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Art of the Faithful

Spain’s Counter-Reformation as seen by its artists.

Apr 26, 2010, Vol. 15, No. 30 • By MAUREEN MULLARKEY
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These ardently post-Tridentine works turn tepid aestheticism to their own purposes. The pity of the Word made flesh is all the more piquant for the masculine comeliness and calm of Velázquez’s painting Christ after the Flagellation Contemplated by the Christian Soul (c. 1628). Signs of the Passion—a whip, a bundle of thorny wood—substitute for the ordeal itself. Only a few discreet flecks of blood are visible. A sturdy angel directs a child’s gaze to Christ’s back, “all with bloody scourges rent” but unseen by the viewer. Golgotha is yet to come. The child, symbol of the Christian soul, kneels in regret at the price of redemption. Vivid staging brings to life the claims of dogmatic theology.

Similarly, anatomical beauty partly screens the cruelty of flagellation in Gregorio Fernandez’s life-sized Ecce Homo (before 1621). Carved to include genitalia, later covered with stiffened cloth, the figure—seen from the front—is first of all a graceful male nude in a classic contrapposto pose. Not until you circle around does the polychromy make palpable the startling physicality of pain.

Designed for a monastery’s mortuary chapel, Zurbarán’s sublime 1628 painting of the 13th-century martyr Peter Serapion pulses with suggestive reticence. Serapion was a member of the Mercedarians, a communal fraternity who pledged their own lives as ransom for Christians captured by the Moors. Gruesomely butchered and partially beheaded by Barbary pirates, the saint appears here intact. His body slumps between outstretched arms bound to poles; his head lists to one side. But his billowing white habit, shroud-like, is unspotted and cleansed of gore. The slaying is finished. What follows is a quietude more of sleep than of death. A double-sided Christological parallel, the composition both alludes to the crucifixion itself and insinuates the promise of the Easter liturgy: That man is “washed clean of sin / and freed from all defilement” by Christ’s ransom on the cross. The ease of sleep informs, too, Zurbarán’s Christ on the Cross (1627). A relaxed, unbloodied corpus appears almost to be standing, feet uncrossed, on the stipes’ shallow foot rest. Details of execution recede into the dark. Lighting emphasizes the extramundane swell of a luminous, unblemished loincloth in a tableau vivant that points past Good Friday. 

It hardly takes a Catholic eye to see these emblems of sanctity and solitary suffering. Nevertheless, to greet them as something more than relics of the Castilian Baroque requires sensitivity to the high poetry of theological expression. Each of these works is a call to recollection before it is a specimen of style. A rich word, recollection—and so different from appreciation, the term that clings to art like a trained spaniel. Recollection, confessors know, is the penitential spirit in play: It is a summons inward toward an examination of conscience, that hard awakening to one’s own trespasses that ends in contrition. Appreciation inclines, instead, toward the museum shop.


Maureen Mullarkey is a painter who writes on art and culture.




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