Art of Devotion or political propaganda: Religious Art in the Spanish Civil War

If there was one thing undeniable about Francoist propaganda both during and after the Spanish civil war, it was deep catholicity. Through art, political objectives were intertwined with theological motifs. The nationalist desire for political control was deeply imbedded in to the idea of Spain being the defender of Catholicism, a trend which dates back to the age of Ferdinand and Isabella, to the age of exploration, and probably more familiar to English ear, the Spanish Armada of 1588.

Whether Franco, the nationalist dictator of Spain’s, political objectives were in line with Catholic teaching is another controversial question, leaving many religious communities still divided today. Yet it remains true, that the hybrid of nationalist political objectives with theological themes expressed in art form happened anyway. This served a purpose militarily, politically and socially. Paintings of the crucifixion, of the Virgin Mary, of Saint Teresa de Avila, or any saint imaginable can go far beyond the field of religious devotion; they are pillars of a regime itself.

Intercession de Santa Teresa de Jesús en la Guerra Civil Española

The Spanish Civil War, despite its short length, spanning from 1936 to 1939, was bloody. Brother fought brother, family ties were brutally teared apart, villages and civilizations were virtually flattened, and its nightmarish legacy has far from disappeared. Evidence of its occurrence remains vivid in Spain both physically and culturally; it is well known that the hills surrounding el Valle de los caídos (the Valley of the Fallen) are scattered with mass graves, but perhaps more palpable and thought provoking is the casual bullet mark in a stone wall, or a memorial in the town square, evoking a sobering and dampening tone against the buzz of vinotecas and tapas bars.

Although not incredibly well known, the painting La Intercesión de Santa Teresa de Jesús en la Guerra Civil españolal (The Intercession of Saint Teresa of Jesus in the Spanish Civil war) by the Catalan José Maria Sert is a neat example of the form in which the fusion of Catholicism and nationalist politics took. Painted in 1937, a year after the war had commenced, the painting depicts Saint Teresa reaching out of a bloody battle scene to grab onto the crucified Christ’s hands, who appears to be exalted above her. The painting is telling of the inseparable link between Catholic devotion and the Francoist cause; Paul Preston goes as far to suggest that the ‘immaculate hand’ of Teresa touching that of Christ is typical of the ‘providential’ narrative of Franco’s crusade. The choice to paint Saint Teresa is of course deliberate; Teresa was featured regularly in Francoist cinema and aura of piety and reverence meant she became an almost immortal mythologized role model.

Illustration by Carlos Sáenz de Tejada y Lezama

Surrounding Teresa are other men on crucifixes, symbolising the common theme of equating fallen nationalist soldiers with that of the heroism of the crucified Christ. Many artists had begun to portray the close affinity between nationalist fatalities and Christ’s death; an illustration by Carlos Sáenz de Tejada y Lezama shows an illuminated cross in the distance as Republican soldiers are shown carelessly dumping bodies. Just as George Inness’ The Triumph of Calvary shows a rainbow amidst a thick darkness to symbolise the victory of Jesus’ crucifixion, so too the representation of light in Sert’s painting symbolises hope and vitality in the nationalist cause. There are clear moral ramifications in suggesting, artistically or not, that the nationalist side had Christ’s favour, for this would compel all Catholics, as of course under obligation to follow Christ, to subdue themselves to nationalist control. The intermingling of Francoist politics and ethics of obligation and duty would be part and parcel of the Francoist regime, as organizations such as la Sección Femenina de Falange set out to outline behaviour such as sexual and marital rules of conduct.

The Triumph at Calvary by George Inness

Of clear importance is the Latin inscription ‘plus ultra’ on the side of the painting; meaning “further beyond”, the phrase’s significance has far more to do with its historical use than its meaning. It was taken from the personal motto of Charles V, who acted both as The Holy Roman Emperor and the King of Spain. Charles V was the first to expand Spain into an international empire, and did much to defend Catholicism, criticising Martin Luther protestant theology at the Council of Worms. Sert’s choice to use this phrase is hardly coincidental; rather, he is asserting that the nationalist party both enshrines and honours Spanish heritage. The depiction of Christ touching Saint Teresa, coupled with the Latin inscription and the Spanish nationalist flag could not depict the inextricable relationship between nationalist political objectives and catholic devotion.

One only has to see the countless pictures of the Royal Family or typical British parochial settings littered around articles discussing Brexit to realise the extent to which pictures and paintings express political messages in a deep and profound way. The usage of art, especially religious art to convey political messages is not contained in the past with Francoist Spain, it is alive and still with us today.

Written by Loretta Deeney

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