Juan Ducete Díez [sculptor], Isidoro Ruiz and Juan de Espinosa [gilders] Relief of the Mass of St. Gregory [fragment of the original altarpiece]

Inventory no.
carving, polychromy
178x108 cm

Besides the building, the oldest monumental traces of the University of Oviedo and the only ones dating back to the time of its founding include this piece, the Crucified Christ, Mater Dolorosa (Sorrowful Mother) and Saint Catherine of Alexandria. The fragment is contemporaneous to the altarpiece of the old collegiate church of Santa María la Mayor (St. Mary the Major) in Salas (1606), one of the institutions founded by the Valdés family (consecrated in 1549) and temple where the remains of the archbishop-founder and those of his parents lie in sumptuous alabaster monuments (1582-1586), work of the Italian sculptor, Pompeo Leoni (c. 1530-1608).

Documented by Fermín Canella (1887, pg. 244, and 1904, pg. 280), the altarpiece of the university chapel perished in the fire during the destruction of the university on one of the days (Saturday, 13th) of the October Revolution of 1934. Three woodcarvings and important fragments from the central medallion are conserved, as well as a good reproduction, thanks to the photographer from Oviedo, Ramón García Duarte (Alvarado, 1925).

Juan Ducete Díez or Ducete the Younger (1549-1613) was the son of the sculptor from Toro, Juan Ducete (c. 1515-c. 1583), under whom he studied (Vasallo, 2004, pp. 46-69 and pássim). Documentation shows he was very active from 1575 until 1587; he worked in the lands of Toro and Campos (the provinces of Zamora and León) until finally ending up in Asturias, where he finished his working life (1606-1612), far from the competition represented by his nephew, Sebastián Ducete (Toro, 1568-1620), with whom he was associated between 1595 and 1597, and by the latter's pupil, Esteban de Rueda (Toro, c. 1585-1626), both younger artists who placed the imagery from Toro on the thresholds of Baroque naturalism, a style which triumphed in Valladolid from 1615 onwards at the hands of the sculptor Gregorio Fernández (1576-1636). Cultivating a conventional, unimaginative style inspired by the mannerism of Juan de Juni (1507-1577), in the early 17th century Juan Ducete also reflected the influence of his nephew, Sebastian Ducete, whom he went so far as to imitate, trying to convey more realistic and emotive movements and expressions in his figures in line with the new doctrinal requirements of the Church after the Council of Trent (1563). Ducete's artistic production in Asturias falls into this latter phase, with the Salas altarpiece being the best example of this influence.

Juan Ducete was not an eminent or talented artist, but he was a pragmatic, precise teacher who knew how to satisfy a clientele in need of renewing the old, and then oft-times unseemly, medieval imagery. If Juan Ducete's role in the Castilian-Leonese sphere was very limited, due to the concurrence of great masters and the existence of influential nuclei like Valladolid, León and the town of Toro itself, in Asturias, on the other hand, he represented quite an occurrence and the beginning of a real transformation in the field of art (Gonzalez Santos, 1997, pp. 13-44 and pássim). Responsibility for this sculptor and altarpiece craftsman from Toro appearing in Asturias lies with Alonso Núñez de Bohórques, of the Royal Council and Chamber of the Inquisition, and Juan de Tejada, of the Council of Castile, both executors for Archbishop Valdés Salas and commissioners appointed to the works of the University and the collegiate church of Salas. However, neither should Don Juan Alvarez de Caldas (1542-1615) be ruled out, given his role as bishop of Oviedo between 1605 and 1612, as well as administrator of the revenues of the Archbishop of Seville, and whose accession to the diocese of Oviedo (1605) coincided with the arrival of Ducete in Asturias. Alvarez de Caldas was commissioned by King Felipe III to reform the curriculum at the University of Salamanca (1603-1604) and, as bishop of Oviedo, sponsored the construction of the first Holy Week Memorial at the Cathedral (no longer conserved), designed precisely by John Ducete (Risco, 1795, vol. XXXIX, pp. 141-143. González Santos, 1997, pp. 48, 91, 97-100 and 134-137).

Although the contract for the initial work has not been located, by the gilding we know that the sculptor Juan Ducete was to deliver the altarpiece to the painters before 15 September, 606. This indicates that the making of the altarpieces for the collegiate church of Salas and the university chapel, for the most part, ran simultaneously. The notarized document to gild the university chapel altarpiece was signed in Oviedo on 10 July, 606 by Juan Ducete and the painters from Valladolid, Isidoro Ruiz and Juan de Espinosa, who were to receive 2750 reales for their work (AHA: box 7004, folios 315-318). The altarpiece, if the stipulated terms were met, would have been completed by the end of November, 606, in more than enough time for its dedication to have coincided with the inauguration of the University, which occurred on Sunday, 21 September 1608.

Through Canella (1887, pg. 244, and 1904, pg. 280), who handled the original documentation (now destroyed), we know that the altarpiece was expertly examined upon reception by Mortera (died Oviedo, 1608) from Trasmiera, master architect for the works of the University. Mortera reported several faults in the work, in spite of which Juan Ducete received the large sum of 25,504 reales.

The strikingly original architectural design of the university altarpiece (done, most likely, by Ducete himself) corresponded to the altar-facade model, thus named for its resemblance to a frontispiece. This type was very common in Spain during the last third of the sixteenth century, when mannerism was deeply rooted. However, this style and model were already on the wane in Castile from the last decade of the sixteenth century on, being superseded by classicism and its most perfect example, the altarpiece of the Basilica of San Lorenzo de El Escorial (1579-1589), designed by the architect Juan de Herrera (1530-1597).

The elevation of the university altarpiece was perfectly suited to the structure of the chapel, as the altar entablature coincided with that of the enclosure itself, as did the module of the columns, with the height of the wall. The altarpiece was a single, square piece (approximately 4.30 m each side), which was framed by two free-standing Corinthian columns of the colossal order, built on a base and covered three panels and two floors. The wider central panel looked like a distyle facade, also of the Corinthian order, with a large central span employing a round arch and pediment, which housed the relief depicting the mystery of the title (The Mass of St. Gregory). The two side panels (on a slightly recessed plane) each held two superimposed niches with pillastered fronts; the lower ones were linteled and finished off with pediments, while the upper ones were finished off in a round arch. Finally, a simply designed attic with cyma moulding was located over the main cornice, plumb to the central panel, and visibly recessed.

The University Chapel is dedicated to Pope St. Gregory the Great, which is why the central panel of the altarpiece showed a relief with the popular passage from The Mass of St. Gregory, a theme dealing with the Eucharist which held great importance in the era of the Counter-Reformation, as it settled, by way of a miracle wrought in a pope, any doubt about the certainty of the transubstantiation of the body and blood of Jesus Christ in the Eucharist. Gregory I (c. 540-604), one of the four Fathers of the Latin Church, was pope from 590 to 604. A reformer of the Church and the liturgy, he was revered as the patron of scholars due to his reputation for wisdom and eloquence. The devotion that Archbishop Fernando de Valdés professed toward Gregory already had a precedent: the College of San Gregorio (or de los Pardos) in Oviedo (demolished in 1896), the first educational institution founded by the illustrious clergyman, whose establishment in 1534 coincided with his prelature in the diocese of Oviedo (1532-1539) and served as a trial for the later founding of the University. Gregory was also the apostolic name of the pope (Gregory XIII) who promulgated the bull for the establishment of the University of Oviedo on 15 October 1574.

All the figures in the base were also done in relief (St. Peter the Apostle, left column dado; St. Luke the Evangelist, base; The Saviour, the tabernacle door; St. John the Evangelist, base; and St. Paul, right column dado). On the other hand, the niches sheltered figures carved in the round, which were slightly flattened in the back and left unpolychromed: St. Catherine of Alexandria and St. Francis of Assisi (left side panel) and St. John the Baptist and St. Anthony of Padua (right). The Calvary scene (Christ crucified, the Mater Dolorosa and St. John), also carved in the round, could be seen in the attic.

The presence of the legendary St. Catherine of Alexandria is due to her being the patroness of the University of Oviedo and also titular of the Recoletas Boarding School for Orphan Girls, another institution founded by the Valdés family in 1566, whose main building was adjacent to the university building. The figures of St. Francis and St. Anthony of Padua find justification in the fact that the Schools faced out onto the street named after the former (in Spanish, calle de San Francisco) and were in the immediate surroundings of the convent which the Franciscan Order had in Oviedo. That of St. John the Baptist (iconography that is repeated in the altarpiece of the collegiate church in Salas) is due to his being the saint of the Archbishop's father's name day (González Santos, 1997, pg. 63).

The entire altarpiece was most likely polychromed again in 1789, following the granting of a plenary indulgence for masses to be celebrated in this chapel, which is why the inscription on the main frieze read "altar of perpetual privilege. year 1789".

Bibliographical references
  • AVILÉS, T. DE (1956) Armas y linajes de Asturias y Antigüedades del Principado [ms. de h. 1585]. M. G. Martínez (ed.). Oviedo: Instituto de Estudios Asturianos.
  • CAMPO SANTOS, M. T., A. QUIJADA ESPINA y S. VÁZQUEZ-CANÓNICO COSTALES (1990) Patrimonio artístico de la Universidad. Oviedo: Universidad de Oviedo.
  • CANELLA SECADES, F. (1887) El libro de Oviedo. Guía de la ciudad y su concejo. Oviedo: Imprenta de Vicente Brid.
  • CANELLA SECADES, F. (1995) Historia de la Universidad de Oviedo y noticias de los establecimientos de enseñanza de su distrito, (3ª ed. Reformada y ampliada). Oviedo: Universidad de Oviedo.
  • GONZÁLEZ SANTOS, J. (1989) "El Taller de Toro en Asturias (obras y documentos del escultor Juan Ducete Díez)", Boletín del Seminario de Estudios de Arte y Arqueología, LV, 411-430. Valladolid: Universidad de Valladolid.
  • GONZÁLEZ SANTOS, J. (1996) "Escultura del siglo XVI" en El arte en Asturias a través de sus obras. Oviedo: Editorial Prensa Asturiana.
  • GONZÁLEZ SANTOS J. (1997) Los comienzos de la escultura naturalista en Asturias (1575-1625). El legado artístico del arzobispo Valdés Salas y el escultor toresano Juan Ducete Díez. Oviedo: Servicio de Publicaciones del Principado de Asturias.
  • GONZÁLEZ SANTOS, J. (2008) "El retablo de la Universidad de Oviedo" en Universidad de Oviedo (1608-2008). Tradición de futuro. Exposición cuatro siglos de Historia de la Universidad de Oviedo. Oviedo: Universidad de Oviedo.
  • QUIJADA ESPINA, A. y S. VÁZQUEZ-CANÓNICO COSTALES (2004) Bienes Culturales de la Universidad de Oviedo. Oviedo: Universidad de Oviedo.
  • RISCO, M. (1795) España Sagrada. De la Iglesia exenta de Oviedo desde el medio del siglo XIV hasta fines del siglo XVIII. Historia de la fundación del Principado de Asturias, etc. T. XXXVIII. Madrid: Oficina de la viuda e hijo de Marín.
  • VASALLO TORANZO, L. (2004) Sebastián Ducete y Esteban de Rueda: escultores entre el Manierismo y el Barroco. Zamora: Instituto de estudios zamoranos "Florián de Ocampo".
Location on the mapUbicación de la obra en las instalaciones de la Universidad



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