The still life exudes calm, serenity and order. In the hands of its great Spanish exponents, it became a vehicle through which to explore the human condition. GABRIELE FINALDI introduces a revelatory exhibition that opened this week at the National Galle
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The still life would seem the most inoffensive of genres: at its lowest, little more than wallpaper, at its highest, a hymn to the adage that God is in the details. But at the end of the 16th century, it was a new and radical form of secular painting that opened up a range of thrilling possibilities. Spanish artists, whose chief patron was the (in many respects) conservative Roman Catholic church, grasped the opportunity with inventiveness and a striking intensity of vision. They set the tone for a vibrant tradition that, in the hands of Goya some 200 years later, was transformed into a means of expressing the most damning indictment of man's inhumanity to man - a transformation that perhaps finds its true heirs in Picasso's Guernica and the work of Francis Bacon.

Not that realistically painted still life details were new to figure compositions; the weighty volumes of the scholarly Saint Jerome and the domestic chattels of the Virgin Mary at the Annunciation often exercised the imitative skills of religious painters. Indeed, in his treatise on painting published in 1649, Francisco Pacheco, father-in-law to the greatest Spanish painter, Diego Velzquez, even felt obliged to warn his fellow artists to beware the dangers of indulging themselves with such accessories; they could, he said, distract from the moral content of a painting. But the imitation of nature was a challenge, and the early still life painters took it up with a sense of excitement and discovery that resulted in works of quite astounding realism. Poets and commentators were quick to elaborate the traditional conceit that the skilful artist was able to make art appear more real than nature itself, and painters would have been familiar with accounts in ancient texts which extolled the illusionism of classical still life. Pliny the Elder, for example, writing in the first century ad, had described a painting of grapes by the Greek artist Zeuxis which was so lifelike that birds flew down from the sky to peck at it.

With the remarkable Still Life with Quince, Cabbage, Melon and Cucumber by the monk-painter Juan Snchez Cotn (1560-1627) the genre re-emerges, like Minerva from the head of Jove, fully formed and mature, archetypal in those virtues of spareness, gravity and austerity which were thought of as particularly Spanish. The life-size objects are arranged in a per- fect mathematical parabola in a window frame which contemporaries would have recognised as a cantarero, a form of larder shelf where produce was stored to keep it fresh. The cucumber and melon slice project beyond the stone frame into the viewer's space, casting a shadow on the front edge and heightening the effect of illusion. Despite the realism, Snchez Cotn almost certainly did not position a group of fruits and vegetables in the studio, shine a bright light on them, and then paint from the life; in fact, he is known to have re-used painted studies of individual objects, artfully composing them into complete paintings. In Still Life with Quince, it is the fusion between the highly naturalistic rendering of the humble objects and the abstract geometrical character of the arrangement that makes the painting so impressive. Only six still lifes by Snchez Cotn survive: three of these are to be seen in the exhibition.

Curiously, the earliest European still lifes were all painted in areas which were under Spanish dominance: Spain itself, Lombardy, where Caravaggio came from, and the Netherlands. Early Spanish still life, however, has its own very distinctive character, as displayed in Espinosa's Still Life with Silver-Gilt Salvers (1624). Like other contemporary Spanish works, this depends for its effect on the rigidly sym-metrical arrangement of the motifs and on the meticulous transcription of details: the glint of light on the chasing of the salvers and the intricately carved handles of the knives. The tableware in the painting - the red bowls probably contain hipocras, a Spanish punch made with wine, sugar and spices - perfectly reflects the severe elegance of upper-class domestic life in the early years of the reign of Philip IV (1621-65), a period in which the still life was beginning to become popular as decoration for the aristocratic mansions of Madrid.

Popular perhaps, and wonderfully executed, but the still life was never accorded a high status in the hierarchy of painting genres. That, of course, could be frustrating; Juan van der Hamen (1596-1631), the most influential Spanish still life painter of the 17th century, is reported to have felt a keen irritation at being viewed as a still life specialist, since his talents in the more lofty genres of narrative and portraiture were considerable. On one occasion, a portrait by him of the papal legate Cardinal Francesco Barberini was preferred to a portrait of the same sitter by Velzquez, which was said to have had a ``melancholy and severe air''. Van der Hamen's reputation, though, was deserved; he painted many magnificent still lifes, including Still Life with Artichokes and Vases of Flowers, which is being seen in public for the first time after three-and-a-half centuries in private collections. The exquisite sophistication of the picture was designed to appeal to the new class of wealthy Madrid collectors. The objects which van der Hamen depicted in his works contrast sharply with the unpretentious fruits and vegetables of Snchez Cotn. Costly glassware is juxtaposed with silver-gilt vessels and valuable imported pottery, the kinds of objects with which the grandees of the Spanish court surrounded themselves.

Like van der Hamen, Luis Melndez (1716-80) hoped to make his name as a figure painter. Unable to obtain any significant commissions, Melndez turned to the still life, and quickly proved to be the finest exponent of the genre in 18th-century Spain. His most ambitious project was commissioned in the early 1770s by the Principe de Asturias (the future Charles IV). Melndez was to paint a series showing "every species of food produced by the Spanish climate"; a dispute over payment left the project incomplete. Still Life with Artichokes and Tomatoes in a Landscape - one example from the series - is unusual in setting the display of fruit and vegetables in the open air, mak- ing the humble objects appear incongruously monumental. Yet the artist's remarkable ability to reproduce surface textures - the shiny reflective skin of the tomatoes, the tough compact forms of the artichokes - is dazzling.

The form also lent itself to more allusive representation. One of the main themes of Baroque art and literature is the vanitas, which exposes the illusory nature of wealth and human greatness in the face of death. In the magnificent Dream of the Knight - attributed to Antonio de Pereda (1611-78), and another of the archetypal images of Spain's Golden Age - all the objects laid out on the table carry rich symbolic associations. A young hidalgo dreams of worldly success, but an angel reminds him that the arrow of death flies rapidly and kills. A crown and papal tiara symbolise temporal and spiritual power, coins and jewellery stand for material wealth, pieces of armour for feats of war and a worn volume indicates learning and scholarship; but the snuffed-out candle and the skulls signify that all things must pass. In Spain, vanitas paintings of this kind were known as "disillusionments of the world"; they were intended to make the viewers assess their position in the scheme of things and look to the salvation of their souls. Paradoxically, the beauty of such pictures appealed to the very senses whose pleasures the viewers were being exhorted to reject.

As might be expected, it was Goya (1746-1828) who took the still life and reinvented it. Goya was well over 60 before he painted any still lifes. In a single creative burst, he produced a series of 12 searing paintings, and he never returned to the genre again. All but one of the pictures show dead animals; not those of the hunter's trophy, or the kitchen table, but animals from which life has been brutally torn. Still Life with Dead Turkey shows the bird frozen in its final spasm, the sombre colouring and the strange nocturnal lighting making it one of the most unsettling pictures in the series. Painted in about 1810, during the darkest years of the Peninsular War, the stark imagery of death and dismemberment overwhelms any sense of these works belonging to a still life tradition; rather, the series recalls some of the more shocking etchings of the Disasters of War, which the artist was producing at the same time. It took Goya, and his visceral response to the horrors of conflict, to turn the still life into a vehicle for conveying the deepest emotions.

Gabriele Finaldi is the curator of `Spanish Still Life from Velzquez to Goya', on display at the National Gallery, London WC2, until 21 May