Jan Brueghel el Viejo and Hendrick de Clerck, Abundance and the Four Elements, 1606. Image via Wikimedia Commons.
By the mid-17th century, a clear religious and legal consensus had emerged in Spain. Nude paintings—particularly featuring women—were not only morally suspect, but dangerous.
Earlier, in December 1563, the Catholic clergymen who had gathered for the Council of Trent decreed that “all lasciviousness [in church artwork] shall be avoided in such ways that figures shall not be painted or adorned with a beauty exciting lust.” Even Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel fresco of the Last Judgment fell afoul of the church, prompting some contemporary Spaniards to declare that paintings of the nude were “inventions of the devil,” could make the onlooker a “slave to lust,” and that “the finest paintings are the greatest threat: burn the best of them.” In 1640, the Spanish court went so far as to declare the creation, importation, and possession of nude paintings illegal—thereby cementing the most repressive, anti-nude legal regime in all of Europe.
And yet, collections of the nude not only continued in Spain, but flourished. Under the tutelage of Philip II and Philip IV, the Spanish Habsburgs would come to possess the largest collection of nude paintings in Western art. “This paradox,” said Miguel Falomir Faus, director of the Museo Nacional del Prado, “is that this impressive collection of erotic paintings was not in the very liberal Amsterdam, or in Florence, but in Madrid, and the owners of this collection were the most Catholic kings in the world.”
This seemingly contradictory state of affairs has its roots in the particular significance of nudity in European art. “In the late fifteenth century, the ability to draw the nude was becoming a prerequisite for the very definition of a successful artist,” writes art historian Jill Burke. Moreover, “successful paintings and sculptures of nudes were those that provoked physical desire on the part of the viewer (who was generally assumed to be male).” Thus, even as the political climate grew increasingly antagonistic, serious patrons of the arts like Philip II and Philip IV continued to collect the best—and, by extension, most alluring—works of art.
This stark contrast between moral and artistic standards could put painters in a bind when it came time to actually hire a nude model. “In the end the ones who are suitable don’t want to strip,” complained one bitter artist of the 1640s, “and those who will strip would make a good model for witches.”
Far and away the most important factor in the development of the Spanish Habsburgs’ illustrious collection, however, was the genesis of the salas reservadas—cloistered, exclusive spaces scattered across a handful of royal properties for the purpose of displaying certain works separately from the rest of the collection. Though references to sequestered holdings of nude paintings in the royal collections begin to crop up as early as 1621, the first documented sala reservada appears in a 1636 inventory of the Alcázar Palace under the reign of Philip IV. The room featured nine nude paintings by Titian, and was recorded as the place “where His majesty retires after lunch.”
By the arrival of Charles III, these rooms bore the bulk of the monarch’s “indecent” holdings. The country had come to a consensus—established alongside the official criminalization of nude works—that, in the hierarchy of sin, the most pernicious offense was to create nude works or exhibit them publicly. “That left an important loophole for [members of the ruling class] who chose to own such paintings, as long as they kept them in secluded spaces, away from the the indiscriminate eye of the general public,” writes art historian Javier Portús.
But not every king embraced these works. After ascending to the Spanish throne in 1759, Charles III arrived in Madrid to find a veritable cornucopia of nude and erotic paintings painstakingly amassed by his Habsburg predecessors. The collection included tableaus by the likes of Titian, Diego Velázquez, and Peter Paul Rubens—the remnants of a staggering 5,539-painting inventory, conducted in 1700, that had subsequently dwindled through foreign gifts and a devastating fire at Madrid’s Alcázar Palace in 1734.
In the annals of monarchic prudery, Charles III commands a sterling position. In 1752, as King of Naples and Sicily, the regent once famously fled an archeological dig when presented with a marble statue of a satyr fornicating with a goat. Appalled by the cache of erotic Roman antiquities he’d uncovered, he banished the offending work to a locked cabinet and ordered the excavation to be halted altogether.
But in Spain, the monarch resolved to take even more radical action. Summoning his court painter, Antón Raphael Mengs, Charles III ordered the artist to gather all the “indecent paintings” and promptly burn them. Stricken, Mengs appealed directly to the king’s sense of morality. If the paintings were regarded as pedagogical tools, he argued, might the king consider that there was perhaps “less risk for the professors (painters) to follow such a well-painted original than to have to denude real women?” For the remainder of Charles III’s rule, the paintings would be placed under the careful custody of Mengs himself—intact, but hidden away.
Salas reservadas would linger on in Spanish society for over two centuries, until as late as 1838. Monarchs of differing temperaments and tastes employed them for everything from suppressing artistic eroticism, to projecting the cultural refinement of their estate, to indulging their own private pleasures. But these spaces remained hotly contested throughout, serving as visual salvos in the ongoing European struggle to define the meaning of morality, artistry, gender, and power.
Francisco de Goya, The Clothed Maja, 1800-1808. Photo via Wikimedia Commons.
Even as late as 1815, Spanish painter Francisco de Goya found himself hauled before the Secret Chamber of the Inquisition in Madrid. Officials interrogated him as to whether two particular paintings—The Nude Maja (1800) and The Clothed Maja (1800–08)—“were his work, why he made them, who commissioned them, and for what purpose.” Though the paintings had been briefly liberated under the reign of Joseph Bonaparte, the subsequent arrival and reinstatement of the Spanish Inquisition in 1814 had quickly resurrected the same anti-nude regime that had governed Spanish artistry for centuries. It was not until the Prado dissolved its own sala reservada in 1838, just a few years after the twin demises of the Inquisition and the conservative monarch Ferdinand VII, that the works emerged from behind closed doors.
Today, the two Majas hang in the Prado—brazenly indifferent to the millions that tread beneath their smoldering gazes each year—daring viewers, as they always have, to respond.