"The Sacred Made Real: Spanish Painting & Sculpture 1600-1700"

By Kimball, Roger | New Criterion, December 2009 | Go to article overview
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"The Sacred Made Real: Spanish Painting & Sculpture 1600-1700"


Kimball, Roger, New Criterion


"The Sacred Made Real: Spanish Painting & Sculpture 1600-1700" The National Gallery, London.

October 21, 2009-January 24, 2010

When I was in London last month, I visited a couple of churches with an English friend who is a walking encyclopedia about that great city. Although it is fascinating to see where Andrew Marvell worshipped or Noel Coward is commemorated, there is something melancholy about visiting C of E churches these days. With every year that passes, the odor of superannuation hangs ever more heavily upon them. There are architectural delights as well as historical concatenations to be enjoyed. But the sense of vacancy is unavoidable. "A serious house on serious earth," Philip Larkin wrote in "Church Going":

    In whose blent air all our compulsions meet,
   Are recognized, and robed as destinies.
   And that much can never be obsolete,
   Since someone will forever be surprising
   A hunger in himself to be more serious,
   And gravitating with it to this ground,
   Which, he once heard, was proper to grow
                                        wise in,
   If only that so many dead lie round. 

A wistful sense of indelible diminishment is what one takes away, less consolation than quiet ruefulness.

How much sharper are the urgencies on view in the taut, fraught exhibition of Spanish religious art in the crypt-like basement space of the National Gallery's Sainsbury Wing. There is nothing tentative or preterite about the Counter Reformation seriousness locked firmly in these images of suffering and goads to piety. Many of the sixteen paintings in the exhibition are familiar: saints and crucifixions and depositions by such canonical masters as Francisco de Zubaran, Diego Velazquez, and Francisco Pacheco (Velazquez's teacher and, in time, his father-in-law). Velazquez's amazing--maybe "terrifying" is more accurate--portrait of The Venerable Mother Jeronima de la Fuente (1620) is particularly memorable. She is not someone you would wish to meet in a dark alley.

But the real news in this exhibition comes in three dimensions: the sixteen painted wooden sculptures whose realism is perhaps more visceral than lifelike. These remarkable objects remind us that the artistic fallout from the Council of Trent differed sharply from country to country. The command to overturn the current of iconoclasm in the Protestant revolt everywhere resulted in greater verisimilitude. But where Caravaggio brought a new lusciousness to Italian painting, in Spain hyper-realism took a more anguished, scarifying turn. These works do not so much appeal to the senses as ambush them.

The didactic point of this exhibition is to recover the place of sculpture in our understanding of the art of the period, a place occupied by painters as well as sculptors. Not only was learning to paint on sculpture part of the normal training of a painter, but also many paintings notably strive for the look of three dimensionality. Zubaran's celebrated 1627 Christ on the Cross (which many American readers will have seen at the Art Institute of Chicago) communicates an uncanny sense of three dimensionality. The fathomless black background and stagey lighting from the side as well as Zubaran's exquisite rendering of the folds and creases of Christ's voluminous loincloth makes the image pop off the canvas like a has relief.

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