Monday, April 5, 2010

Spanish Art Exhibit Portrays Mary, Christ, & Saints

The Sacred Made Real: Spanish Painting and Sculpture 1600-1700 (Hardcover)

Exhibition Catalogue, Xavier Bray, Stock Number: OR1194220

The sculpture "Saint John of the Cross" by Francisco Antonio Gijon.

Art News from Ascribing Artist, Diane Lehr:

The exhibition at Washington's National Gallery of Art, will also reveal the dynamic and intricate relationship between two-dimensional pictures on canvas and painted sculptures. Many of the sculptures have never been exhibited away from the Spanish churches, convents, and monasteries where they continue to inspire the faithful.

Spanish Art Exhibit Portrays Mary, Christ, & Saints

WASHINGTON (CNS)—The expression "the devil is in the details" is turned on its head in the exhibit "The Sacred Made Real" at Washington's National Gallery of Art where 22 sculptures and paintings from 17th-century Spain 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.

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, 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 skeptics, 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."

(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 renown he was given the nickname "the god of wood."

Elizabeth Lev, professor of art history at Duquesne University's Rome campus, told CNS in a March 2 e-mail 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 a profound message. 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 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."

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