The Fabric of Saints

This Saturday past I re-visited the small but lovely exhibition “The Sacred Made Real” at the National Gallery of Art, before attending the latest screening in the Catalan film festival. As I have written previously, the show features a number of Spanish Baroque period paintings and sculptures which, to those not familiar with the sacred arts in Spain, will no doubt come as something of a revelation (for lack of a better term.) The paintings themselves are wonderful, but the sculptures are what tend to catch the visitor’s eye. Spanish sculptors took pains to exhibit as much realistic detail as possible in their figures of Christ and the saints, applying different finishes and materials to achieve a kind of hyper-realistic effect.

One piece which drew my attention on this second visit is the statue of St. Mary Magdalen done in the style of Pedro de Mena, and which hails from the Church of St. Michael in Valladolid. I did not realize when I first walked through the exhibition that the shift which the figure is wearing is actually carved out of wood, rather than being woven fabric soaked in glue. The amount of detail in this portion of the sculpture – whose gown admittedly looks a little bit like a piece of Fantasy Island-era rattan furniture upholstery – is truly extraordinary.

It put me in mind of a compelling sculpture of another early Christian saint, that of “The Virgin Martyr St. Cecilia”, which is displayed at her shrine at the church of St. Cecilia in Trastevere Rome. In 1599 while the church was being renovated, her tomb was opened in front of a number of witnesses, and St. Cecilia’s body was found to be incorrupt. Fortunately for us, one of these witnesses was the sculptor Stefano Maderno, who sketched what he saw and then produced a marble sculpture representing what he had seen. If we were not certain about this, on the base is a plaque which reads:

Behold the body of the most holy virgin Cecilia whom I myself saw lying incorrupt in her tomb. I have in this marble expressed for thee the same saint in the very same posture of body.

Maderno it must be said, is one of the many Italian sculptors working in the post-Mannerist/pre-Baroque period whose name is not well-known, in part because he only had this one shining moment of brilliance, and because later in his career he was eclipsed by Bernini. Comparing his St. Cecilia to some of his other works, there is a simplicity and immediacy in the former that is lost in the latter. To my mind, this is one reason why his view seems as truthful an image of what he actually saw as that of a photojournalist snapping photos in the midst of the Blitz. There is also something of the sacrificial lamb in this work, which reminds me of a beautiful painting called “Agnus Dei” (now in the Prado), showing a slaughtered lamb against a dark background, by the great Spanish old master Francisco de Zurbarán.

What made me think of this sculpture, while studying the Magdalen in the National Gallery’s show, was the way in which Maderno treated the veil or head covering on St. Cecilia’s body. The turns and fold of the cloth, almost like how a lady will pile up her hair underneath a towel after having bathed, is delicately and realistically done. The viewer wants to reach out and brush aside the fabric so as to see the face or the hair of the figure. It is all the more remarkable for having been evoked so effectively in Maderno’s working of the marble.

Whether the sculpture of the Magdalen from Valladolid is by de Mena or by one of his followers, I believe whoever sculpted the “fabric” which wraps the figure managed to equal in wood what Maderno did in stone with the head wrappings on his St. Cecilia. The realism and tangible quality in both is remarkably tactile. Those of my readers who are in Washington, or who will find themselves here between now and May 31st, the day the National Gallery’s show ends, would do well to visit “The Sacred Made Real” to judge for themselves.

The Virgin Martyr St. Cecilia (1610)
by Stefano Maderno
Church of St. Cecilia in Trastevere, Rome

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