Below a baldachin, beautifully adorned with gold thread, stands a sculpture of the crowned Virgin Mary with folded hands. She is dressed in a mantle studded with countless pearls and precious stones. Arched latticework with angels playing music form a halo behind her. The Virgin stands on a stepped pedestal. She is flanked by two sculpted angels in prayer and three winged angel heads are depicted beneath the hem of her robe. Placed upon the steps are statuettes of saints, a cross and decorated objects. Like the canopy above, the base of the plinth is also lined with fine golden embroidery. In the background, behind the canopy metal bannisters can be seen. Two coats of arms are featured- one behind the crown and another at the top of the canopy’s edging. This extraordinarily well-executed work is a depiction of the Virgen del Sagrario and was painted by an extraordinarily clearly skillful artist.
This Virgen del Sagrario de Toledo was painted by Christobal Ramirez, as the signature on the lower right reveals. It is exceptional that works featuring this subject are signed.
The Virgen del Sagrario is the patron saint of Toledo and the sculpture owes its name to the fact that she was placed in the Sacrarium of the Cathedral, where the relics of saints are kept. The original sculpture, which can still be seen in Toledo Cathedral, has a long history. It is a Romanesque work of art that was plated in silver during the 13th century. This particular painting depicts the sculpture as it was before it was placed on its gilded silver throne, which was made between 1646 and 1654 by the Florentine silversmith Francesco Fanelli (c. 1590‑1661). In most of the known depictions of the Virgin de Toledo, she is seated on this throne. Moreover, her sculpture is not depicted in situ in the cathedral but depicted before a choir screen, as if fully prepared for the annual procession through Toledo. The two rectangular grilles on the bottom left and right of the stepped plinth actually serve for the staves that are used by the porters, ‘costaleros’, to support the float on their shoulders during the procession.
Christobal Ramirez was a painter from Toledo by whom only a handful of signed paintings are still known today. Remarkable is the variety, and the high quality, of each of these works. His life is barely documented. As the name Christobal Ramirez was common among painters in the fifteenth to seventeenth centuries, there is some is confusion in the correct identification of the artist at times. The Christobal Ramirez who painted this particular work of the Virgin del Sagrario undoubtedly came from Toledo. Nevertheless, it is not unfeasible that ‘our’ Ramirez is the one who was registered with the Colegio de Pintores of Valencia in 1616.
At the time, the relations between Valencia and Castile were such that a training in the former was quite possible. Certain is that Christobal Ramirez is mentioned in Toledo as a painter in 1631 in a document that discloses that he lived in several houses owned by Agustín Tolentino. The document states that ‘Cristobal Ramirez Pintor’ owes the silk merchant Tolentino money. Even though the name was a fairly common one at the time, this document and records show that, ten years later, in September of 1641, Christóbal Ramírez of Toledo, as painter and neighbour, carried out the appraisal of the paintings bequeathed by Canon Gregorio Barreiro. Barreiro was the owner of, among other works, ‘The Portrait of Toledo by the Hand of the Greek’ (View of Toledo by El Greco).
With the discovery of this exquisite work, there are now five signed paintings by Christobal Ramirez known today: Christ the Saviour in Madrid’s Prado Museum, a Guardian Angel in the Museo de Santa Cruz in Toledo and two fruit still life pieces that are now kept in Dumbarton Oaks, Washington.
It is most likely that both the paintings in Madrid and Toledo were painted in 1638. The illegibility of a digit in the Museo del Prado suggests that it was signed and dated in 1678, but considering the painting’s stylistic character, it must have been created much earlier. Both these works can be placed into the tradition of the Toledo school and are reminiscent of Juan Sánchez Cotán’s artistic style (as is evident in the figure of Christ the Saviour in Madrid). One is reminded of Alonso Cano and of Alonso Cano Luis Tristán (the Toledo Guardian Angel was previously attributed to his school) but with a new sense of colour, which coincides with the developments in Madrid during the same period. A more direct influence of afore mentioned Sánchez Cotán, despite the dating, can be found in the two still lifes in Dumbarton Oaks. The works, both signed and dated ‘Cristóbal Ramírez de Arellano fac 1644’, depict bunches of grapes, apricots and melon, and thistles, grapes and pomegranates. With the dark backgrounds, the naturalistic treatment of small objects and the warm colours, the artist aims for a realistic representation of the objects, which are exquisitely depicted through the use of a varying pictorial treatment of their different textures.
This newly discovered painting of the Virgen del Sagrario is the fifth signed painting that can be added to the oeuvre of Christobal Ramirez. At first glance, this work will evoke thoughts of South American painting from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. This is logical when we consider the great importance given to the visual image of the Virgin in Spain, which was echoed by Catholics in South American. These paintings served as images for worship. There were set traditions for the portrayal of miraculous sculptures of the Virgin in seventeenth-century Spain. Numerous, often less detailed, versions of these devotional ‘portrait’ have survived, both in Spain and in Spanish America. The word portrait is used here because the client and the artist actually believed these works to be real portraits of the Virgin Mary. They were viewed as divine trompe-l'oeils.
The function of these portraits, which of course came in many shapes and sizes, for both rich and poor, was private devotion. Such images existed in the form of prints for all social classes and affordable, often unsigned paintings but also in the form of costly works of art. This painting by Christobal Ramirez falls in the latter category.
As an artist, Christobal Ramirez was the perfect fit to paint this subject so intricately. He was skilled in both still-life and devotional paintings, the perfect combination to successfully create a work such as this one. It therefore represents a binding connection between the two extremes of his oeuvre: the saints and the still lifes.
To understand why this particular image has so frequently been used for prayer cards and home altars, it is important to know the history of the Virgen del Sagrario of Toledo.
Toledo was the seat of the Archdiocese, the most important diocese among the various church provinces of Spain, and also of the Primate of Spain. In late sixteenth-century Spain, the dioceses were actively competing with each other over who had the most prestigious Christian track record. Toledo, where the Virgin is said to have appeared to Bishop Ildefonso, had a problem because there were hardly any relics in the cathedral for this apparition. Ildefonso was laid to rest elsewhere and the chasuble that he, according to tradition, received was not there. The Toledo cathedral chapter therefore came up with a creative solution. The Virgin del Sagrario, a statue of a saint in the cathedral, was, according to this new tradition, embraced by the descended Virgin. This created new material ‘evidence’ of the Virgin descent and thus enhanced the status of the cathedral. The cult of the Virgin Mary, which was already considerable in Spain, was thus given a boost.
The new status of the Virgin sculpture was confirmed as early as 1584 by the order for a new crown to replace her old tiara. This crown, made by the silversmith Alejo de Montoya, is clearly visible in the painting. Unfortunately, the crown was removed from the cathedral in 1869 or 1879, and is now considered lost.
It is difficult to decipher and identify one of the coat of arms in the painting. Behind the crown is the crest of the house of Castile. This may have to do with the erection in 1616 of the sculpture in a new place in the cathedral. The young Prince Phillip, later Phillip IV, was present at this ceremony. The coat of arms in the baldachin is identical.
With the Spanish conquest and the colonization of America, devotional works and images of the Virgin Mary, Jesus, and saints were transported across the Atlantic, where they were then adapted to the historical and regional peculiarities of the Spanish colonies. Paintings and prints with statues ("statue paintings") formed a popular genre in Spain that was brought to the Spanish territories. One example is a copy of a statue of the Virgin of Toledo (Nuestra Señora del Sagrario de Toledo), which was brought to New Spain by Franciscan missionaries who considered Mary their protector while establishing missions and converting indigenous peoples. This image of the Virgin of Toledo would morphed into the Virgin of Macana.
Angulo Íñiguez, Diego; Pérez Sánchez, Alfonso E. (1972). Pintura Toledana de la primera mitad del siglo XVII. Madrid, Instituto Diego Velázquez.
Jordan, William B. (1985). Spanish Still Life in the Golden Age, 1600-1650. Fort Worth, Kimbell Art Museum, p. 193.
Suárez Quevedo, Diego, «Prestigio de la obra de El Greco en colecciones toledanas del siglo XVII. Reflexiones sobre inventarios y tasaciones de pinturas», BSAA, 57 (1991), p. 371-386
Cloe Cavero de Carondelet, “Reframing a Medieval Miracle in Early Modern Spain: The Origins of Our Lady del Sagrario of Toledo,” in The Interaction of Art and Relics in Late Medieval and Early Modern Art, edited by Livia Stoenescu, Turnhout: Brepols, 2020, 29-49.