A review of The Sacred Made Real: Spanish Painting and Sculpture 1600 – 1700 at the National Gallery of Art Washington DC., 28 February – 31 May 2010
By Nicholas Cranfield
Most of us expect sculpture, whether wood or stone, to be pure. Despite a large number of painted mediaeval statues we still tend to think of the marble sculptures of the likes of Bernini or the great temples of Greece and of Rome. Even now scholarly opinion remains divided as to how much Greek temple sculpture was polychromed despite the surviving traces of paint on columns and friezes. Nineteenth century attempts to convince historians otherwise continue. It is a shock to learn that what to our eyes appears classical in both simplicity and form was never originally unadorned and was once garishly painted.
The exhibition at the NGA The Sacred Made Real brings together for the first time just such richly polychromed statuary from seventeenth century Spain set in the context of the more recognizable paintings of the same period. The curator, Dr Xavier Bray, demonstrates the complimentarity of these thirty or so exceptional works and argues that Spanish art in the Counter-Reformation period, independently of Italy and the Renaissance, achieved startling levels of brilliance.
Much of the zeal within the Church has always come from within the Iberian peninsula beginning with Saint Vincent of Zaragoza and continuing into the mediaeval period with Saint Dominic and, in the sixteenth century, the founders of the Jesuits and the new reformed orders; Francis Xavier, Ignatius Loyola, Teresa of Avila and John of the Cross.
It is against this background that this unique exposition unfolds making it ideal as an accompaniment to any Lenten devotion or Eastertide reflections. In London, where the exhibition ran successfully for three months, clergy and groups of interested lay people could be seen in the gallery every day and the silent awe with which gallery goers absorbed the show was palpable.
Inevitably, perhaps, the big names are those of the painters since it is with their works that most visitors will be familiar. The contemporaries Velázquez (1599-1660) and Zurbarán (1598-1664), as well as Jusepe de Ribera and Francisco Ribalta are all here while sculptors like Gregorio Fernández and Juan Martínez Moñtanés (who appears in a 1636 portrait by Velázquez), and Pedro de Mena are all rescued from obscurity.
Of the five Spanish saints canonised by Pope Gregory XV, on 12 March 1622, we come to meet Ignatius in a life-size statue made at his beatification in 1609 in which the sculptor had used a copy of the Jesuit’s death mask owned by the artist who painted it. No contemporary likeness of Ignatius was ever made as he personally rejected the idea but early Jesuits wanted an image of their founder. Paired with it is a second statue, of Francis Borgia, made later for his beatification (1624). Borgia, the duke of Gandia (1510-72), renounced his earthly diadem when he was widowed in 1536 and he is shown, both in the effigy and in a painting by Alonso Cano, gazing at the crown he has foresworn.
These figures speak strongly of the religiosity of Spain and stress both humanity in all its agony and ecstasy and real dogged determination. One glance at Mother Jerónima de la Fuente, painted by the twenty year old Velázquez, when she was 66 and about to sail from Spain to found a community in the Philippines, shows a redoubtable woman who would strike fear into any believer; the painted wooden crucifix she holds looks like an instrument of God’s holy war.
That should remind us how so much of this art was intended for the expanding colonies that Spain and Portugal held overseas. This in turn often involved what we might think of as mass production. As the recent show Sacred Spain at the Indianapolis Museum of Art showed (winter 2009/2010) statues could be readily transported to serve as models while increasingly Iberian born artists, like Antonio Montúfar and Sebastián López de Arteaga, settled overseas, serving the church in New Spain.
Such statues and paintings achieved a new verisimilitude in art which, the organisers argue, derived from the Low Countries where we know that van Eyck and Roger van der Weyden had also often painted statues in the early fifteenth century. The links between what became the Spanish Netherlands during the upheavals of the Reformation and the Hapsburgs in Spain introduced material influences, without direct reference to Italy. Sixteenth century artists like El Greco and Titian had worked in Italy before coming to Spain and engravings increased the awareness of, for instance, Michelangelo’s work beyond the Italian peninsula.
Across Spain there was a more rigorous demarcation between painter and sculptor than in Flanders; the finished sculpture had to be passed to a member of the guild of artists for the actual painting. I was longing to know whether Velázquez himself had undertaken this as we know that his former teacher and later father in law Francisco Pacheco did. As an apprentice he no doubt found Pacheco completing the gilding on statues such as that of the Virgin of the Immaculate Conception.
It is none other than Pacheco who is jointly credited, with Moñtanés, for the powerful life-size representations of St Ignatius and Blessed Francis Borgia (Seville University). Only much later did Pedro de Mena seem to break this unionised strangle-hold, painting his own sculptures in defiance of custom.
As well as being an artist (His Christ on the Cross from Granada (1614) is here) it was Pacheco who wrote on the art of painting, a practical handbook for all aspiring painters. In the wake of the restraints on images and decorum determined by the Council of Trent he recommended how best to treat of certain religious subjects and thereby established the parameters for much later iconography. He observed that the application of colour to statues revealed ‘the passions and concerns of the soul with great vividness’ (1649).
The paintings of Zurbarán form the core of this exhibition and his works outnumber those of other artists. The 1628 Zurbarán painting of the martyred Mercedarian Saint Serapion (from the Wadsworth Athenaeum, Hartford, Connecticut) is the undoubted highlight. Despite his shocking death Zurbarán portrays him in sublime stillness. There is no blood and we, the devout, absorb and respond to the violence that is not seen in a profoundly visceral way. It was originally painted for a mortuary cell and would have allowed generations of monks to reflect on mortality.
Powerful among the many sculptures that, seen here as art rather than as overdressed devotional objects in cluttered churches, come to life is one of the many effigies of the Dead Christ, made by Gregorio Fernández for the Jesuit House in Madrid (1625/30) Newly cleaned for this show, the full horror of death is caught in the half open eyes made of real glass, the dirtied finger and toe nails of real horn and the ivory for the teeth. The thick blood clots and mess of death, his gashed knees and ripped palms, unflinchingly promote the Incarnation.
As striking but less bloody is the pairing of a celebrated painting by Zurbarán of Saint Francis in ecstasy, hooded and looking upward in a moment of rapture, and its half size ‘copy’, undertaken by Pedro de Mena for the sacristy of Toledo Cathedral some twenty five years later. In both media the saint is exclusively drawn away from us by his upturned gaze. This, and the bared foot, derive from a tale popularised in the 17th century that Pope Nicholas V had visited Assisi in 1449 and found that the dead saint’s body was perfectly preserved, standing upright as if still gazing at heaven.
But de Mena’s achievement, the tattered habit of the holy friar and the powerful cast of shadows, is perhaps the more striking as he was both sculptor and painter, bringing to his task the rich inheritance of both aspects of this extraordinarily vivid and expansive exhibition.
Dr Nicholas Cranfield is an Anglican priest based in a London parish and arts reviewer with a regular column in the Church Times (www.churchtimes.co.uk