The National Gallery’s current exhibition, The Sacred Made Real, is one of the most original and thought-provoking of the past year (it finishes on January 24th). It brings together some of the greatest Spanish paintings of the 17th century, including works by Velasquez and Zubaran, alongside a number of painted wooden statues of the period, most of which have never left Spain before.
These statues, which have tended to be dismissed as little more than kitsch by Northern European critics, are a revelation: exquisitely made, beautifully painted and full of emotion. There are monks, there are saints and sinners — Pedro de Mena’s Mary Magdalene Meditating on the Crucifixion is particularly striking, and you won’t forget Juan de Mesa’s gruesome severed Head Of John The Baptist — but above all there are Christs, pleading, dead or dying, suspended from the cross.
If you want to understand a religion, look at its art. This is unmistakably Spanish Christianity: where Northern European is restrained and closed, and Italian celebratory and lush, this is raw and unashamedly emotive, almost literally wearing its heart on its sleeve. This is the religion that pours out of Spain’s Moorish heritage, a savage Inquisition and the scorching, unforgiving sun, and these are not the stern, dignified Christs that you’d seen in a German cathedral but stripped and bleeding, butchered to death. And they are brutally realistic, not just in their modeling and colour, but often in materials too: real cloth folds around their loins, some have teeth of carved ivory, and glass eyes give them a spooky, liquid stare. This is a faith that sees Christ’s suffering not as a story from the past but as a day-to-day reminder of just what his sacrifice entailed.
There’s something rather ghoulish, almost car-crash about these statues: they feel less like something you’d see in a cathedral than a clip you’d see on YouTube, then wish you hadn’t looked. They’re painfully explicit, a pornography of pain, and you can’t help wondering if it became a bit competitive: who could render the most realistic, most authentically upsetting model of a man in agony?
And that’s what’s strange and powerful about them. Most art, even still art, is in essence animation: bringing what has never lived to life. And most paintings are pure character: there’s realism, yes, but it’s all in the service of the story. The setting, the other characters, the frame, all serve, however “real” the portrayal, to illustrate a narrative we’ve all known all our lives: what we’re seeing on the cross is Jesus, in his various pictorial forms. These statues, on the other hand, aspire to documentary: they are (mostly) life-size replicas of appalling human suffering. And the effect actually shocks you from the story into real human pity, in a way that paintings rarely ask.
It’s a strange and slightly uncomfortable experience, this show, and the atmosphere in the Sainsbury Wing basement is hushed and respectful, half gallery, half crypt. Whatever the power of painting — and there’s some magnificent art here too — these statues deliver a shiver that very few images alone can match. They may be overwrought and glossy, but they are, nonetheless, a potent demonstration both of a raw faith in religion, and a real fear of human pain.