A new show at the National Gallery of Art is bringing long-overdue attention to seventeenth-century Spanish painting and sculpture. Xavier Bray, who curated The Sacred Made Real: Spanish Painting and Sculpture, 1600-1700, explains in an NGA podcast that historically, American collectors avoided these stark pieces due to their dark, gritty realism and overt Catholic associations. As a result, seventeenth-century Spanish paintings and polychrome sculptures are not nearly as plentiful in museum collections in the United States as we might have imagined.
While the most accomplished painters from this period, such as Diego Velázquez, and Francisco de Zurbarán, are known in America, museum goers are generally less familiar with the exceptional Spanish Baroque sculptors. Several of the statues on view did not leave Spain before this show debuted at the National Gallery, London last October.
Our underexposure to these masterpieces can partly be attributed to the important cultural role that they still play in their native country. Many of the figures of Jesus, Mary and the saints reside in churches, acting as devotional objects for visitors. Every year during Holy Week, they make an appearance in a ceremony that takes place all over Spain. In large, colorful processions, 30-40 men hoist onto their shoulders heavy floats carrying life-sized, Seventeenth century sculptures. Although these enormous physical burdens can weigh up to two tons, the floats’ devoted carriers sway rhythmically, allowing their motion to bring the sculptures to life and to recreate various scenes from the Passion.
While nothing could replicate the undoubtedly awesome experience of seeing these pieces in use, the show is visually well-curated and designed to maximize the viewer’s interaction with each piece. The lighting in the gallery is dim, as it would have been in a candle-lit Spanish church. Each individual piece is subtly illuminated from above, recalling the celestial lighting in the paintings themselves. For dramatic effect and to enhance the relationship between viewer and art work, Xavier Bray deliberately sought out mostly life-sized sculptures. ( One exception, a tiny sculpture of Saint Francis, was a favorite of contemporary figure sculptor, Ron Mueck).
Many of the wooden figures also sit close to eye-level. One of the show’s highlights, Christ on the Cross (1617) by Juan Martínez Montañés and an unknown painter is situated so that the figure’s tortured, punctured feet hang right in front of the viewer. To view the sculpture, we are obliged to look up and are confronted with an awesomely-rendered depiction of the human body. Every muscle is studied and convincingly carved.
The piece’s staggering realism was intended to evoke the utmost sympathy from the viewer. During the seventeenth century the church sought to counteract the spread of Protestantism and commissioned artists to create emotionally impassioned yet convincingly realistic works that would move viewers. Painters and sculptors of this period employed an aesthetic that was somber, and minimalistic, yet realistic. By paring an image down to its essentials artists could zero in on their holy subjects’ agony or ecstasy without distracting the viewer with an excess of earthly detail. Works from the period attempted to inspire Catholics by focusing on emotional extremes. At times, these pieces could be extremely dark, brutal, and gory. Montanes’ Christ is a perfect example. Upon close inspection, you realize that he is dead. His eyes are closed and his head hangs limply to one side. The carefully painted blood surrounding his wounds is a dark brown, indicating that it is no longer flowing. The ligaments in his arms are stretched and his lifeless legs bulge outwards. The viewer is forced to confront Christ’s humanity and the fragile, vulnerable nature of his physical being.
The show also emphasizes the close connection between the paintings and sculptures from this period. The colorful wooden figures were the product of close collaboration between practitioners of the two mediums. The art of polychroming a statue was an important part of training for painters. After a sculptor was finished carving a piece, he would send it to a painter’s studio to be brought to life. This teamwork led to a realism, three-dimensionality and emphasis on the figure in Baroque Spanish paintings. Xavier Bray deliberately chose extremely dimensional paintings in order to emphasize the connection between the two mediums. He also placed similarly-themed paintings and sculptures near each other to invite comparison. Montañés’ astonishing Christ stands next to Zurbarán’s equally remarkable painting, Christ on the Cross (1627). Like Montañés’ figure, this Christ has already expired. Washed in holy light, the man on the cross is placed against a simple black background. With all background detail eliminated, the viewer is forced to confront Christ’s sacrifice. The lack of illusory space, and astonishing dimensionality of the image make it particularly sculptural. The painting was created for a recessed niche in the San Pablo Dominican Friary in Seville. By the account of an eighteenth-century art historian, first time viewers often mistook it for a sculpture.
Montañés’ sculpture, The Virgin of the Immaculate Conception (1628) and Velázquez’ gorgeous painting, The Immaculate Conception (1618-1619) make another fascinating comparison. Spanish artists of the time took their inspiration from a passage in the Book of Revelations describing a woman with a crown of 12 stars, clothed with the sun and with the moon below her feet. Pacheco, a painter and polychromer who often collaborated with Montañés’ and who trained Velázquez’ and eventually became his father-in-law, maintained that she should be represented as a lovely, serious-eyed twelve or thirteen year old. Both Montañés’ and Velázquez’ renditions sport the 12 star crown. The faces of the two virgins are extremely realistic and very youthful. Velázquez’ maiden still has the fair hair and chubby cheeks of childhood. The painter has placed his Madonna on top of a round orb. Montañés’ Mary stands on top of an elaborate platform that could also represent the moon.
The Sacred Made Real is a gorgeous, thoughtfully-curated show and a wonderful introduction to this astonishing artistic period. The exhibit will run through May 31st at The National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC.