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Zurbar'an becoming better known - but popular? This Spanish painter's somber, religious art clearly deserves its `masterpiece' reputation

THEY'RE not easy to like, these large - in some cases huge - paintings by Francisco de Zurbar'an (1598-1644), with their unrelentingly introspective or mystical themes, somber tonalities, oddly uncomfortable figures, dramatic, often harsh light-dark contrasts, and occasionally heavy-handed draftsmanship. And yet, the best of them can touch and move us as only very great art can. But then, like them or not, they are great works of art. Not, perhaps as innovative or as consistently first-rate as the paintings of his exact contemporary, Vel'azquez, but of very high quality nevertheless. In fact, it has long been accepted that Zurbar'an was second only to Vel'azquez among the great Spanish painters of that nation's Golden Age.

His fame notwithstanding, Zurbar'an's work is little known in the United States. True enough, the Art Institute of Chicago owns one of his major pieces, ``Christ on the Cross,'' and the Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford, Conn., is justifiably proud of its masterpiece, ``St. Serapion.'' But these, and other excellent examples in Boston, St. Louis, Cleveland, Washington, and a few other American cities, have not had a great enough impact on the public's consciousness to make him better known than he is.

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For that, a major and well-publicized retrospective of his work was needed, something the Metropolitan Museum, working in conjunction with the Mus'ee du Louvre in Paris, has just provided. This retrospective - the first anywhere in more than 20 years and the first ever in America - consists of 71 paintings, many of them virtually unknown treasures from rarely visited or private collections, and all representative of one or another important aspect of his art.

Impressive and even moving as this exhibition may be, however, I doubt that it will significantly enhance Zurbar'an's popularity in America. Both he and his work will become better known, of course, and his name may even begin to appear more frequently whenever the world's great artists are discussed. But beyond that, I don't expect much to change.

The reasons have more to do with his themes and subjects and the solemnity with which he painted them than with his abilities or artistry. Unlike Vel'azquez, who, as painter to the king, celebrated court life and the trappings of royalty, Zurbar'an remained almost exclusively a religious artist whose pictures epitomized the spiritual beliefs and aspirations of Spain's conservative ecclesiastical authorities. With rare exceptions, his work, which was mostly commissioned by monastic patrons in Seville and in other cities and religious sites in southern Spain, was intended to comfort and inspire the faithful, and to help uphold the authority of Roman Catholic doctrine and tradition during the challenging period of the Counter-Reformation.

A large number of his paintings, as a result, strike the modern eye as a bit too ponderously devotional and orthodox. And that is true even though Zurbar'an's genius enabled him to transcend the limitations of the more academic aspects of Spanish religious art and to fashion images that were remarkably innovative for their time and place.

Several of his single-figure compositions, on the other hand, particularly such passionately focused works as ``St. Serapion,'' ``St. Francis in Meditation,'' and ``St. Francis Standing,'' cause few problems for the modern viewer, for they are profoundly human documents as well as devoutly religious ones. We can identify with these saints as we can with El Greco's and Rembrandt's - for purely emotional reasons as well as for strictly religious or formal ones.

We also have little trouble with his depictions of children, or with his series of individual, sumptuously gowned female saints. In both instances, the emphasis is on the individual and on very specific physical characteristics, not on theological issues or grandiose compositional schemes.

It is really only with his larger, more complex, and more tradition-prescribed altarpieces, then, that we find ourselves somewhat overwhelmed and alienated. And yet, these are the works that dominate this exhibition and leave us with the strongest impression of who Francisco de Zurbar'an really was.

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Here again, however, whether or not we respond to these monumental works as easily or as totally as we do to his ``simpler,'' more ``human'' paintings, we cannot deny their range, depth, or importance. ``Christ on the Cross,'' ``St. Bonaventure on His Bier,'' ``The Adoration of the Magi,'' ``St. Peter Nolasco's Vision of the Crucified St. Peter,'' ``The Adoration of the Shepherds,'' and any number of others are masterpieces in every sense of the word. Even a minute or two in their presence should convince us of that. And a minute or two of respectful, undivided attention isn't too much to ask. After all, even if what we get from the best of them doesn't quite equal what we derive from Vel'azquez, Rubens, or Rembrandt at their best, it will, at least at times, come very close.

After its closing at the Metropolitan Museum on Dec. 13, this excellent and very important exhibition will travel to Paris, where it will be on display at the Grand Palais from Jan. 11 to April 11.

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