The Sacred Made Real
Spanish Painting and Sculpture 1600-1700 at the National Gallery

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.

Francisco de Zurbarán, The Martyrdom of Saint Serapion (1628)

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.

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.


The Sacred Made Real: Spanish Painting and Sculpture 1600-1700 at The National Gallery of Art, 202-737-4215.

The essay appeared first in The Weekly Standard, April 24, 2010.

Copyright 2010 Maureen Mullarkey

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