We’ve asked members of the Getty community to share short, personal reflections on works of art they’re thinking about right now. These recordings feature stories related to our daily lives.
This week, Maite Alvarez, who works on exhibitions at the museum, recalls how she discovered a Baroque sculpture’s true maker—Luisa Roldán. To learn more about this sculpture, visit: www.getty.edu/art/collection/objects/1101/.
JAMES CUNO: Hi, I’m Jim Cuno, president of the J. Paul Getty Trust. We’ve asked members of the Getty community to share short, personal reflections on works of art they’re thinking about right now. This week Maite Alvarez discusses a painted wooden sculpture by Luisa Roldán.
MAITE ALVAREZ: I’m Maite Alvarez, an art historian who works on exhibitions at the J. Paul Getty Museum.
I have always loved exploring the past. For me, there is nothing more fantastic than touching our cultural DNA, holding a 500-year-old art object, artifact, even a letter. Historians, like explorers, are driven by the idea of discovery, finding that thing that has been hidden away for hundreds of years.
The most exciting thing I ever uncovered happened early in my career, my very first discovery. I had just graduated from college and got my first real adult job—right here at the Getty. The Museum had several new objects that required further research, and my mentors invited me to work on one of them: an almost life-sized polychrome wood sculpture of a male monk, who looks as if he is stepping forward, mouth slightly open and right hand outstretched as if he’s going to speak. Complete with glass eyes, the figure displays a kind of heightened realism typical of religious imagery made for Catholic churches globally in the late 1600s.
There was a lot we didn’t know about the work. If not for an inscription-S. GINES DE LAXARA-repeated along the sleeve and hem of the figure’s vestment, we would have had little idea who the figure was supposed to be. Another inscription could be found on the base, sixteen ninty-something, the year the object was made. The identity of the artist was unknown but the sculpture provided one tantalizing clue: along the base, traces of a 300-year-old signature.
Unfortunately, time had worn off some of the letters. Over time, historians, curators, and dealers would play a sort of scholarly hangman, the childhood game where players have to guess the word or words by guessing the missing letters. So looking at the partially legible signature on the base, the artist was assumed to be José Caro. The guess made sense; Caro was active in the 1690s in Murcia, Spain, where there was a strong cult following of San Gines de la Jara. This must be the artist—no doubt! And in a case of confirmation bias, every scholar who looked at the base, myself included, swore we read the words, Jose Caro.
I was sent to Murcia to do more research on surviving works by Jose Caro and to try and confirm our hypothesis. But it quickly became apparent San Gines had nothing to do with Jose Caro.
So, who created this sculpture? I began to reexamine polychrome works created in Spain in the 1690s. Then standing in the royal monastary El Escorial, I came face to face with a sculpture that looked like ours: a similar nose, the outline of the lips, the knitted brows, and the slight opening of the mouth. Suddenly everything clicked!—San Gines was by the famed court sculptor, Luisa Roldán, also known as “La Roldana.” Looking at the bases of her sculptures, it became obvious just how badly we had misread the signature. Our base, like the other bases, now clearly read: LUISA ROLDAN ESCULTORA DE CAMARA, año 1692. Designated court sculptor in 1692 by King Charles II, La Roldana probably produced San Ginés as a royal commission.
I think about this sculpture and the process of discovering its artist a lot. There are so many objects out there with their stories yet to be revealed. I often wonder just how many other “La Roldanas,” both figuratively and literarily, are sitting somewhere waiting for their stories to be rediscovered.
CUNO: To view Luisa Roldán’s sculpture of San Ginés de la Jara from around 1692, click the link in this episode’s description, or look for it on getty.edu/art/collection.