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  • Talking Religion, Comparatively Speaking: Throwing Some Light on The Multi-Confessional Landscape of Late Medieval Iberia
  • Cynthia Robinson

Introduction: Methods and Questions

Despite its general title, this essay will be anchored by an object that is likely to be at least somewhat familiar to most readers. On 5 June 1455, some three years before his death, Íñigo Lopez de Mendoza, the first Marqués of Santillana, added a codicil to his will. In it, he arranged for the placement of an altarpiece, to which he referred, as will I, as the “Retablo de los Ángeles” (or, the “Altarpiece of the Angels”), that he had recently commissioned from a painter named Jorge Inglés, atop the main altar of the church attached to the hospital he had founded in his family seat of Buitrago, located near a pilgrimage route that led to Santiago de Compostela (Fig. 1) (Bosch 86–88; Sánchez Cantón; Sentenach).1 The retablo is square with a tapering, narrow banco; few examples of this format survive, although others may have [End Page 263]

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Fig. 1.

Jorge Inglés, Retablo de los Ángeles, Guadalajara, Museo del Palacio de los Mendoza. Photo: Oronoz.

[End Page 264]

golden, “Gothic”-style arches, each of which contains the portrait of Saint Ambrose, Jerome, Augustine or Gregory the Great. The main body of the retablo is divided into two levels, the lower of which houses the famous “Northern-Style” portraits of the Marqués and his wife, topped by a wooden architectural framework covered in gold leaf and positioned on either side of a sculpture of the Virgin and Child. The statue which today sits beneath the golden baldachin is of the distinctly “Romanesque” appearance associated with the late twelfth and early thirteenth centuries, and is not the one that originally occupied this position. The original piece was undoubtedly of a more “Gothic” or “Flemish” appearance and was probably roughly contemporary to the retablo; it was ordered specifically by Santillana from the trade fair at Medina del Campo (Berg-Sobré 65). The second level is occupied by twelve angels who, hovering against a deep blue background, unfurl scrolls, each of which contains a verse of a poem on the Twelve Joys of the Virgin, composed by the Marqués himself (Gómez Moreno and Kerkhof, LXXVI–LXXX, 373–76; Nader 96; López Nieto, ed., Introduction and 93; Appendix I).2 The penultimate verse appears on the wall behind the author; the final one was originally inscribed onto a scroll, now lost, and placed in the hand of the Virgin.

Given that it is the only work securely attributed to Jorge Inglés, one of the first northern masters documented as having plied his trade in Castile, this piece has been unanimously hailed as a pioneering harbinger of things to come: for most art historians it represents the initial, lapping waves of what was, by the end of the century, to become a veritable inundation of northern art produced by northern artists on Castilian soil for Castilian patrons. Indeed, in scholarly discussions of the retablo, the portraits of the Marqués and his wife are frequently excerpted from larger context of the piece (which, in itself, is not especially “northern” in character) in order to make this point (Berg-Sobré 65; 150–51; Bosch 86–88; Sentenach).

More importantly for the purposes of this collection, even though the title [End Page 265] by which the piece is known acknowledges its purpose is in some way connected with religion, in scholars’ efforts to link it to “Things Northern” and thus to establish Castile’s artistic legitimacy, albeit derivatively, vis-à-vis “The Rest of Europe”, its devotional raison d’être is frequently forgotten. Likewise, for most historians of literature, the Marqués de Santillana is famous for his love of Dante, Petrarch and Boccaccio, and is synonymous with the introduction of humanism into the implicitly somewhat backward intellectual circles of Castile. Such “religious” compositions as the one he included on his retablo have traditionally been overlooked in favor of others which would link their author to intellectual currents perceived as progressive (and, incidentally, secular) (eg., Gómez...


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