New Exhibition: The Sacred Made Real – Spanish Painting & Sculpture 1600-1700

Beginning February 28th and continuing through May 31st, a new exhibition on the Golden Age of Spanish painting and sculpture entitled “The Sacred Made Real – Spanish Painting & Sculpture 1600-1700” will be shown at the National Gallery of Art in Washington D.C. Many of the pieces have never been seen outside of the convents and churches where they reside in Spain. The show opened at the National Gallery in London at the end of last year, and is now traveling to D.C. The show will be opened by H.R.H. the Infanta Cristina, Duchess of Palma and youngest daughter of the King of Spain, who is currently residing in Bethesda, Maryland.

Unfortunately, because of the delicate state of preservation of some of the pieces, the Washington show will be smaller than that in London. Some of the works had to be taken by truck to London, but since this is not possible to the U.S. and the Spanish government did not want to risk damaging the pieces by shipping or flying them across the Atlantic, a more compact version of the exhibition will be presented to DC visitors. Fortunately one of the most amazing pieces from the show, a much-venerated and huge, life sized sculpture of Jesus known as the “Christ of the Helpless” by Juan Martínez Montañés housed in a convent in Seville (an image of which is reproduced below), will be making the trip.

Spanish art from this period, particularly that of a religious nature, tends to have certain distinguishing characteristics. First and foremost, there is a profound attention paid to realism in the portrayal of the human figure, both in painting and in sculpture. A suffering Christ or a Mater Dolorosa really appears to be suffering, complete with furrowed brows, tears, sweat, and blood. Second, even when there is baroque ornamentation or gilding, the painting or figure itself is often portrayed in quite a stark, full-on way to the viewer which can be discomforting (and this of course is the point.)

Third, there is a continued fascination with darkness, be it in clothing or in background, as compared to the highly decorated Gothic and Renaissance art which preceded this period. In fact, much of what we think of as being stereotypically Spanish from the age of the Counter Reformation – such as the wearing of very dark colors, attention to quality, texture and sheen in materials such as velvet, silk and leather rather than to patterns and colors – comes from the influence of Castiglione (the inspiration for this blog) a generation before. During his time as Ambassador to the Spanish court, Castigilone’s views on dressing well, but with some austerity, came to be the uniform for Spanish fashion above the showiness favored in France or Italy at the time. To some extent, that influence continues to this day.

In planning the show, the curators were a bit worried about what sort of reaction Protestants in London would have. “In London it was a risk to open this exhibition,” says National Gallery curator Xavier Bray in an interview with Seville’s largest daily [rough translation mine.] “We feared some criticism from Protestants about what could erroneously be interpreted as an invasion of Catholic art. Happily the exact opposite occurred. Spanish sacred painting and sculpture from between 1600-1700 is majestic. I’m interested in its reception in Washington because this art still has a direct relation to the beliefs of the Hispanic community.”

Naturally dear readers, I plan to visit this show, and will provide a review after doing so.

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