The sacred made real: Spanish painting and sculpture 1600–1700
At the National Gallery, London, until 24 January 2010
Review first published in Third Way (Winter 2010)
This is one of the most disturbing exhibitions I have seen – which, in the age of Damien Hirst and the Chapman brothers, is saying something. Its graphic images of suffering and painful death are testimony to the real power that art can exercise, although the power of these particular images gave me a sympathy towards the Reformation iconoclasts to which art historians, for professional reasons, don’t normally admit.
The academic rationale for this exhibition is to establish that the well-known strand of realism in seventeenth-century Spanish religious painting, represented by Velazquez and Zurbaran, was accompanied by a lesser-known parallel strand of starkly realistic, painted religious sculpture. This is not a question that has kept many of us awake, nor is its resolution likely to outweigh the significance of Premier League results over the Christmas period.
However, in setting out their case, the curators have gone to some lengths to present the exhibits as they would first have been seen - not as aesthetic objects in a gallery, but as sacred images. They are sparingly chosen, and spaced out through darkened rooms. The spot lights make them shine with significance as they were intended to be, and beckon the viewer to approach in reverence.
But as one teeters on the edge of submission, one has to ask: how could you venerate these revolting images – grim-faced saints holding a crucifix, another saint strung up by his wrists, the carefully red-rimmed eyes of the Mater Dolorosa, or the dead body of Christ painstakingly reconstructed with all the dried blood in place? What kind of mentality, what view of spirituality, bows in contemplation to works which so wilfully appeal to the emotions over the mind; which present Christ as a fetishised image of physical suffering, and not a willing bearer of our sin; and one whose sufferings are presented as a model for our own ascent to heaven, rather than the means to receive grace and pardon?
Of course, these works come from within a culture that turned the ritual killing of bulls into a national spectator sport – so one might excuse a certain hardening of the sensibilities. But, as the curators also make clear, these works are of a piece with the broader culture of the counter-Reformation which, as an act of policy, used art as a major instrument to keep the faithful in line.
These works also encounter the problem that all religious-based realist works run into: how can you suggest other-worldly, or even vaguely metaphorical, meanings through works which are so utterly faithful to physical realities. It was a problem that would later beset the Pre-Raphaelites, and the Spanish answer is the same: you can’t. Any spiritual or metaphorical meaning has to be brought to the work, through the title and the viewer’s own prior knowledge: it does not – cannot – arise from the work itself.
So what is the meaning and purpose of these works? How are we to interpret works which, like Gregorio Fernandez’s sculpture of the Dead Christ, so skilfully, and almost lovingly, recreate the tortured body? It is carved in wood, which is then realistically painted, with details of horn, glass, ivory and bone to make it more ‘lifelike’. There is no doubting the skill of the artists but, like the Chapman brothers of our own day, one wonders at the mindset that so painstakingly recreates the deep gash in the chest, the punctured holes through hands and feet, the scabbed blood on the worn knees. In an incongruous act of delicacy, a convenient cloth is made to cover the genitals, so that we are relentlessly made to focus on the wounds. Jesus’ head is made to rest on a carefully decorated pillow, as if preparing for a long time of our contemplation.
Many of us in the protestant tradition rue the zeal of our iconoclast forebears: the destruction of so much religious art seems excessive and unnecessary. But iconoclasm is a genuine recognition of the power of the work of art. This is why none of us even notices modern-day iconoclasm under that category: but when images of Lenin, Stalin or Saddam Hussein are destroyed, that same recognition of the power of the image is in play.
As I walked among these gory sculptures, I found a surprising sympathy for those who once wanted to destroy them. In an age where it was taken for granted that an entire country had to be either Catholic or Protestant, what else would the Protestants have done with them? Art is not made for galleries, or disinterested aesthetic contemplation. It is made to embody and express values and commitments. And this exhibition very successfully brings that to life.