriage of the Virgin. This is a common subject in the Renaissance.

Dr. Lauren Kilroy-Ewbank: [0:14] This painting is by a Spanish artist, Sebastian López de Arteaga, who moves from Spain to the Americas — to what is today Mexico, what was then New Spain. He creates this wonderful painting of the marriage between Saint Joseph and the Virgin Mary.

Dr. Harris: [0:33] We have the priest in the center, who’s marrying Joseph on the left and Mary on the right. Joseph has in his hand the ring and Mary holds out her fingers to accept that ring. Joseph looks so young and handsome.

[0:46] I had to remind myself for a second because he looks so Christ-like that he was Joseph and not Christ.

Dr. Kilroy-Ewbank: [0:56] It’s in this moment that we’re beginning to see this shift in the iconography of Joseph, where instead of being marginalized on the outskirts of the composition as this older man who’s often sleeping, here we see the young, strapping, handsome, virile man.

Dr. Harris: [1:06] It’s true that for centuries in Europe, the emphasis was on Mary. But in the 16th and 17th centuries, we have this new interest in Joseph.

[1:14] The Holy Spirit is just above Joseph’s head here, swooping in, and so we have this sense of this earthly marriage here between Joseph and Mary, the delight of the angels in heaven, and the musical instruments played in celebration of their marriage by angels.

Dr. Kilroy-Ewbank: [1:33] I think it’s important to discuss the importance of Joseph here in New Spain. Early on after the conquest, during the conversion process, Saint Joseph becomes the patron saint of New Spain. There are very specific reasons for that. He is the patron saint of conversion, for instance.

Dr. Harris: [1:47] Well, he’s the first convert. He experiences a vision from God who explains that the baby that Mary carries is, in fact, Christ, the baby is divine, the baby is God, and so in a way, he is the first Christian.

Dr. Kilroy-Ewbank: [2:01] In the context of this moment of evangelization of the vast Indigenous populations, Joseph becomes incredibly important.

Dr. Harris: [2:11] You know, these figures are so close to us that it feels like we’re part of the marriage ceremony with them. We see faintly behind them a church-like setting, but the emphasis is really on the figures and the divine nature of this marriage. We have above the priest the Hebrew letters for God.

[2:27] This artist didn’t always paint in this style.

Dr. Kilroy-Ewbank: [2:30] Early on, when he first arrived, he paints what we would call Caravaggesque realism, this style focused on earth tones, dramatic differences between light and shadow. And in fact, we’re looking at some of his earlier depictions here in the gallery that are paired with this painting of the Marriage. They couldn’t be more different.

Dr. Harris: [2:49] Well, the earlier painting of the doubting Thomas, of Thomas touching Christ’s wounds so that he believes that, in fact, this is Christ resurrected, there’s a realism there in the wounds of Christ, in the faces of the apostles who look on. But here, in this painting of the Marriage of the Virgin, we have figures who are more beautiful, more idealized.

Dr. Kilroy-Ewbank: [3:08] Some of that earlier attention to detail and naturalistic elements, you do find those here in this painting, particularly in the face of the priest. It’s wrinkled, and the attention to the beard, or even in the carpet that all the figures stand on, where you do get the sense that he wants to portray objects as they would have appeared in nature.

[3:26] The reason for that shift is actually when López de Arteaga first arrives here, he was painting in a style that was in vogue back on the Iberian Peninsula, but quickly learned that what was desired was this more colorful, more idealized style that we’re seeing here in the “Marriage.”

[3:44] I think the point you made earlier about this glorifying of the Marriage is also important in terms of marriage. Monogamy became such an important point to convey to this population here.

Dr. Harris: [3:53] Monogamy, fatherhood, being a good father, these are all things that Joseph could help the church to convey.

Dr. Kilroy-Ewbank: [4:03] What we see in, say, the 16th century is this belief that the Indigenous populations were too polygamous. They weren’t practicing monogamy. What we’re seeing here in this painting is that continued notion that you needed to communicate the importance of a chaste, monogamous marriage.

Dr. Harris: [4:20] We have an artist who comes from Spain, learns that what he’s painting is not in vogue, changes his style to match the desires of his patrons, and a subject matter that has particular relevance for New Spain.

[0:00] [music]

James Oles, Art and Architecture in Mexico (London: Thames & Hudson, 2013)

Painting a New World, exh. cat., ed. Donna Pierce, Denver Art Museum (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2004) (available online)

Tesoros, Treasures, Tesouros, the Arts in Latin America, 1492–1820, exhibition catalogue (Philadelphia: Philadelphia Museum of Art, 2006)

Kelly Donahue-Wallace, Art and Architecture of Viceregal Latin America, 1521–1821 (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2008)

Cite this page as: Dr. Lauren Kilroy-Ewbank and Dr. Beth Harris, "Sebastián López de Arteaga, Marriage of the Virgin," in Smarthistory, September 12, 2021, accessed July 22, 2024,