Golden Age – Concept, context, themes and characteristics

We explain what the Spanish Golden Age was, its historical context, themes and characteristics. In addition, its representatives and works.

golden age quixote de la mancha cervantes
In the Golden Age great works such as “Don Quixote de La Mancha” were born.

What was the Golden Age?

In the history of art and literature, the Spanish Golden Age is known as period of artistic production between the beginning of the 16th century and the end of the 17th century.

It is generally considered as the highest point of the literary tradition of Spain. Many of the most fundamental classical authors of the Spanish language belonged to this historical period.

The publication of the Castilian grammar of Antonio de Nebrija in 1492, a significant event in light of the coming political unification of Spain under Castilian command. Its end is marked by the death of one of its greatest exponents, Pedro Calderón de la Barca, in 1681.

The expression “golden century” emerged later, in the middle of the 18th century, in the work on Castilian poetry by Velásquez de Velasco, belonging to the Royal Spanish Academy. It became popular during the 19th century, in part thanks to the American George Ticknor, a prominent Hispanicist at Harvard University. The phrase was taken from a poem by Lope de Vega, entitled “El Siglo de oro”.

Traditionally, the Golden Age is classified into two aesthetic periods: the Renaissance, which revolved around the Council of Trent; and the Baroque, which did so around the Counter-Reformation. However, there are scholars who rather subdivide it into four major stages or movements of common aesthetic features: the Renaissance (1530-1580), Mannerism (1570-1600), Baroque (1600-1630) and Baroque (1630- 1670).

Characteristics of the Golden Age

The Spanish Golden Age, broadly speaking, was characterized by the following:

  • It was about moment of cultural and literary flourishing of Spain, in which some of his greatest literary works in history were composed, such as Don Quixote.
  • New literary genres and aesthetics were created and influential in the literary history of Europe, such as picaresque or the most cultivated literary genres were theater, prose and poetry.
  • It was a period of patriotic and religious fervor, with minor influences from humanism and Neoplatonism, which unlike other European geographies, did not imply an abrupt break with the medieval tradition, but rather an ironic reconciliation.
  • The literary and cultural heyday of Spain was accompanied by an economic boom and territorial expansion, which gave the nation enormous influence in Europe.
  • Along with literature, plastic arts, music and architecture also flourished.

Historical context of the Golden Age

golden age context catholic kings
The Catholic Monarchs began the Spanish expansion around the world.

The Golden Age takes its first steps in the period between the end of the Middle Ages and the beginning of the Renaissance, in the 15th century, a time marked by great changes in European culture: the beginnings of secular and scientific thought, the fall of Constantinople to the Turks and with it the last remains of the Roman Empire, the invention of the printing press and , later, the beginning of the Protestant Reformation.

Spain did not play an avant-garde role in any of these matters, since it had been immersed since the 7th century in the reconquest of the Iberian Peninsula from the hands of the Muslims. That reconquest was completed in 1492, after the conquest of the Kingdom of Granada.

In addition, the union in 1469 of the kingdoms of Castile and Aragon, with the marriage of Isabel “the Catholic” and Fernando de Aragon, cemented the process of political and territorial unification of Spain, but also religious: Jews who did not convert to Christianity were expelled in 1492. In that same year there was the “discovery” of the American continent, a prelude to its conquest, colonization and evangelization.

In the centuries to come, Spain played the role of a great Catholic bastion in the world, hand in hand with the emergence of its vast overseas empire.

Golden Age themes

The main themes addressed by the literature of the Spanish Golden Age were:

  • The life of the poor, especially in the picaresque novel.
  • Honor or honor, especially when it comes to love or family life.
  • The disguise and the pretense: the maidens dressed as men, the nobles disguised as poor, etc.
  • The satire and the mockery of traditions, society and nobility.
  • The dream and the madness, contrasted with reality and existential questioning.

Authors and main works of the Golden Age

golden age calderon de la barca
The death of Calderón de la Barca marked the end of the Golden Age.

Among the main representatives of the Golden Age are:

  • Miguel de Cervantes (1547-1616), known as “the one-armed of Lepanto” for having lost a hand in the battle of that name, is considered the greatest exponent of Spanish literature, universally famous for having written the Quixote, the first modern novel. Other of his most famous works were the Exemplary novels, The works of Persiles and Sigismund and Trip to Parnassus.
  • Fernando de Rojas (c. 1470-1541), is the author of the well-known play The matchmaker, although he was also a painter and above all a lawyer: for his contemporaries he was an outstanding jurist rather than a writer.
  • Garcilaso de la Vega (c. 1498-1536), was a Spanish poet and military man, whose poetic work is often compared to that of the Italian Petrarca, since the Renaissance author would have influenced Garcilaso de la Vega during the latter’s stay in Naples, during the Italian War of 1536-1538.
  • Inca Garcilaso de la Vega (1539-1616), writer and historian born in Cuzco, present-day Peru, is considered the first biological and spiritual “mestizo” in Spanish-American colonial history. His work is among the most appreciated in Spanish of the sixteenth century, and encompasses both prose and philosophy, as well as poetry. He was nicknamed “Inca” so as not to confuse him with Garcilaso de la Vega.
  • Luis de Gongora (1561-1627), was a poet and playwright who created a baroque poetic style that was very successful in America and Europe, later known as gongorism. His works were not published in life, but passed from hand to hand in handwritten copies. However, they were widely discussed and praised by their contemporaries. Among them stand out poems such as Solitudes, Fable of Priam and Thisbe or the tetral pieces Isabela’s firmness, Venatory comedy and Dr. Carlino.
  • Francisco de Quevedo (1580-1645), one of the most prominent poets in Spanish literature, who also cultivated narrative, theater and philosophy. He was a knight of the Order of Santiago and lord of the Tower of Juan Abad, and among his most famous works are the picaresque novel The life of the buscón and the poems of Dreams, among many others.
  • Lope de Vega (1562-1635), one of the three great Spanish playwrights of the Golden Age, and one of the most prolific authors in world literature. Enemy of Cervantes and Góngora, he composed around 3000 sonnets, three novels, nine epics and several hundred comedies. Among them are The Dorotea, The pilgrim in his homeland, Sourceovejuna, among others.
  • Tirso de Molina (1579-1648), pseudonym of Fray Gabriel Téllez, is the second of the three great playwrights of the Golden Age, with works as well known as The Trickster of Seville, The Santa Juana, Don Gil of the Green Leggings or The stone guest.
  • Pedro Calderon de la Barca (1600-1681), the third of the great playwrights of the Golden Age, whose death brought the period to an end. He composed a unique work that set a trend in later times, and is recognized for central works in the Hispanic tradition such as The life is dream, The mayor of Zalamea or The hair of Absalom, among many others.