left: Gregorio Fernández (about 1576–1636) Ecce Homo, 1617, Museo Diocesano y Catedralicio, Valladolid © Fototeca de Obras Restauradas. Instituto del Patrimonio Cultural de España / Ministerio de Cultura. right: Juan Martínez Montañés (1568–1649) Virgin of the Immaculate Conception, about 1620, Iglesia de la Asunción, Seville © Photo Imagen M.A.S. Courtesy of Universidad de Sevilla

The Sacred Made Real

6th November 2009

The National Gallery’s The Sacred Made Real exhibition is a rarity –
a show devoted entirely to religious art and sculpture from 17th century Spain.

Jack Watkins went to the launch…

At a time when large portions of the British press have reacted with bafflement at the ‘extraordinary’ queues lining up to see the touring relics of the French mystic, St Teresa of Lisieux – ‘the Little Flower’ - it’s been just as fascinating to watch them undergoing ecstasies of their own over The Sacred Made Real (Spanish Painting and Sculpture 1600 - 1700) exhibition.

The show gathers together paintings and sculptures from the period in Spanish history when the Counter Reformation was in full swing. These are devotional items for the faithful to prostrate themselves before. Some depict, for instance, the wounds of Jesus Christ in their most extreme form. But here, in an art gallery, dislocated from their spiritual homes and with not a rosary-clutching worshipper in sight, the secular pundits feel safe enough swooning over them. As a Roman Catholic, my own response to the objects felt strangely conflicted, standing quietly before something created for the purpose of prayer or veneration, scribbling hurried notes on it as a piece of art.

For Xavier Bray, the curator, this exhibition has been a dream ten years in the making. He even took up residence in Spain for three months to manage the delicate task of negotiating the loan of some of the paintings and sculptures. Nuns at a convent in Valladolid sat though a six-hour presentation from Bray, as he tried to convince them to lend him Pedro de Mena’s bust of the Virgin of Sorrows – and still they refused to hand it over. Only high level church ‘encouragement’ finally persuaded them to give way. Similarly, Toledo Cathedral was only persuaded to allow de Mena’s Saint Francis Standing in Ecstasy – which has not left the cathedral’s sacristy since 1633 – to come to London after the Spanish government provided funds for its restoration.

The temporary installation of these works in the National Gallery does not rob them of their power. This is a most sensitively staged exhibition. In the dimly lit room devoted to ‘St Francis in Meditation’, you enter facing the canvas of Francisco de Zurbaran’s Saint Francis Standing in Ecstasy. It’s a haunting work, painted to show the saint standing upright in his tomb, just as Pope Nicholas V reputedly found him – ‘the eyes open and moderately lifted up to heaven’ – when he entered it in 1449. The experience of walking into this room is itself akin to entering a mausoleum.

In the fifth gallery, entitled ‘Meditations on Death’, the centrepiece is Gregorio Fernandez’s Dead Christ, commissioned by the Jesuits to shock and stir the soul – which it does in every respect. Across from it, beside the entrance, is de Mena’s Virgin of Sorrows and, in a neat demonstration of the way imaginative placing can add meaning, it is slightly turned at an angle, her sidelong glance thus suggesting that she can barely bring herself to look upon the punishment carried out on her son’s body.

Some of the sculptures to be seen here are still carried through the streets of cities such as Seville or Valladolid on religious feast days. Is it from this that the inspiration for the exhibition title, The Sacred Made Real, arose? It is mostly assumed that the move towards heightened ‘reality’ in art in the Baroque period was led by Caravaggio in Italy, and by the Dutch painters. As Xavier Bray points out, however, Spanish painters already had access to a native art form that was innately realistic: painted wooden sculptures. The effect of these works was – and is – incredibly lifelike. Writing in the (highly recommended) exhibition catalogue, he says that when the floats carrying these life-sized objects through the streets are witnessed, the swaying movement can endow them with a ‘disconcerting sense of life’.

Spanish sculptors of the time – the names of Fernandez, de Mena and Juan Martinez Montanes are little known outside the country today, but will surely have gained added lustre after this exhibition – carved their pieces in wood, and worked closely with painters who, as part of their training, were taught the art of polychromatic sculpture. It was this, argues Bray, that gave Spanish artists their induction into a highly naturalistic, three-dimensional form of art, which they carried over into their paintings.

Painted sculpture is not much studied, or even admired. The modern eye rejects it as garish, and perhaps associates it with the kitschy objects especially prevalent at the more commercially orientated religious venues. That view is also a legacy of the Renaissance in Italy during which time plain, cool white marble, or grave, dark bronze was considered superior. Mistakenly, too, it was believed that statues of antiquity had been similarly undecorated, since the painted surfaces of those that had survived from classical times had long since worn away.

In Spain, however, the tradition of painted wood sculpture lived on. Faithful representations enabled those who contemplated them to absorb the Christian message, and the tradition of painting wood statues has survived in the country to this day. But the works of the 17th century certainly achieved a stark and moving level of realism. Zurbaran himself is now known to have painted a wooden carving of the Crucifixion at the start of his career, and both Velazquez and Alonso Cano attended the most famous art school of the time, that of Francisco Pachecho in Seville, where the painting of sculpture was taught to students. So the subsequent influence on painting is clear.

Velazquez has four paintings featured in the exhibition, Cano three, but Zurbaran must receive top billing with seven. As well as two paintings of St Francis, his depiction of Saint Serapion with its meticulous drapery, although it shows him just moments after his vicious martyrdom, is a serene examination of the passage from life into death. Yet the most striking works are surely the sculptures – Saint Ignatius Loyola, a collaboration between Montanes and Francisco Pachecho celebrating his beatification in 1609, for instance, and a pair by de Mena, Christ as the Man of Sorrows, and Mary Magdalene meditating on the Crucifixion. On any level, these are profoundly moving objects to contemplate.

The Sacred Made Real (Spanish Painting and Sculpture 1600-1700) runs to 24 January 2010; see www.nationalgallery.org.uk for more information.

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