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Visualizing Imperium: The Virgin of the Seafarers and Spain’s Self-Image in the Early Sixteenth Century *

  • Phillips Carla Rahn (a1)

Abstract

The Virgin of the Seafarers (153136) by Alejo Fernández was designed as the central panel of an altarpiece for the chapel in the House of Trade’s Hall of Audiences in Seville. Little attention has been paid to the central panel and almost none to the four side panels, yet they are crucial to our understanding of how the Spanish monarchy defined its mission overseas. The iconography of the altarpiece as a whole made visible Spain’s self-image as the creator and guarantor of a militant, evangelical Christian empire, dedicated to spreading the Gospel as well as fomenting trade and colonization.

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I explored some of the ideas in this essay in a paper presented at the Sixteenth Century Studies Conference held in San Francisco in October 1995, and in an informal lecture series in the Department of Art History at the University of Minnesota in May 1996. Patricia J. Kulishek, then a graduate student at the University of Minnesota, provided valuable assistance in the early stages of my research. I am also grateful to the Minnesota Humanities Commission for a “Work in Progress” grant that funded a research trip to Madrid and Seville in the summer of 2003, and to the John Carter Brown Library, where I was Andrew W. Mellon Senior Fellow in the fall of 2003. The perceptive and expert comments of Judith Berg Sobré and the anonymous RQ reader helped me greatly in the final revisions of the text.

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