Category Archives: Spain

Velazquez in Vienna: Prince Balthasar Charles


Last winter the Vienna Kunsthistorisches Museum had a wonderful exhibit of paintings by the Spanish master, Diego Velazquez. Many of them were from the museum’s stellar collection by the artist, but some, like the portrait used for the banners, were borrowed.

The December week I spent in Vienna it rained all day, every day. Sometimes, it is true, the rain was only a gentle mist.  But I never saw a single moment without some kind of wetness falling from the gray sky.


Snow in Vienna is beautiful and romantic.  Rain? Not so much. Still, there is more than enough to do indoors in culture-rich Vienna. I always say that I don’t travel to Europe for the weather.

Diego Velazquez,

Diego Velazquez, “Self Portrait,” 1640, Public Domain

Diego Velazquez, considered by many to be the greatest of all European painters, was an honored guest at the Kunsthistorisches Museum. I had a yearly museum pass, so I ducked into the Kunst almost every day. I was often dripping wet, but each time I stashed my raincoat and revisited the Velazquez exhibit, I forgot all about being chilled and damp. I felt as though I had been to sunny Spain for awhile. The museum owns a number of the works of Velazquez, because of the close family ties (inbreeding, actually) between the Habsburgs and Spanish royalty.

The young boy in the portrait below was (literally) the poster child for the exhibit. Who was this boy?

Diego Velazquez,

Diego Velazquez, “Equestrian Portrait of Prince Balthasar Charles,” 1634-35, Public Domain, Prado Museum

The child posed confidently on a galloping horse was Prince Balthasar Charles, Prince of Asturias. He was the long-awaited male heir to the Spanish throne, the only son of King Philip IV and his first wife, Elisabeth of Spain. The Prince was born to great fanfare in 1629.

The boy appears to be at most eight or ten years old in his portrait, but that didn’t stop his parents from having him painted brandishing the baton of a Field Marshal.  He was born to lead, educated to lead, and expected to lead. King Philip IV faced challenges to the continuing rule of his family.  He needed this heir desperately. The hopes of his family and his country rested on this little boy’s shoulders. Sadly, Prince Balthasar Charles died at the age of 17 from smallpox.

Eugène Charpentier,

Eugène Charpentier,
” Jean-Baptiste, comte Jourdan, maréchal de France,” mid-19th century, Public Domain

Monarchies all over Europe awarded batons to important military officers, royal or merely aristocratic.  I imagine a Marshal wielding his baton the way Moses wielded the rod he used to lead the people of Israel.  Possibly the Biblical story is even one of the origins of the marshal’s baton. In most European armies, Field Marshal was the highest military rank, above even a General.  Usually it was awarded only to a person who was already a General, and only after extraordinary achievement, like winning an important battle. But the marshal’s baton in this portrait was purely wishful thinking.

Prince Balthasar Charles never had his chance at glory on the battlefield. His family waited eleven long years for another male heir.  My next post will tell the story of that Spanish royal child, subject of one of my very favorite Velazquez masterpieces.

Join me next time for more explorations in the art and history of Europe!

Thinking About “Columbus Day”


Monday, October 13 is Columbus Day across the United States.  However, not everyone feels like celebrating the “discovery” of continents where well-developed civilizations already existed.  In Minneapolis, where I spend a lot of time, the City Council voted in April 2014 to substitute “Indigenous Peoples’ Day” for Columbus Day.

Thinking about controversies surrounding Christopher Columbus, I went back and watched a great film, The Mission. The British film was made in 1986 from a script by Robert Bold, directed by Roland Joffe. It won the Palme d’Or at Cannes and an Academy award for cinematography.  It’s a somewhat-fictionalized version of events that actually took place in the 1750s, in the mountains of Paraguay. The story is taken from the book “The Lost Cities of Paraguay” by Father C. J. McNaspy, S.J., who was also a consultant on the film. For me, the story dramatizes some of the heartbreaking conflicts between missionaries and politicians in the colonial period. Conflicts surrounding the exploitation of native lands and peoples continue in our time.


The main character, Father Gabriel, is played by Jeremy Irons.  The character is based on a real-life Paraguayan Jesuit, Father Roque Gonzalez de Santa Cruz, who became a saint. After a priest in his charge is martyred by a Guarani tribe above a perilous waterfall, Father Gabriel climbs up the steep stone face carrying nothing but a flute.  Warriors surround him as he sits on a rock and plays.  It turns out they love music; they let him stay, and he develops a mission that helps them in material as well as spiritual ways. They are not exploited. Instead, they prosper.

The outside world arrives in the form of a mercenary soldier played by Robert de Niro. He has a lucrative sideline in the slave trade.  He sets a huge net as a trap in the jungle; soon he has a netful of tribe members, and he hauls them off like so many rabbits, to be sold into slavery. Soon afterward, he murders his brother in a jealous rage. Although he is acquitted, he experiences remorse for the first time in his life.  Father Gabriel, on a visit to the city, challenges the mercenary to atone for his sins and change his life.  As penance, the mercenary hauls his net, loaded with all his armor and possessions, tied to a rope and dragging behind him.  He climbs up to the mission above the falls, fully expecting to be shunned or even killed.  He is amazed and humbled when the tribe members forgive and welcome him; over time, he becomes a Jesuit himself. Liam Neeson is excellent as a young Jesuit, in one of his earliest roles.

The rest of the movie concerns further encroachments of the outside world.  Father Gabriel’s mission–and six others like it–are under the protection of Spain, which outlaws slavery.  In 1750, the Treaty of Madrid gives part of Paraguay to Portugal, which encourages slavery. Suddenly, the missions are ordered to close. The Church cannot risk allowing the Jesuits to violate the treaty; the Spanish could shut down their order entirely if they resist. Other religious orders could be barred from the colonies.

Father Gabriel and his Jesuits have to make agonizing choices.  A joint army from Portugal and Spain is ordered to clear out the missions in Portuguese territory. Should the missionaries abandon their mission and the Guarani people they have come to love?  Should they help the Guarani resist, using modern warfare techniques?  Should they resort to peaceful resistance? Would peaceful resistance have any chance? If not, should they sacrifice themselves by trying peaceful resistance anyway?

"The Mission" poster

“The Mission” poster

The film is available at Amazon. The story of the colonization of the “New World” is complex, The great colonial powers of England, Spain, France, and Portugal set out explicitly to exploit whatever they found in the “New World,” people and resources alike. But the members of the various religious orders set out for the colonies with a sincere desire to improve the lives of the people, however misguided their methods were at times.  They were able to do a lot of good that remains to this day. A film like “The Mission” invites us to share in the moral quandaries of times past, and to think about those of the modern world.

Join me next time for more explorations in the art and history of Europe!