The sacred made real: 17th century religious art from Spain

Zurbaran St Francis of Assisi

Zurbaran St Francis of Assisi

The first I heard from this exhibition was from this review in The Independent. What struck me, apart from the critic’s confusion about the religious and historical background, was the obvious emotional impact of the show. Then I saw this better informed review in The Art Tribune and knew I could not afford to miss this during my last visit to London.

This is indeed a small but extraordinary exhibition, featuring works that rarely, if ever, leave Spain, where many are still displayed in the religious context for which they were designed. Here you can see them in the basement of the Sainsbury Wing of the National Gallery, against dark walls, in a dimly lit setting. And in near silence, for visitors do not speak above a whisper.

Let me be candid: as The Independent review makes clear, this is not religious art for the faint of heart. The first room displays the sculpted head of Saint John the Baptist, by Juan de Mesa, with the severed blood vessels, windpipe and spine represented with perfect anatomic accuracy. The bodies of Christ and saints acquire an extraordinary degree of reality. Some statues, like that, lifesize of Saint Ignacius de Loyola, are imagenes de vestir, they wear real cassocks.

It would be a mistake to look at this from a purely artistic standpoint, without taking into account the intensity of the faith behind these images. Yet it is equally impossible to detach oneself from the quality of the works. We are looking at masterpieces of 17th century art.

An 18th century biographer tells us that Gregorio Fernandez, who sculpted the Dead Christ reproduced by The Independent, “did not undertake to make an effigy of Christ our Lord or His Holy Mother without preparing himself first by prayer, fast, penitence and communion, so God would confer His grace upon him and make him succeed.”

Diego Velasquez and Jusepe de Ribera are represented, but Francisco de Zurbaran makes by far the most vivid, profound impression, particularly his Saint Francis Standing in Ecstasy (left).

When Francis’s tomb was open in the 15th century on the order of Pope Nicolas V, one of the accompanying cardinals noted that “it was a strange thing, that a human body, dead for so long, should be in that manner in which it was: for it stood straight up upon his feet… The eyes were open, as those of a living man, and somewhat lifted up to heaven.” Zurbaran depicts here sainthood, prayer, death, a miracle.

Zurbaran gives us another representation of death with this Saint Serapion, painted for the De Profondis (mortuary chapel) of the Mercedarian Order in Seville. Francis looks awake in death, Serapion seems asleep, peaceful after his martyrdom.

Zurbaran St Serapio

Zurbaran St Serapio

This is a rare and beautiful exhibition, perfectly curated and not to be missed if you happen to visit London this month.

Until January 24, 2010 at the National Gallery, London

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