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National Gallery Celebrates the Sacred in New Show

Intensely realistic Spanish religious art, some of which has not been seen outside Spanish monasteries and churches, will go on display Sunday at the National Gallery of Art. The exhibition, “The Sacred Made Real: Spanish Painting and Sculpture, 1600-1700,” features 11 paintings and 11 sculptures created during the period referred to by scholars as the Spanish Golden Age.

The subject matter — images of saints, the Virgin Mary and Jesus Christ — is not exceptional. The style, which portrays Biblical scenes and religious figures with incredible attention to detail, is what makes the exhibition well worth visiting.

Many of the paintings, such as Francisco de Zurbarán’s “Christ on the Cross,” have an almost photographic quality to them: The cloth encircling Christ’s waist seems to hang off the frame.

Some of the portrayals of the wounded and suffering Christ are almost unsettling for their viscerally gory detail. In Gregorio Fernández’s “Ecce Homo,” Christ’s back is pockmarked with wounds lent a flesh-like quality by the use of pieces of torn and painted-over canvas. Pedro de Mena’s “Christ as the Man of Sorrows” displays the martyr from the torso up, a profusion of blood coursing down his body and deep lacerations carved into his back. A look of deep weariness shines dully out of glass eyes set into the sculpture.

During the upheaval of the Protestant Reformation, the lifelike quality of religious art commissioned by the Catholic church in Spain — particularly the Dominican, Carthusian and Franciscan orders — helped to attract adherents by lending a more intimate, tangible quality to spirituality, according to Xavier Bray, an assistant curator of European paintings at the National Gallery in London, who spearheaded the project.

“These works basically allow you to have a very personal relationship to Christ and his passion,” he said. “I think this image of realism is very much the language that was used to bring back the faithful to the essence of the Catholic faith.”

Such devotional objects continue to resonate with Spain’s large Catholic community. The week between Palm Sunday and Easter Sunday is referred to as Semana Santa, or the Spanish Holy Week, and among other rituals it features evening processions of the pious, who often carry devotional figures as they pass through the streets. The faithful will gather to pay homage to symbols that offer a point of entry into the numinous.

“The devotion for these images is incredibly spiritual and physical — people see them, touch them, kiss them,” Bray said.

Juan Martínez Montañés’ “Christ on the Cross,” one of the sculptures within the collection, is traditionally hoisted during the week. In his opening remarks, Earl Powell, director of the National Gallery, touched on the unprecedented opportunity to view objects in the collection out of their traditional context.

“We are indebted to the Spanish church for allowing many of these pieces to be away from their homes, especially during Holy Week,” he said.

One of the gems of the collection, de Mena’s “Saint Francis Standing in Ecstasy,” had never before left the Toledo cathedral. De Mena incorporated glass and human hair to enhance the realism of the sculpture, which Bray praised “as a perfect work of art.”

A central point of the exhibition is the interplay between painting and sculpture, distinct mediums that were nonetheless intertwined in Spanish Baroque art. Despite a strict division between painters guilds and sculptors guilds, the two overlapped with the technique of polychromy, in which painters would paint over existing sculptures.

“All painters in Spain had to paint sculpture,” Bray said. “It was part of their training. It was a very lucrative business because sculpture was very much the dominant art form within religious commissions. There’s this competition between who does it better — is it sculpture, which is naturally three-dimensional, or is it painting, which can simulate three-dimensional?”

By juxtaposing paintings and sculptures that depict the same subject matter, “The Sacred Made Real” underscores a conversation between works created decades apart and in different mediums.

For example, Montañés’ polychromed wood sculpture “The Virgin of the Immaculate Conception” precedes the Diego Velázquez painting “The Immaculate Conception” by about a decade, but both portray the Virgin Mary, gazing serenely off to the side, her head encircled by a ring of stars. The sculpture is more ornate, with gleaming gold and intricate floral patterns shining out of Mary’s robe, but both images strike similar poses and convey similar airs of quiet, imperturbable piety.

The exhibition’s design seeks to emulate the ambience of the churches and monasteries in which the pieces normally reside. Several of the works are set before arches, the light is dimmed and some of the pieces stand before small altars to accommodate those who wish to pray. “The lighting is dark enough to allow you to feel spiritual, and if you need to kneel, you can,” Bray said. “We had lots of people praying in London.”

The National Gallery of Art collaborated with the National Gallery of London, where the exhibition was on display earlier in the year, and drew support from the Ministry of Culture of Spain, the Spain-USA Foundation and Spanish Embassy.

“The Sacred Made Real” will run through May 31. In addition to the paintings and sculptures, it includes two films: “The Sacred Made Real” explains the significance of the works, while “Making a Spanish Polychrome Sculpture” describes the technique of polychromy.

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