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La Sagrada Familia con Santa Ana

La Sagrada Familia con Santa Ana (c. 1595), painted on canvas by El Greco, was a gift to the Hospital de San Juan Bautista in Toledo from Teresa de Aguilera, the widow of Alonso Capoche; it is mentioned in a hospital inventory of 1631 and may have been executed around 1595 judging by the style and brushstrokes, although not all historians share the same opinion and some date it to a somewhat later stage in the Cretan's career. This superb artwork is also a devotional painting characteristic of Counter-Reformation Spain, and the success it enjoyed is borne out by the numerous surviving versions and copies with varying formats and figures. This version appears to be based on the one now in the Hispanic Society in New York [], which does not feature Saint Anne.

The composition as a whole has a component that is intentionally moving and magnificently conveyed by the artist. While the endearing, idealised face of the Virgin [] is considered by many critics as one of the most beautiful of all the female images painted by El Greco, the emotional and artistic aspects of the composition are closely interwoven by the delicate interplay of hands that El Greco had already developed in the Disrobing of Christ (El Expolio) in the cathedral []: Saint Anne gently caresses the head of the child, whose right hand clutches the fingers of his mother's left hand, while Saint Joseph, on the other side of the canvas, touches Jesus's foot with his left hand []. This protective attitude of Saint Joseph, depicted as a man at the prime of life rather than elderly, coincides with the fresh significance attached to Jesus's putative father by the most advanced Counter-Reformation currents.

An X-radiography of the Hospital Tavera Holy Family, which shows the underdrawing, gives us an idea of how the artist worked. For example, El Greco first portrayed the Virgin's face on the canvas in alla prima fashion, and subsequently retouched it, stylising and refining her features in order to achieve an image of greater elegance, finesse and beauty that was also more artistic, but still markedly naturalistic.

From an iconographical viewpoint, the Marian image is that of the Virgin Suckling the Christ Child, and the scene also shows--whether in Nazareth or during the stay in Egypt on account of the slaughter of the innocent and the flight into Egypt--a mother who breastfeeds a totally naked Christ Child, whose gender attests to his human and not only divine nature. Iconologically speaking, this scene could be attributed a dual symbolic meaning: on the one hand, the Virgin fed Christ just as the Church fed its faithful; and, on the other, the fact that the Virgin mother was accepted as the Redeemer's source of food made Mary a co-redeemer. However, this episode, drawn from the tradition of the apocryphal gospels, confirms the idea that El Greco was capable of taking liberties when choosing his religious sources, some of which, like the one in question, were not acknowledged as fully orthodox and therefore considered inadvisable by the Counter-Reformation church.

However, a less theological and doctrinal but more human and educational interpretation of the iconography of this painting could explain the spread of this theme of the Virgin suckling the Christ Child. The breastfeeding of infants was a concern of  incipient Spanish paediatricians from Philip II's chief physician, Francisco de Valles (1524-1592), the historian and educator Juan de Mariana, the educationalist Juan Huarte de San Juan and the professor of the University of Alcalá Pedro García Carrero, to Jerónimo Soriano, author of the Methodo y orden de curar las enfermedades de los niños... (Zaragoza, 1600) and Cristóbal Pérez Herrera, who published a Defensa de las criaturas de tiera edad (Madrid, 1608), and Francisco Pérez Cascales of Guadalajara, the author of a Liber De Affectionibus puerorum (Madrid, 1611). This concern was expressed above all in the later work of the doctor of Jaén and physician to Bishop Baltasar de Moscoso y Sandoval and to Philip IV from 1645,  Juan Gutierrez de Godoy (1579-1656). The latter dedicated to the Countess of Oropesa, Doña Mencía Pimentel, his Tres discursos para prouar que están obligadas a criar sus hiios a sus pechos todas las madres quando tienen buena salud, fuerças y buen temperamento, buena leche y suficiente para alimentarlos (Three discourses proving that all mothers should suckle their children when they have good health, strength and good temperament, good milk and sufficient to feed them, Jaén, 1629), in which he argued that "mothers' milk, provided they are healthy, is the best", and denounced "how cruel and unloving it is for mothers not to suckle their children. They lack piousness and religion" and warned of the "serious harm and disadvantages of feeding them others' milk". As is logical, his wish for women of the aristocracy to nurse their own children led him to appeal to the nobility of the role models he cited, from ancient and modern queens to those of the Holy Scriptures or the very Saint Anne and the Virgin Mary (II, iv, pp.44-46), whose "precious breasts" had been praised even by the saints "for having suckled" Jesus, after proving that her milk was not miraculous because she was a virgin but fundamentally natural.

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Fernando Marías