The Faces of Cervantes

The Spanish cultural world is abuzz after news has broken of the recent discovery of Don Quijote author Miguel de Cervantes’ (1547 – 1616) remains. Now that we are almost completely sure that the bones found in San Ildefonso Convent belong to the writer, we may get a curious first peak at his physical appearance; a first because no reliable painting exists of his face.

That’s right. He’s like Shakespeare: various portraits do exist of him but for various reasons their authenticity has been questioned. Let’s check out a few of these questionable images:


1. This portrait attributed to Juan de Jáuregui is in the Royal Spanish Academy building. Everything seems to be in order: de Jáuregui was friends with Cervantes, the portrait was painted 16 years before the death of the writer and it even bears the name don Miguel de Cervantes.
Some however are skeptical, saying that this is a falsification, and let’s be honest, they have plenty of valid reasons to question the painting’s authenticity. Why, for example, would the title “don” appear here above a Cervantes sporting this historic ruffled collar known as a golilla which was only given to nobles, a title which he didn’t possess? Also, in 1600 Jáuregui was only 17 years old while Cervantes was 53; could a tough war veteran and a young artist really have been such good friends? Not only that, but the painting itself has something of a shady history, having been supposedly discovered in an antique shop in Valencia.

This next rendering will be all too familiar to those of us who studied literature in high school.


2. This print by artist José del Castillo and printer Manuel Salvador can be admired in the ambitious edition of Don Quijote created by the Royal Spanish Academy way back around 1780. The problem is that it’s based on a painting by the artist Alonso del Arco, who based his work on the words of Cervantes himself: “this man you see with an aquiline face, brown hair, a smooth and carefree forehead, joyful eyes, a curved but well-proportioned nose, a silver beard which 20 years ago was golden, large mustache and small mouth […] commonly known as Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra”. In other words if this is all true, we’re not seeing here the real face of Cervantes.

Last and certainly not least is a nice little theory that suggests that two geniuses from Spain’s opulent siglo de Oro period came together to give us this likeness.


3. The gentleman with a hand over his breast by El Greco: You surely know this painting. Many are surprised to see the resemblance this anonymous gentleman shares with the image we have of Cervantes: the face nearly perfectly matches the self portrait mentioned earlier, the left arm seems atrophied (remember the injury that Cervantes suffered in the Battle of Lepanto). They even say that Cervantes and El Greco were in Rome at the same time. They probably didn’t meet then but why couldn’t they have met in Toledo to chat about their adventures in that city? Curiously, the year that El Greco painted this painting Cervantes would have been 32, an age that could correspond perfectly with that of the model. Just like Jáuregui’s painting however, it doesn’t make sense that he’d be wearing a golilla since he didn’t have the right title.

So what did one of history’s most celebrated authors look like? We don’t know for sure, even though, to be honest, we like thinking that at some point in history a Spanish writer and a certain Greek painter could have had a couple of glasses of wine together in the name of art.

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