The Sacred Made Real – Exhibition at the National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC

National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC

The Sacred Made Real: Spanish Painting and Sculpture, 1600–1700
February 28 – May 31, 2010

Masterpieces created to shock the senses and stir the soul are spotlighted in The Sacred Made Real: Spanish Painting and Sculpture, 1600–1700, on view at the exhibition’s only U.S. venue ― the National Gallery of Art ― through May 31, 2010.

Diego Velázquez

Diego Velázquez
Christ after the Flagellation, contemplated by the Christian Soul, probably 1628-1629
oil on canvas
overall: 165.1 x 206.4 cm (65 x 81 1/4 in.)
framed: 208.4 x 247.5 x 12 cm (82 1/16 x 97 7/16 x 4 3/4 in.)
The National Gallery, London, Presented by John Savile Lumley (later Baron Savile), 1883
© Copyright The National Gallery, London

This landmark reappraisal of religious art from the Spanish Golden Age includes 11 paintings by Diego Velázquez, Francisco de Zurbarán, and others, displayed for the very first time alongside 11 of Spain’s remarkable polychromed (painted) sculptures, many of which have never before left Spain and are still passionately venerated across the Iberian Peninsula in monasteries, churches, and processions.

During the Spanish Counter-Reformation, religious patrons, particularly the Dominican, Carthusian and Franciscan orders, challenged painters and sculptors to bring the sacred to life, to inspire both devotion and emulation of the saints. The exhibition brings together some of the finest depictions of key Christian themes including the Passion of Christ, the Immaculate Conception and the portrayal of saints, notably Pedro de Mena’s austere Saint Francis Standing in Ecstasy (1663), which has never before left the sacristy of Toledo cathedral.

By installing polychromed sculptures and paintings side by side, the exhibition shows how the hyperrealistic approach of painters such as Velázquez and Zurbarán was clearly informed by the artists’ familiarity―and in some cases direct involvement―with sculpture. During this period, sculptors worked very closely with painters, who were taught the art of polychroming sculpture as a part of their training.

Jusepe de Ribera

Jusepe de Ribera
The Lamentation over the Dead Christ, early 1620s
oil on canvas
overall: 129.5 x 181 cm (51 x 71 1/4 in.)
framed: 161 x 214.5 x 8 cm (63 3/8 x 84 7/16 x 3 1/8 in.)
The National Gallery, London, Presented by David Barclay, 1853
© Copyright The National Gallery, London

Pedro de Mena

Pedro de Mena
Christ as the Man of Sorrows (Ecce Homo), 1673
polychromed wood, human hair, ivory, and glass
98 x 50 x 41 cm (38 9/16 x 19 11/16 x 16 1/8 in.)
Real Monasterio de las Descalzas Reales, Patrimonio Nacional, Madrid
© Copyright 2009 Photo Gonzalo de la Serna

Exhibition Background

A crucial loan to the exhibition, Zurbarán’s masterpiece The Crucifixion (1627) from the Art Institute of Chicago achieves an astonishing sculptural illusion on canvas. When seen in close proximity to Juan Martínez Montañés’ polychromed sculpture of 1617 from the Church of the Convent of Santo Ángel, Seville, these two art forms begin an intense natural dialogue.

In Seville, Francisco Pacheco taught a generation of artists, including Velázquez (later his son-in-law), the skill of painting sculpture as an integral element of their training. Pacheco himself painted the flesh tones of superb wooden sculptures carved by fellow Andalucian artist Montañés, known by his contemporaries as “the god of wood.” Among the most important examples of their collaboration is their life-size Saint Francis Borgia (1624) from the Church of the Anunciación, Seville University, commissioned by the Jesuits to celebrate Borgia’s beatification that year. Another highlight of the exhibition is the fascinating juxtaposition of Velázquez’s The Immaculate Conception (1618–1619) from the National Gallery, London, with Montañés’ exquisite polychrome sculpture of the same subject (c. 1628) from the Church of the Anunciación, Seville University.

To obtain even greater realism, some sculptors such as Pedro de Mena and Gregorio Fernández introduced glass eyes and tears, as well as ivory teeth, into their sculptures. In one of Mena’s most proficient works, Mary Magdalene Meditating on the Crucifixion (late 1660s), the artist used several strands of twisted wicker for his subject’s long flowing hair and animal horn for her toenails.

Throughout Semana Santa (Holy Week) in Spain, some 17th-century polychrome sculptures are still carried through the streets by religious confraternities, particularly in Seville, Granada, and Valladolid—the most important centers of this art. One such processional sculpture included in the exhibition is the Pietà (c. 1680–1700) from the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

During the evening of Palm Sunday, Seville’s Archicofradía del SantÍsimo Cristo del Amor (Confraternity of the Christ of Love) process a life-size sculpture Christ on the Cross by Juan de Mesa. The exhibition features a smaller version of this work (c. 1621), which although non-processional, plays a vital role in the pastoral life of the confraternity.

Francisco de Zurbarán

Francisco de Zurbarán
Saint Serapion, 1628
oil on canvas
120.8 x 104.1 cm (47 9/16 x 41 in.)
Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art, Hartford, CT. The Ella Gallup Sumner and Mary Catlin Sumner Collection Fund
© Copyright Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art, Hartford, Connecticut

Zurbarán’s heightened illusionism shows an acute understanding and appreciation of sculpture, as seen in the brilliant handling of drapery in his painting, Saint Serapion (1628) from the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art in Hartford, CT, which is among the artist’s greatest achievements. The saint’s luminous white habit cascades with astonishingly rendered folds of deep shadow. Here, Zurbarán demonstrates that painting can indeed achieve the same disconcerting realism as sculpture.

The religious art of 17th-century Spain pursued a quest for realism with uncompromising zeal and genius. Painting and sculpture are distinct arts, but The Sacred Made Real shows how, in 17th-century Spain, they were drawn together in the service of ardent devotion and the quest to appeal to religious sensibilities.

Courtesy National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC
Images © Their respective owners. All rights reserved


Stampfli & Turci – Art Dealers

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~ by Stampfli & Turci on April 15, 2010.

One Response to “The Sacred Made Real – Exhibition at the National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC”

  1. This was a fantastic show. I wished the National Gallery would have given the public the complete show as it was on view at the National Gallery in London England. From what I viewed on the internet, it seems that the Sacred Real was divided between Washinton D.C. and Los Angeles, which is showing simultaneously.
    I still appreciate what has come to Washington D.C.. The Natonal Gallery always gives a great presentation.

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