On my first visit to The Meadows Museum I was captivated by Murillo’s paintings of sisters Justa and Rufina. The sisters, accomplished potters from Seville, Spain, were martyred in the 3rd century. I was intrigued to learn more about the sisters’ personal story. Before coming to The Meadows, the paintings were to play an important part in the history of the 20th century.
The Meadows Museum description reads…
Saint Justa and Saint Rufina, c 1665, oil on canvas
“According to tradition, Justa and Rufina, sisters and patron saints of Sevilla, were third-century potters who secretly practiced Christianity, a religion proscribed by the Roman emperor. When Justa and Rufina refused to sell their pottery to pagans for use in idolatrous rites, they were executed. Each sister thus holds their earthenware vessels – both their livelihood and saintly attribute – and palm fronds as a sign of their martyrdom. In the pictorial tradition, however, the two martyrs are noted more for their beauty than for their saintly status. The portrait-like specificity of Justa and Rufina lends them an appeal both sacred and secular, linking them to Murillo’s rare and often enigmatic genre paintings.”
Saint Rufina, born 270AD
Saint Justa, born 268AD
Justa and Rufina created fine earthenware pottery for a living, employing and supporting their city’s poor. Their story goes, after refusing to sell pottery for use in pagan rituals, their entire stock was destroyed. Justa and Rufina retaliated by smashing an image of a pagan goddess. The sisters were imprisoned and endured unimaginable torture until their deaths in 287 AD, never renouncing their Christian faith. The sainted sisters are revered throughout Spain. In cathedrals, chapels are named for them, notably in La Sea de Zaragoza.
Artist Bartolomeo Esteban Murillo, a native of Seville, knew of the sainted sisters from boyhood and painted their portraits with tenderness and veneration. His work was labeled “sentimental” by art critics and didn’t accord the same respect as Velazquez or Zubaran. Fortunately, that thinking has changed and Murillo is revered as a master Spanish painter in the Counter-Reformation Baroque style. Known for his mastery of chiaroscuro, the interplay of light and shade, he painted religious works as well as genre paintings. It is interesting to note that in the 17th century, painters were considered laborers, not artists, as they worked with their hands.
Hundreds of years after their death, Murillo painted the sister saints not knowing what would become of the paintings 276 years later.
Most of Murillo’s work remained in Spain until after the Napoleonic invasion in the early 19th century. After the invasion, French and other collectors were able to acquire and export Murillo’s work. The Rothschild family, based in Paris, eventually acquired the portraits of Saint Rufina and Saint Justa.
In 1941, during World War II, the Nazi regime stole the paintings from the Rothschild family in Paris. Tens of thousands of artworks were stolen by the Nazis during the war, some masterpieces never to be seen again. Saint Rufina and Saint Justa were recovered by The Monuments Men in the waning days of the war. The paintings were properly restituted to the rightful owners prior to donation to the Meadows. The Monuments Men Foundation and their efforts to save the stolen art can be found at the link here. A movie chronicling the efforts of the men and women who volunteered for service in The Monuments Men regiment was produced in 2014. It’s available on Amazon Prime here. It’s not the best movie you’ll ever see, but it’s interesting if you’re an art lover.
Today the paintings are estimated to be worth more than 10 million dollars.
The Meadows Museum on the campus of Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Texas is the pre-eminent museum featuring Spanish art in the United States.