Monday, 28 December 2009

The Sacred Made Real

To the National Gallery to view this extraordinary exhibition of Spanish religious sculpture and painting from the seventeenth century: The Sacred Made Real.

As the title suggests, the works on show are religious images - and the majority have not come from art galleries, but from the churches where they remain objects of devotion.

For me the most striking are the sculptures which, according to the rigid craft demarcations of the era, were carved by one artist and later painted by another.

The aim was to create an almost theatrical illusion of reality, which would have been enhanced by the dramatic lighting of the space for which the works were created.

And, of course, the overall intention was to evoke contemplation, awe and sympathy in the viewer, thus inviting him or her to deeper devotion.

The subject matter is uniformly dark: friars contemplate the cross, a hooded Francis of Assisi gazes at a skull, and the head of John the Baptist lies on its plate, every sinew and artery of the severed neck rendered with surgical accuracy.

And then there are the images of Christ's passion: Jesus stands flayed and bleeding; he hangs dying upon the cross; or, as shown above, he lies stark and dead.

The message, expressed with brutal clarity, is of the human, physical reality of Christ's suffering and death: Ecce Homo - behold the man.

The effect, for me, in the darkened rooms of the Sainsbury Wing, was powerful, horrifying and, well, all a bit too much.

I guess it must be to with the presentation of these fearful images in isolation from the story that led up to them - and of the subsequent' third-day' event which transfigures them.

Without the context, the show seemed oppressive, gruesome and deeply morbid - an upmarket chamber of horrors.

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