The Infant Christ Distributing Bread to the Pilgrims

Bartolomé Esteban Murillo1678

Museum of Fine Arts, Budapest

Museum of Fine Arts, Budapest

To this day there still hangs a copy of the Budapest Jesus distributing Bread in its original location, a former rest-home for elderly priests in Seville. Murillo's masterpiece enjoys their admiration not merely for its captivating, gentle charm, but also because it would hardly be possible to express more perfectly the mission of the institution. The vision of Jesus distributing bread reminds us of the Christian's duty to care for those who fall by the wayside, a duty that originates with Christ himself. Yet it affirms this with a self-evident naturalness free of any didactic overtones. The viewers thus experience the not as a chore, but as an inner spiritual compulsion which they willingly obey.
It was precisely this intimate immediacy and warm empathy which was the secret of Murillo's popularity, which in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries rivalled Raphael's. Perhaps today the Spanish genius's sentimental mood seems too cloying, but it never errs into kitsch: the subject of its deep humanism is not some wistful ideal, but an ordinary man of flesh and blood. Though the mood is lofty, within the figures flickers the ghost of Caravaggio's plebeian characters. One former critic characterized his art as "noble naturalism". The dignity of the characters derives primarily from sincere humility, and it is this virtue that characterizes the gesture of the donor of Jesus distributing Bread, Canon Justino de Neve, who had his portrait placed among the needy pleading for charity.

Axel Vécsey

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