When I was in London last month, I visited a couple of churches with an English friend who is a walking encyclopedia about that great city. Although it is fascinating to see where Andrew Marvell worshipped or Noël Coward is commemorated, there is something melancholy about visiting C of E churches these days. With every year that passes, the odor of superannuation hangs ever more heavily upon them. There are architectural delights as well as historical concatenations to be enjoyed. But the sense of vacancy is unavoidable. “A serious house on serious earth,” Philip Larkin wrote in “Church Going”:

In whose blent air all our compulsions meet, 
Are recognized, and robed as destinies. 
And that much can never be obsolete, 
Since someone will forever be surprising 
A hunger in himself to be more serious, 
And gravitating with it to this ground, 
Which, he once heard, was proper to grow  wise in, 
If only that so many dead lie round.

A wistful sense of indelible diminishment is what one takes away, less consolation than quiet ruefulness.

How much sharper are the urgencies on view in the taut, fraught exhibition of Spanish religious art in the crypt-like basement space of the National Gallery’s Sainsbury Wing. There is nothing tentative or preterite about the Counter Reformation seriousness locked firmly in these images of suffering and goads to piety. Many of the sixteen paintings in the exhibition are familiar: saints and crucifixions and depositions by such canonical masters as Francisco de Zubarán, Diego Velázquez, and Francisco Pacheco (Velázquez’s teacher and, in time, his father-in-law). Velázquez’s amazing—maybe “terrifying” is more accurate—portrait of The Venerable Mother Jerónima de la Fuente (1620) is particularly memorable. She is not someone you would wish to meet in a dark alley.

But the real news in this exhibition comes in three dimensions: the sixteen painted wooden sculptures whose realism is perhaps more visceral than lifelike. These remarkable objects remind us that the artistic fallout from the Council of Trent differed sharply from country to country. The command to overturn the current of iconoclasm in the Protestant revolt everywhere resulted in greater verisimilitude. But where Caravaggio brought a new lusciousness to Italian painting, in Spain hyper-realism took a more anguished, scarifying turn. These works do not so much appeal to the senses as ambush them.

The didactic point of this exhibition is to recover the place of sculpture in our understanding of the art of the period, a place occupied by painters as well as sculptors. Not only was learning to paint on sculpture part of the normal training of a painter, but also many paintings notably strive for the look of three dimensionality. Zubarán’s celebrated 1627 Christ on the Cross (which many American readers will have seen at the Art Institute of Chicago) communicates an uncanny sense of three dimensionality. The fathomless black background and stagey lighting from the side as well as Zubarán’s exquisite rendering of the folds and creases of Christ’s voluminous loincloth makes the image pop off the canvas like a bas relief. The effect was even more pronounced in its original setting in a tenebrous nook in a chapel at the Dominican friary of San Pablo el Real in Seville. As one contemporary observer reports, “there is a crucifix from [Zubarán’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 sculpture.”

The guild system mandated a strict separation between the sculptors—“carpenters” who could gesso but not polychrome their works—and the painters who animated the sculptures with color. There is a wide range of works on view in this compact exhibition. At one end of the emotional spectrum are meditative works like Saint Francis Borgia (c. 1624) and Saint Ignatius Loyola (1610), collaborations between Francisco Pacheco and Juan Martinez Montañés, whose sculptural skill earned him the soubriquet “the god of wood.” These are quiet, almost cerebral works whose corporality is palpable but elevated. At the other end of the spectrum are such grisly images as Gregorio Fernández’s Ecce Homo (before 1621), which glories in the gory wounds of Christ flagellated, or his Dead Christ (1625–30), in which the painted bark of a cork tree is used, quite effectively, to suggested coagulated blood. Perhaps the ne plus ultra of these studies in gruesomeness is Juan de Mesa’s sculpture of the “freshly decollated” head of John the Baptist. “The trachea, oesophagus and paraspinal muscles have been accurately depicted,” the catalogue cheerfully informs us. “The swollen eyelids and the lifeless eyes beneath, as well as the half-open mouth, revealing meticulously carved and painted teeth, are all realised with macabre precision.” Indeed.

Saint John of the Cross (who spent part of his youth in a sculptor’s workshop) wrote of the usefulness of polychromed sculptures as a devotional aid. One surviving contract for a sculpture of the crucifixion by Pacheco and Montañés specified that Christ was “to be alive, before He had died, with the head inclined towards the right side, looking to any person who might be praying at the foot of the crucifix, as if Christ himself were speaking to him.” The catalogue illustration of the work shows that the artists followed those instructions to the letter.

Still, I suspect it will be difficult for most modern viewers to appreciate these works in anything like their original intention. No matter what our religious filiation, most of us are too Larkinesque to respond to these images as invitations to transcendence. The power of these works is incontrovertible; their significance is ambiguous. The exhibition’s premise, encapsulated in its title, is that these works made the sacred “real,” that they brought the sacred “to life.” I wonder if it is wholly anachronistic to suggest that it is not so much the sacred that is made real in these works as a certain obsession with suffering. These works may have arisen out of religious devotion. They stand, however, in a direct line with such very secular, and very Spanish, works as Goya’s The Disasters of War.

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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 28 Number 4, on page 45
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