The Sacred Made Real - Spanish religious art seen anew (Feature)
By Anna Tomforde Oct 22, 2009, 2:08 GMT
London - When 17th century Spanish sculptor Gregorio Fernandez created his life-like sculpture Dead Christ, he is reported to have intended that the work should 'shock and stir the soul.'
The haunting figure, depicting Christ's body as it is prepared for burial, with its glass eyes expressionless and its mouth half open while blood still oozes from the wounds, is a centrepiece at a new exhibition in London.
It is one of 16 polychrome (painted) sculptures loaned to the National Gallery on London's Trafalgar Square by churches and monasteries in Spain for a groundbreaking exhibition seeking to prove the close link between sculpture and painting in the Spanish Golden Age.
While the religious paintings of masters such as Diego Velázquez and Francisco de Zurbaran are well known around the world, the 17th century sculptures have never travelled - nor been the subjects of a major exhibition, according to the National Gallery.
In his show The Sacred Made Real, National Gallery curator Xavier Bray has juxtaposed the 16 sculptures with paintings of the period, aiming to show that the 'hyperrealistic' approach of painters such as Velazquez and Zubaran was clearly informed by their familiarity - and in some cases direct involvement - with sculpture.
Bray argues that it is not possible to understand the paintings of the period without taking into account the role sculpture might have played in the way they were conceived and executed.
A fundamental reappraisal of religious art in Spain between 1600 and 1700 is required, Bray believes, challenging the conventional view that the Golden Age was inspired mainly by Caravaggio, Italy's prime baroque painter.
'But the fact is that this new, realistic style was created through painters and sculptors working directly together,' Bray told Deutsche Presse-Agentur (dpa).
He attempts to prove the point by giving the figures a dramatic, sometimes theatrical appearance, assisted by the effective use of lighting and space in the gallery's black-painted, semi-darkened rooms.
Figures, such as Pedro de Mena's austere life-size statue of Saint Francis Standing in Ecstasy, which has come from Toledo Cathedral, or Fernández's astonishingly real Ecce Homo, loaned by the Cathedral Museum of Valladolid, rank among items suited to 'shock and stir' the visitor in the sense intended.
In the exhibition, Ecce Homo, a life-size standing figure showing Christ after the flagellation, is juxtaposed with Velázquez's familiar Christ after the Flagellation contemplated by the Christian Soul, a painting owned by the National Gallery.
To obtain greater realism, sculptors of the age would often introduce glass eyes and tears, as well as ivory teeth into their sculptures, or incorporate the bark of a cork tree to simulate the effect of coagulated blood to underline suffering and compassion.
'The religious art of 17th century Spain pursued a quest for realism with uncompromising zeal and genius. Far from being separate, this exhibition proposes that the arts of painting and sculpture were intricately linked and interdependent,' says the National Gallery guide.
It had not always been easy to persuade Spain's religious institutions to lend their often fragile art works, many of which were still being used in churches and for Holy Week processions, Bray said about his 10-year effort to prepare the show.
Spain's ministry of culture, and the top echelons of the Catholic Church in both Spain and Britain were called upon to facilitate the process.
In the case of Saint Francis Standing in Ecstacy, which had never before left the sacristy of Toledo Cathedral, the Spanish government agreed to pay for its restoration in turn for loaning the statue.
'My big joke card was that this was a great occasion for the Spanish Catholic church to show off their heritage and to reach out to a wider audience,' said Bray.
The exhibition, which opened Wednesday, is due to run to January 24, 2010.