In 17th-century Spain, a new, more intense kind of realism emerged in art. To revitalize the Catholic Church and counteract Protestantism, painters and sculptors attempted to make images of Christ, the Virgin, and saints as convincing and accessible as possible. This realism was starkly austere, emotionally gripping, and even gory, intended to shock the senses and stir the soul. Many painters of this period, notably Diego Velázquez and Francisco de Zurbarán, are celebrated today, but the sculptors—Juan Martínez Montañés and Pedro de Mena, for example—are largely unknown outside Spain. The sculptures they produced, which were carved in wood and then polychromed (painted in many colors), required enormous skill and resulted in some of the greatest masterpieces of Spanish art.
During this period, sculptors worked very closely with painters, who were taught the art of polychroming sculpture as part of their training. This collaboration led to a new style of painting, one that was vividly naturalistic and that emphasized three-dimensional illusionism. For the first time, some of the finest examples of painting and sculpture from the Spanish Golden Age are juxtaposed here, demonstrating how the two media profoundly influenced each other.
Montañés was one of the most important sculptors working in 17th-century Seville. Popularly known as the "god of wood," he often sent his sculptures to the studio of painter Francisco Pacheco to be polychromed. In 1635, Montañés was called to Madrid to make a likeness of Philip IV in clay. Velázquez portrays the artist as a gentleman-sculptor, dressed in his best attire as he works on the king's portrait. Velázquez marvelously captures the act of creation by leaving the area of the clay model unfinished.
This sculpture is a slightly different, reduced version of one of Mesa's most celebrated life-size Crucifixions, popularly known as the Christ of Love. It was commissioned in 1618 by a confraternity, or religious brotherhood of laymen, in Seville and is still carried through the streets on the evening of Palm Sunday. Mesa's precise style of carving was celebrated in his day for its exaggerated realism and harsh sense of pathos, seen here in Christ's emaciated form, which reveals the outlines of his ribcage.
A painter, with palette and brush at hand, stands before Christ on the cross. He is identifiable as Luke the Evangelist, the patron saint of painters. Zurbarán's dramatic composition, in which the figures are illuminated like actors on a stage, invites viewers to question whether Saint Luke is contemplating a vision of the Crucifixion, or looking at a painting he has just finished or even a sculpture he has polychromed. Zurbarán no doubt knew Juan de Mesa's carvings in Seville (no. 4).
John of the Cross (1542–1591) founded religious communities that became known as the Discalced (shoeless) Carmelites because the friars went barefoot or wore only sandals in empathy with the poor. The author of some of the most transcendent Spanish poetry, John holds one of his books of mystical commentary, The Ascent of Mount Carmel, identified by the miniature mountain (once topped by a cross) rising symbolically from its pages. Gijón was a sculptor from Seville renowned for his ability to carve dramatic works with intense expression. He was only 21 when he was awarded the commission for this sculpture. To comply with his patrons' requirements, he completed it in about six weeks.
Montañés and Pacheco collaborated to produce several versions of the Virgin of the Immaculate Conception throughout their careers. This version likely came from Montañés' workshop and follows closely Pacheco's teachings on how to paint flesh tones and apply the elaborate estofado technique to decorate the drapery. The Virgin's benevolent expression and the naturalism of her pose, youthful face, long brown hair, and mantle falling heavily around her slight body were to have a profound influence on later generations of artists, notably the young Velázquez (no. 10).
At the time Velázquez painted this picture he would have recently graduated from Pacheco's workshop, where he likely had received early training in the art of painting sculpture. Velázquez here introduces a strong sense of three-dimensionality to his figure. X-radiography has revealed that the Virgin's blue mantle initially flowed more freely, as if blown by the wind. Velázquez eventually eliminated the upswept drapery, probably because it interfered with the statuesque quality he wanted to achieve. The folds of the red tunic have piled up on top of the moon, a feature also seen in Montañés' sculpture (no. 9), although Velázquez chose not to follow the sculptor's decorative use of gold leaf.
This sculpture is an imagen de vestir, a mannequin-like figure in which only the head and hands are carved and painted. The rest of the figure is covered in real clothing. The polychromy is a fine example of Pacheco's matte technique, which he believed was more naturalistic for the flesh tones than a glossy varnish. The black tunic, made from cloth stiffened with glue, may have been added in the 19th century.
Francisco Borgia (1510–1572) was a nobleman who spent the first part of his life in the service of the emperor Charles V and his wife, Isabel. After the empress died, Borgia visited her tomb and was so shocked by her putrefied body that he declared he would no longer serve a mortal master and in 1546 joined the Jesuit order. He is represented here meditating on a crowned skull, a symbol of worldly vanity. This portrait is similar to Montañés' sculpture of the saint (no. 14), which Cano may have witnessed Pacheco painting while he was a student in his studio. Cano was equally renowned as a sculptor in his own right.
This portrait is an imagen de vestir, a life-size mannequin dressed in real fabric; only the visible parts of the body, namely the head and hands, were carved. The saint wears a simple cassock but would have been dressed in elaborate liturgical robes on solemn occasions. Carved by Montañés and painted by Pacheco, the work was commissioned by the Jesuits in Seville to mark Borgia's beatification in 1624. Pacheco has applied a darker shade of brown to accentuate Borgia's cheekbones and a black line along the eyelids to emphasize his eyes. Pacheco's final touch was to apply an egg-white varnish to the eyes so that the face, as he wrote, "becomes alive and the eyes sparkle." The figure would have originally held a real skull in its left hand.
Zurbarán portrayed Saint Francis standing upright in a state of ecstasy, just as Pope Nicholas V reputedly found the saint's uncorrupted cadaver when he entered his tomb. The painting depicts the saint as though illuminated by candlelight in a shallow niche, his statuesque presence filling the composition. Casting a shadow against the wall, his habit hangs straight down in long parallel folds, emphasizing the saint's upright posture.
Mena led an extremely successful workshop in Málaga in southern Spain. He both carved and painted his sculptures, allowing him full control over his work. This sculpture may well have been inspired by Zurbarán's painting of the saint (no. 16). To impart a heightened sense of realism, Mena used glass for the eyes, hair for the eyelashes, and rope for the belt, although the figure's small scale belies any attempt at naturalism. The details of the patched habit are scrupulously rendered in this arresting and excellently preserved sculpture, which until this exhibition has never left Toledo Cathedral. A nineteenth-century English traveler described it as "a masterpiece of cadaverous extatic [sic] sentiment."
This sculpture, intended to be seen from close up, was painted with exceptional skill. Blue paint under the pinkish flesh tones suggests the bruising of Christ's skin. The rivulets of blood that trickle down his body are soaked up by the loincloth around his waist. Mena inserted glass eyes into the sockets and used real hair for the eyelashes. The sculpture was made for the illegitimate son of Philip IV, Don Juan of Austria, for his private devotion. The brutal realism would have reminded him that contemplation of suffering was a pathway to true faith and understanding.
Christ, having been bound, whipped, and mocked by soldiers, was presented by Pontius Pilate to the Jews with the words "Ecce homo" ("Behold, the man"). To render the wounds on Christ's back, a layer of ground was removed, and a pinkish red color applied to the layer below. For the bruised and blemished skin, a mixture of blue and pink paint was applied with broad brushstrokes. When the fabric loincloth was removed for restoration in 1989 it revealed that Fernández had initially conceived the figure as totally naked.
Gregorio [Fernández] . . . did not undertake to make an effigy of Christ our Lord or His Holy Mother without preparing himself first by prayer, fast, penitence, and communion, so that God would confer his grace upon him and make him succeed.
— Antonio Palomino, 18th-century Spanish art historian and painter
Velázquez depicts a rarely represented subject: following his flagellation by Roman soldiers, Christ is visited by a Christian soul in the form of a child, accompanied by a guardian angel. The Gospels tell only of Christ's scourging, but other religious texts dwelled on the moments after his flagellation. The figures of the angel and Christian soul seem to have been taken from life, as indicated by the angel's strapped-on wings, which look like a prop from an artist's studio. Because painters, unlike sculptors, could depict their subjects from only one vantage point, Velázquez used the gestures of the child and angel to direct attention to Christ's back, reminding viewers of the unseen wounds he had suffered.
Known as Christ of the Helpless, this magnificent sculpture represents Christ already dead, the weight of his pale, slender form pulling at the nails that attach his hands to the cross. Blood trickles down his chest and congeals around his wounds. The brilliantly carved, voluminous loincloth gathered around Christ's waist is testimony to Montañés' nickname, "the god of wood." Similar life-size polychromed sculptures would have been familiar to artists such as Zurbarán (no. 23), who is indeed known to have painted a life-size carving of a Crucifixion early in his career. The purpose of such sculptures was to inspire awe, pity, and identification with Christ's sacrifice.
Zurbarán designed this painting for an arched alcove above an altar in a chapel of the Dominican friary of San Pablo in Seville (no. 24). Nailed to a rough-hewn cross, Christ's lifeless body emerges from impenetrable blackness, illuminated only by the bright light from an unseen window on the right. The scene is devoid of narrative detail, forcing the viewer to focus on Christ's sacrifice. In the luminous flesh and crisp folds of the loincloth, Zurbarán takes the illusion of reality to a new level.
There is a crucifix from his [Zurbarán's] hand which is shown behind a grille of the chapel (which has little light), and everyone who sees it and does not know believes it to be a sculpture.
—Antonio Palomino, 18th-century Spanish art historian and painter, on Zurbarán's Christ on the Cross
The Magdalene renounced her dissolute ways when she became one of Christ's followers. After the Crucifixion, she adopted a life of austerity and penitence. Here, she meditates on the small crucifix that she holds in her left hand. She steps forward in a dynamic pose, her right hand clasped to her breast, overwhelmed by the empathy she feels for Christ's suffering. Mary wears a simple shift that was carved to appear as though coarsely woven from grass.
Christ's body is here placed center stage on a crumpled white sheet, surrounded by the kneeling figures of Saint John the Evangelist, the Virgin, and Mary Magdalene. Ribera's staging of the scene is reminiscent of the groups of religious sculptures on the floats carried in processions during Holy Week in Spain. X-radiography reveals that the Magdalene's face was originally much closer to Christ's feet. She was probably actually kissing them, just as sacred images were venerated by worshippers before being carried through the streets.
Ardent prayer before sculptures and paintings of Christ led some to experience a mystical union with him. Saint Bernard reputedly received Christ into his arms after praying in front of a sculpture of Christ on the cross. To communicate Bernard's visionary state, Ribalta shows him with his eyes closed and a rapturous smile on his face. The scene is remarkable for the way in which Christ seems transformed from a wood sculpture into a living being.
Born in Britain, Serapion (c. 1179–1240) traveled to Spain and joined the Order of the Mercedarians, which takes its name from the Spanish word for mercy, merced. According to a 17th-century Spanish account of his martyrdom, Serapion later returned to the British Isles where he was captured by pirates. Bound by his hands and feet to two poles, he was tortured to death.
Zurbarán has shown Serapion moments after the ordeal, eliminating any gory detail; instead Serapion appears to be asleep. He wears the white habit of the Mercedarians, with the shield of the order pinned to the front. Zurbarán's rendering of the drapery and the way in which light and shadow fall on its deep folds endow the saint with a physicality and grandeur that belie his broken body. With arms outstretched and head slumped against the chest, the pose echoes that of Christ on the cross.