Sunday, 29 November 2009

The Sacred Made Real (National Gallery London, 21 Oct 2009 - 24 Jan 2010)

Francisco de Zurbarán (1598-1664), 'Saint Luke contemplating the Crucifixion', 1630s. Oil on canvas. 105 X 84 cm.
Madrid, Museo Nacional del Prado (Cat. 4/X6135).

This beautiful exhibition traces a very interesting interaction in seventeenth-century Spanish art between sculptors, who carved and then prepared their work with white gesso, and painters, who finished the work, delicately layering it with flesh tones of remarkable verisimilitude (a process known as encarnación). Many of these wooden pieces remain relatively unknown outside of Spain and indeed many remain outside the purview of standard histories of art. This is because they are not works of art at all, but rather objects of devotion still in use. But as the curator of the exhibition, Zavier Bray, clearly shows, they are of an extremely high artistic quality. What he also notes is the influence of these sculptures on artists. In the example of Valázquez's 'Christ after the Flagellation contemplated by the Christian Soul' (probl. 1628-9), he notes that the little boy, representing the soul, is being invited by the angel to look at Christ's back. This was a space in some sculptural pieces that was reserved for particularly bloody and gruesome attention and Velázquez's experience as a painter of such figures of Christ would have easily given him an insight into such compositions.

There is something very remarkable about many of these pieces and it is hard to remain unmoved by them. Particularly powerful is the 'Sala de Profundis', Room 6, which has a few benches by the walls and a single image, Zurbarán's 'Saint Serapion', 1628. It hung in the mortuary chapel of the Mercedarian monastery in Seville. The space is quiet and sad. The piece is understated. It will remain with me for some time.

Go to see this exhibition.

Francisco de Zurbarán (1598-1664), 'Christ on the Cross', 1627. Oil on canvas. 290.3 X 165.5 cm
The Art Institute of Chicago, Robert A. Waller Memorian Fund, 1954.15.

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