Luisa Roldan’s sculptures in seventeenth-century Spain.

and Motherhoods

 La maternità e le maternità  DCM-001
05 January 2024

One of the most important conditioning that occurs in women's lives is the experience of motherhood. Motherhood radically alters one's life and conditions one's perspective on reality.  From a social perspective, motherhood stereotypes women's lives. When we talk about female identity, the social imaginary immediately associates it with her reproductive capacity. This gives rise to situations and relationships that definitively mark the life of any woman. Be that family, procreation, care, children, and the home. However, this does not mean that motherhood obliges women to give up their personal life. Luisa Roldán (1654-1706) was a Sevillian sculptor who managed to emancipate herself from her father, Pedro Roldán’s workshop, and establish herself with her own workshop first in Seville, then in Cadiz and finally in Madrid, as chamber sculptor to Charles II in 1692, confirmed in 1701 by Philip V.

Luisa stood out among all her brothers and sisters not only for her technical skill but also for her wit and character.  She married for love, which was not so common at the time, and started a family while growing as a sculptor, and gained recognition from the artists' guild, patrons and royalty. Her work gives off a formidable energy; it is expressive, vital and full of color. The Roldana, as her contemporaries called her, inherited from her father the technique of woodcarving, as well as iconographic influences related to the Sevillian sculptural tradition, but she enriched the execution, expressiveness and details further still. Thus, the artist was able to produce both an energetic life-size Saint Michael (1692) for the Monastery of El Escorial in Madrid and smaller works for private oratories, such as the Madonna and Child preserved in the Convent of Saint Joseph in Seville (1699). Over the years, she added other techniques such as terracotta and polychrome clay. She adapted her creativity easily to sculpture, carving free-standing, relief figures of various sizes, according to her client’s requests.

In her vast production, Luisa made many sculptural groups related to the motherhood of Mary. In them, we can see her experience as a mother, in breastfeeding, in the gestures of caring for children, such as hugging, playing and accompanying them. She was also very attentive to the details of domestic work, such as sewing, which she performed in the company of her children.

A sculpture with these characteristics is the group of Our Lady of Milk, preserved in the. National Museum of Sculpture in Valladolid (1689-1706, polychrome terracotta, 41.5 x 33 x 25.5 cm). Mary appears breastfeeding her child in a very natural, everyday pose, while at the same time caring for the infant John the Baptist, whom she watches tenderly in response to his calling.  The artist has modeled the work with agility, giving dynamism and instability to the figures, whose suave movement engages the viewer in a gentle and tender vision. Luisa demonstrates great mastery in the use of polychromy on terracotta. The Virgin's dress consists of a rosy tunic with a light blue cloak and a white veil, contrasted with the two childrens’ tunics in a light ochre tone, that of the Baptist a little more intense.

 Nel gruppo, l’intimità tra madre e figlio si alterna all’attenzione rivolta ad altri personaggi, qui a Giovanni Battista bambino con l’agnello. Non è l’unico esempio dell’opera di Luisa Roldán dove scopriamo questo dettaglio. Non si tratta solo di una rappresentazione della maternità sensibile di Maria, ma anche di un sentimento compassionevole nella relazione tra l’adulto e il bambino e di una delicatezza intenzionale nei rapporti di cura. L’artista sembra voler sottolineare che l’allattamento è un atto intimo che enfatizza l’umanità non soltanto di Maria ma anche di Cristo. Rientra nella normalità della cura quotidiana, espressa nella tenerezza degli sguardi e nell’espressione del volto di Maria. Ciò si può osservare in molte composizioni scultoree: la forza e la tenerezza, l’energia dell’azione e la delicatezza del gesto verso l’altro.

In the group, the intimacy between mother and child alternates with attention paid to other characters, here to John the Baptist as a child with the lamb. This is not the only example in Luisa Roldán’s work where we discover this detail. It is not only a representation of Mary's sensitive motherhood, but also a compassionate feeling in the relationship between the adult and the child and an intentional delicacy in the caring relationships. The artist seems to want to emphasize that nursing is an intimate act that emphasizes the humanity not only of Mary but also of Christ. It is part of the normality of daily care, expressed in the tenderness of Mary’s glances and facial expression. The strength and tenderness, the energy of the action and the delicacy of the gesture toward the other can be observed in many sculptural compositions.

In her Madrid phase (1698-1701), there are numerous sculptural groups of the Madonna suckling the Child in her womb. In fact, at least six other sculptures are known to be preserved either by religious institutions (convents of the Immaculate Conception in Malaga, the Visitation in Madrid, and St Anthony the Abbot in Granada) or by private individuals (Muguiro and López-Robert collections, both in Madrid), such as one in Mexico, the location of which is unknown, however. Luisa managed to reconcile her professional life as an artist with a motherhood that she never separated from her artistic production, which made her unique. On the very day of her death, she was named an academician of the Roman Academy of San Luca in Rome. She was the first woman to receive this honor.

by Silvia Martínez Cano
Theologian and artist, Complutense University of Madrid. This article appeared in Aldebarán magazine.