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AUSTIN — In 1692, the sculptor Luisa Roldán was invited to take up the post of Escultora de Cámara in the court of Spain’s last Habsburg king, Charles II. A well-established artist long before her court appointment, Roldán’s sculptures were commissioned by Spanish aristocrats and royalty and her works were widely circulated — they were sent to Mexico and England during her lifetime. She was Spain’s first recorded female artist, learning the craft from her father, the sculptor Pedro Roldán. Luisa Roldán is easily the most famous sculptor you’ve never heard of.
Roldán’s work is characterized by small-scale terracotta sculptures like “Education of the Virgin” (1689-1706), which is currently on view in the Blanton Museum of Art’s European galleries. Historically, her small, painted polychrome terracotta sculptures would have been used for private devotion in homes or private chapels. The Blanton acquired “Education of the Virgin” in 1999 as part of the Suida-Manning Collection of European art. It underwent 10 months of conservation efforts and, in September 2019, it was introduced to the public gallery.
“Education of the Virgin” portrays an encounter between the young Virgin Mary and her parents, Saints Anne and Joachim. Anne holds a book as Mary reads, Mary’s finger carefully keeping her place on the page. In the bottom right corner, a small, cherubic angel presents a woven basket filled with swaddling cloth. The scene emphasizes Anne’s role in actively managing Mary’s education, both spiritual and secular. (Joachim appears rather deferential.) The sculpture underscores the importance of children’s religious training, for both boys and girls, and originally served as a didactic template for children’s spiritual and secular education — education that would have been facilitated through the household’s matriarch.
By the 17th century, terracotta had long been an interim medium for sculptors — something used to work out a rough plan or idea, but not for a final piece. This changed with Roldán. “Roldán made small-scale terracotta a viable medium for the production of finished works,” Christine Zappella, the Blanton Fellow of European Art, explains. “Before this, they were never meant to be seen by an audience. It’s pretty ingenious, really!”
Because the sculptures were small, they were portable and easily placed in private, often domestic, devotional spaces. Many Roldán sculptures also allowed for audience participation through detached figures that could be moved and arranged by audiences, thus offering a blueprint for the hugely popular Neapolitan crèches and, centuries later, Fontanini Nativity sets. “She realized that you could use clay to make complex figural groups and paint them. This would sustain the visual interest of the viewer and [allow the viewer] to participate in larger art theoretical and cultural discourses,” Zappella elaborates.
Terracotta is an extremely fragile medium and “Education of the Virgin” is among only 20 or so of Roldán’s sculptures to survive. The Blanton’s conservation efforts have highlighted the complexity of these artworks as well as the intricate multimedia material makeup of the sculpture as it existed in the 1600s. (Each woman’s head, for example, has a small hole for a metal crown, though the crowns have long since disappeared.) Visitors can appreciate just how delicate the sculpture is as the wings of one angel have broken off.
Luisa Roldán’s career emphasizes her familial network and connections. Her father taught her and her sisters to sculpt; her husband, Luis Antonio de los Arcos, was a carver in Pedro’s workshop; and her brother-in-law Tomás de los Arcos painted many of her sculptures. Luis Antonio would eventually manage Roldán’s workshop, rather than taking commissions for his own work. Within the social confines of 17th-century Spain, Roldán managed to carve out a successful, respected place as an artist. “Education of the Virgin” is a powerful example of her work — a sculpture made by a woman, for women, and featuring women.
Luisa Roldán’s “Education of the Virgin” (1689-1706) is now on view at the Blanton Museum of Art (200 E Martin Luther King Jr Blvd, Austin, TX 78712) in its European Art galleries.