I’ve been meaning to go see the Sacred Made Real exhibit at the National Gallery for quite some time, but couldn’t quite convince anyone to go with me. I knew that it was an exhibit of creepy Spanish religious art, but I fully underestimated the level of torturous hyper-realistic portrayal of the suffering surrounding the Passion of the Christ or the fanatical (?) religious devotion of saints like our friend Francis Borgia below.
Click on the pic to see other images from the exhibition courtesy of The Guardian
I’ve long been a fan of one of the principle artists in the exhibition Francisco Zurbaran whose masterly painting of saints demonstrate a sense of drama as well as realism. We even have a reproduction of his Santa Margarita above our fireplace. (She was a saint often called on by women to provide help in childbirth, but despite holding a position of honor in our house it didn’t work for me.) I knew I would kick myself if I didn’t take the chance to see some his work that I hadn’t seen before.
And I wasn’t disappointed. But I hadn’t realised that the point of the exhibition was about how Spanish polychrome wooden sculpture influence painters like Zurbaran. But it’s an influence that we don’t often recognize because these scultptures – astonishing works of art – aren’t recognised as art in the same way that paintings or other sculpture are. And that is because many of these are still used in religious processions and are part of the sacred decorations of churches in Spain today.
The realism of the sculptures is amazing. The muscles and windpipe in the neck of the severed head of John the Baptist. The scourge marks, bruises and blood on the back of Jesus. The unwashed body of a Dead Christ. The detail of all this so painstakingly captured. The curator of the exhibit described them as so perfectly rendered as to become beautiful, but I’m not sure I’d go quite that far. It was fascinating for certain – a glimpse into religious grotesquery like a Flannery O’Connor novel. But yet it was also oddly stripped of its religious significance within the exhibit space of the National Gallery.
There isn’t much time left to see this exhibit, it closes on the 24th of January. It was creepy, but brilliant. And very popular with the ecclesiastical set. As I was leaving tonight, I saw more dog collars than I’ve seen in some time. Clearly a hot ticket for vicars and the morbid like me.