Catholic San Francisco

Visual Arts

(CNS photo/Nancy Wiechec)

The scourged back of Christ is depicted in “Ecce Homo” (“Behold the Man”), a sculpture by Gregorio Fernandez.

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Spanish religious art exhibit portrays Christ, Mary, saints in detail
March 10th, 2010
By Carol Zimmermann

WASHINGTON (CNS) – The National Gallery of Art in Washington is the venue for “The Sacred Made Real” – a unique exhibit of 22 sculptures and paintings from 17th century Spain, which portray Jesus, Mary and saints with intensely precise detail.

According to museum officials, the works were intended to “shock the senses and stir the soul” when they were created 400 years ago. And the exhibit’s curator hopes they will evoke a similar response today.

In the four rooms of the exhibit, paintings – including masterpieces by Diego Velazquez and Francisco de Zurbaran – are displayed for the first time alongside Spain’s wooden polychrome (realistically painted) sculptures. Many of the sculptures have never left Spain before and are still venerated in monasteries and churches and during Holy Week processions.

The exhibit is only being shown in two venues. It opened in Washington Feb. 28 where it will remain until May 31. Previously it was shown at London’s National Gallery.

The dimly-lit rooms and alcoves give the exhibit a churchlike atmosphere, as do the images themselves.

The curator, Xavier Bray from London’s National Gallery, told Catholic News Service that just as the works of art were “meant to speak to people” when they were designed, they remain “incredibly powerful even out of context” in the museum setting.

He saw this happen in London when many people were silent and seemed prayerful before the works of art. Even the unreligious, he said, could walk away with something because of the exhibit’s straightforward way of portraying death with images of Christ’s passion.

Bray – who has seen these sculptures in darkened churches and monasteries and also ornately decorated during processions – was convinced of their ability to speak to modern audiences and used that as a selling point when appealing to church authorities to loan these works. He also stressed the heightened impact they could have in Washington during Lent.

Bray said he was involved in “nonstop letter writing” to obtain the loan of a St. Francis statuette from the sacristy of the Cathedral of St. Mary of Toledo.

He described the 3-foot statue, which had never been out of the cathedral, as “little but powerful.” It is an image of the saint in ecstasy as he was said to have been found 200 years after his death by Pope Nicholas V.

The sculpture has a realistic look with its glass eyes, human hair for the eyelashes and a rope dangling from his robe – all key tools of the sculptors’ trades. (They also often used glass tears, ivory teeth, wicker hair and animal horn for toenails.) The statue is markedly similar to the adjacent St. Francis painting by Zurbaran.

Throughout the exhibit visitors see similar images – painted and sculpted – arranged side by side. The juxtaposition not only highlights the artists’ similar styles but also demonstrates how painters and sculptors worked together and influenced each other.

The exhibit’s catalog notes that the artist Francisco Pacheco taught a generation of artists, including Velazquez, how to paint sculptures with flesh tones. This technique was called “encarnacion,” or incarnation, which literally means “made flesh.” Pacheco painted some of the wooden sculptures carved by Juan Martinez Montanes whose sculpting talent was so renowned he was given the nickname “the god of wood.”

The realistic works these artists produced were intended for religious and artistic purposes.

Elizabeth Lev, professor of art history at Duquesne University’s Rome campus, said that the polychrome sculptures were meant “to emphasize how God became man, walked among men and suffered at the hands of men, therefore realism and high emotional content was the norm for these works, while often painted representations of the same themes remained more restrained.”

She said 17th-century Spanish art clearly conveyed religious doctrine “especially in the wake of the Protestant Reformation where the supernatural element of faith was called into question – such as the role of Mary, the intercessory power of saints and the importance of the church.” A sculpture could do its part, she said, “by taking the supernatural and inserting it into the natural world.” Sculptures of Christ’s passion raised the bar even more with their unflinching use of vivid detail with painted drops of blood, wounds and bruises.

Crucifixion images in the current exhibit include Zurbaran’s 1627 painting “Christ on the Cross,” which is on loan from the Art Institute of Chicago. It is alongside the polychrome sculpture “Christ on the Cross,” borrowed from a Carmelite monastery in Seville. The sculpture was carved by Montanes and painted in 1617.

Lev said Zurbaran’s “use of glassy color and vivid detail startles viewers with his two-dimensional images,” while the devotional sculpture and its “waxy pallid flesh of Christ, heavy drops of blood and parted bluish lips bring the tangible evidence of Christ’s suffering into our space and lay it at our door.”

“Faced with these sculpted crucifixions and their unrelenting, merciless detail, the viewer is asked to concretely acknowledge the cost of his or her salvation,” she said.

Or as the curator put it: “The images engage you directly.”

Referring to the polychrome “Christ on the Cross,” Bray said: “You know it’s a sculpture, yet you feel as if you are there. It transcends time and space.”

For more information see the National Gallery’s Web site:

From March 12, 2010 issue of Catholic San Francisco.


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