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Tuesday, 22 December 2009

Exhibitions – The Sacred Made Real – National Gallery

Star rating – 10/10

Anything that has the honour of being Andrew Graham-Dixon’s exhibition of the year has got to be worth a visit in my book. And this exhibition of Spanish painting and sculpture from the seventeenth century is an amazing experience. For these are not works of art that are usually on display in a gallery – these are sacred statues and pictures more usually used for veneration and worship by Spanish Catholics. And for believers like myself the experience was a truly moving and deep one, but I know of non believers who have been similarly moved by its beauty and awe inspiring detail.

The decapitated head of John the Baptist from the Cathedral in Seville starts the proceedings, and is gruesome in the extreme, with its graphic detail of his severed windpipe. The rich golden detail on the gilding of the gown of the Virgin of the Immaculate Conception is amazing. This sculpture from 1628 is by Juan Martinez Montanes, but these sculptors were not allowed to paint their works due to the strict guild system in place in Spain at that time. That could only be completed by members of the guild of painters.

The sculpture of the head of St John of God, an important local saint of Granada, shows a beautiful young man who has an aura of sensitivity and humility. This artist, Alonso Cano, broke the rules of the guild system as he both sculpted and painted this piece himself. There are also many beautiful images of monks and nuns, such as Saint Francis in Meditation by Francisco de Zubaran. Saint Francis of Assisi was one of the most revered saints in seventeenth century Spain. Here we see dramatic pictures of him using shadow to depict him at prayer.

The sculpture of Cristo de los Desamparados (Christ of the Helpless) by Montanes is beautiful, moving and gruesome at the same time. It is 400 years old and still an object of veneration in its home in a Seville church. The bodily detail depicted here is appallingly accurate in showing his suffering. Pedro de Mena’s sculpture of Mary Magdalene meditating on the crucifixion, and how the greatest sacrifice was made for her's and the whole world’s sins, is magnificent in the facial expression of empathy and love that is achieved. The beautiful head of the Virgin of Sorrows, again by Mena, shows the grieving mother of Christ with red eyes and crystal tears for her beloved son.

But there are two stand out pieces for me from the rest of this excellent exhibition. One is a painting – Christ on the Cross – by Zubaran from 1627, although the detail and technique used is such that it almost looks like a sculpture. The staggeringly realistic image of the crucified Lord is painted on a black background to give it an even greater impact, and to allow us to appreciate his full suffering. And the other is a sculpture by Gregorio Fernandez of the Dead Christ, showing him laid out immediately after his crucifixion The details shown here are amazing. It is as if he has just been laid out and is not yet cold. The wounds on his hands, feet and side almost glisten with half congealed blood. The glass eyes and ivory teeth add to the effect. It is stunning, and awe inspiring and almost moved me to tears. And that is an experience that I have never before had in an art gallery. A fantastic exhibition which stirs up a real mix of emotions - between appreciation for the beauty of the art, and admiration for and veneration of its subject matter.

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