The Sacred Made Real
Spanish Painting and Sculpture 1600-1700
National Gallery of Art
Through May 31
The medieval spirit, steeped in sacred purpose, penetrated Spain’s Golden Age in Counter-Reformation guise. Through the 16th and 17th centuries, Spanish imagination bore the militant stamp of a mission to gird the Roman Catholic Church—its catholicity shaken—against the cudgeling of Protestant reformers.
Evangelism was particularly keen in Spain, fortified by the Council of Trent and leavened by Christian mysticism. Great masters of the spiritual life emerged: Teresa of Avila, John of the Cross, and Ignatius Loyola—aristocratic apotheoses of broad popular enthusiasm for contemplative piety. Ignatius’s Society of Jesus, a key instrument of the Counter-Reformation, reignited embers of the medieval devotio moderna and promoted the secular arts for confessional purposes. Devotion itself flamed, once again, into an art. By the 1600s painting and sculpture had joined music, theater, and architecture, even dance, as spiritual exercises, prompts to prayer.
The Sacred Made Real: Spanish Painting and Sculpture, 1600-1700 showcases that plenitude of religious emotion that makes the art of Spain’s siglo de oro so very—well, Spanish. While Italians worked their marble and bronze, the Spanish, often thought to have no sculptural tradition, transformed polychromed wood sculpture, a medieval staple, with Renaissance realism. Like the Gothic that preceded it, it was an applied art, wed to the agony of the via dolorosa and created to induce pathos in God-seeking souls. Most of the masterworks on view are little known outside Spain; some are still in living service to worship. The National Gallery in London, in tandem with our own in Washington, organized the exhibition to reclaim these devotional pieces—including saints and the Virgin—from neglect rooted in Enlightenment disdain for objects of papist veneration. It is a disdain, admit the codirectors, “often mingled with the Protestant distaste for Mariolatry and martyrs.”
Originating in London with 30 works, the exhibition has shrunk to 22 in Washington. Despite regrettable omissions, the emotional weight of the initial ensemble survives in the power of the remaining selections. Canvases by Diego Velázquez and Francisco de Zurbarán accompany painted and gilded sculpture by artists with less name recognition here but equal command of the melancholy corporeality—immoderate to modern sensibilities—that marked the devotional tenor of the age.
On loan from a Franciscan convent in Madrid, Pedro de Mena’s remarkable Christ as the Man of Sorrows (c. 1673) kindles remembrance of the Passion, a theme dear to St. Francis and ubiquitous in Gothic art. This half-length spectacle of desolation shatters detachment. Christ stands bound, a common prisoner released from a near-lethal Roman scourging. No hint of divinity relieves the stark reality of torment. Blood streams in dimensional droplets down the face, the battered torso, and into the folds of a loincloth. Eyes are swollen partly shut. Every device to enhance verisimilitude is put to use: glass eyes in the sockets, eyelashes of real hair, ivory or bone teeth visible between half-open lips. For many viewers, such figures, together with crucifixes, are anthropological curiosities that flutter on the edge of morbidity. (“Alien to . . . Anglican sensibility . . . profoundly uncomfortable to look at . . . [bordering on] macabre,” wrote Michael Prodger in Standpoint.) Conviction, by contrast, beholds the drama of a sovereign love stooped to raise fallen man from the depths.
Distinction between what the eye sees and what faith affirms is irreconcilable. What are museumgoers to do? Carting with them the dry bones of a secular age, most retreat to modernity’s inevitable default mode: the neutralizing process of aesthetic appreciation. To sustain a neutral framework for interpretation, the curators supply a blameless art-historical rationale in the reciprocity between 17th-century Spain’s painting and sculpture. These exquisitely carved paintings-in-the-round, so stunning and disquieting, were guild-regulated collaborations between painters and sculptors that cross-pollinated their separate disciplines. Nevertheless, the heart of the exhibition lies in the vigor of a Lenten imagination, not in formal relations among objets d’art.