THE AGONY AND THE ECSTASY; the Suffering Expressed in the Extraordinary Sculptures and Paintings of Martyred Saints from 17th-Century Spain Is So Real, the Effect Is Almost Unbearable

Article excerpt

Byline: Brian Sewell EXHIBITION OF THE WEEK

The saCred made real National Gallery, WC2 WERE the art world a field of battle (to some extent, of course, it is), the new director of the National Gallery, Nicholas Penny, should be awarded the Victoria Cross for his current foolish act of gallantry -- foolish, that is, in the perfect sense of guileless, virtuous and ingenuous innocence.

The contents of his latest exhibition number only 35, though in the criss-cross of diagonals between the rooms we see them many times and from different angles and different distances.

Even so, the press cannot describe the event as a blockbuster. As it is not of paintings by Monet or Picasso, no one can expect queues to form across Trafalgar Square. It is not devoted to Titian, Raphael, Michelangelo or any other revered old warhorse of the Italian Renaissance, nor have the favoured old familiars Rembrandt and Rubens any part of it. Instead of these, it is an exploration of the intense spirituality of painting and sculpture in Spain in the 17th century, of the transcendental, of mysticism, of the artist's identification with the sanctity and suffering of saints, of himself feeling the lash, the thorns, the nails and nakedness of crucifixion.

This is not the pretty stuff of Christmas and the birth of Christ. It is the profoundly Catholic response to the prolonged violence and cruelty of his execution and the martyrdom of the saints who believed that they served his purpose. It is not the stuff of even High Anglican Protestantism and it has no obvious link with either the Church of England or English art, though before the destructions wrought by Henry VIII -- and certainly in the days of Chaucer's Canterbury Tales -- there may well have been such links. But Henry VIII led to Oliver Cromwell, and Cromwell to the Hanoverian Georges who, to reinforce our native prejudice against popery, brought to England the blind and bitter Protestantism of Luther, a political weapon with which to continue the exclusion of Catholic Stuarts from the throne. As late as 1829, in the final debates on Catholic Emancipation, both the bishops of the Church of England and King George IV were adamantine in their opposition and though in law they failed to obstruct it, in spirit they succeeded, for by then it was too late for art of any quality to embellish the new Catholic churches as they sprang up the length of Britain. Architecture in the service of a church that had not one single old foundation was functional but bleak, and the sacred images within them were much the same sentimental painted plaster figures that can still be bought as souvenirs in Lourdes.

Those of us who hold these in aesthetic contempt and to whom the human body is the instrument that most profoundly expresses humility and humiliation, pity, grief and exaltation, rapture and the trance, may be intrigued to see the best of what was produced in Spain in the 17th century, embodiments of these responses.

These Spanish saints and Christs leap the intellectual century of the Italian High Renaissance and reach at once from the gothic horrors of northern European art in the 15th century, so influential in Spain, to the renewed spiritual intensity of a Catholic church that had never been threatened by reformation and that in the 17th century was absolute over a country and a nation that had never been traumatised by division in their Christian faith. There had been no Renaissance in any Italian sense, yet there was strong kinship with the emergent Italian baroque and Spanish artists had been little diverted from their primary service to the church. There was in their art an extraordinary emotional intensity and clarity of potent purpose in which irrational fervour combined with unquestioning belief. These were not artists engaged in intellectual enquiry, not classicists against baroque, not Poussinists against the Rubenists, not debaters over form and volume and perspective, for they took these in their strides; instead, with startling realism, they sought to convince the Spaniard of his faith. …