Spanish art often dwells in that dark hour before the dawn. The lights are down. The heavens have closed. The eyes adjust while you feel around. Forms lurk as colors shift in unstable ways. Other national schools have light and lift and plenty of it. Spanish art pushes down and holds you in its shadowy grip.

The appeal of Spanish art is not always immediate, but, like an acquired taste, it can be that much more rewarding to the palate. A little over a century ago, the philanthropist Archer M. Huntington developed an appetite for the Spanish style. The Hispanic Society of America, his 1904 Beaux-Arts creation on Audubon Terrace at 155th Street and Broadway, in Washington Heights, became New York’s treasure house of Spanish art, literature, and more. Whenever I am asked about my favorite local institution, the society is always at the top of my list. No other collection in the New World, and perhaps even the Old, can rival certain strengths of its holdings. Paintings by El Greco, Velázquez, and Goya, murals by Sorolla, sculpture, pottery, prints, photography, and ironwork, not to mention an unparalleled library of Spanish books, maps, and manuscripts (all still on card catalogue): this free-to-visit institution is counted as a major discovery by anyone who sets foot inside and goes about exploring its many nooks and crannies. The only problem, and it’s a big one, is that the society has been closed to the public since 2017.

Installation view of “Treasures from the Hispanic Society Library” at the Grolier Club, New York. Photo: Charlie Rubin.

That the Hispanic Society remains an undiscovered country has been both a blessing and a curse to the institution. Geographically remote, largely self-contained, the society has been able to carry about its business of preserving, presenting, and even acquiring great works of Spanish culture seemingly beyond the frenetic mandates of today’s museum-industrial complex. At the same time, the society’s aging infrastructure and, historically at least, rather outsider position in the world of philanthropy have kept its future in doubt and its art and objects vulnerable to the exigencies of the moment. In 2017 the society’s main building, which did not even have climate control, was closed for a comprehensive renovation. It remains shuttered today as its reopening schedule seems forever pushed back. We can only hope it reopens soon, and hope that when it does the society will be merely a better version of itself, not a new-normal something else. These days, if something is perfect just the way it is, it almost certainly has to change.

It greatly helps that Philippe de Montebello, director emeritus of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, has taken up the cause of the Hispanic Society by serving as the chairman of the society’s board of trustees. The words “museum” and “library” have been added to its branding, lest you think the society were some kind of social club. And the society has maintained its activities by organizing exhibitions of its collection in the United States and abroad. In 2017 two hundred of its treasures traveled to the Prado in the society’s first international loan exhibition. Major exhibitions have since been mounted in Houston, Cincinnati, Mexico City, and elsewhere.

This past season we have had a chance to consider two of the Hispanic Society’s strengths with concurrent exhibitions in New York: “Gilded Figures: Wood and Clay Made Flesh,” on view at the Audubon Terrace campus in the society’s new East Building Gallery through January 9; and “Treasures from the Hispanic Society Library,” which was on view at the Grolier Club through December 18, 2021.1

Pedro de Mena, Saint Acisclusca. 1680, Polychromed and gilded wood, on view at the Hispanic Society Museum & Library. Photo: Hispanic Society Museum & Library.

Polychrome Renaissance and baroque sculpture has been collected by the Hispanic Society since its inception. Huntington first pursued them at a time when the red-blooded religious works were largely overlooked by Anglo-Protestant taste. The society has since supplemented his acquisitions, aided by the fact that only very recently has the market heated up (or, at least, warmed up) for these arresting works. Half of the twenty-two sculptures on view in “Gilded Figures: Wood and Clay Made Flesh” are in fact acquisitions made since the 1990s. These works are now gathered together with the highlights of Huntington’s original collecting and one loan. Patrick Lenaghan, the head curator of prints, photographs, and sculpture at the institution, has organized the exhibition in partnership with his colleague Hélène Fontoira-Marzin, the head of conservation—the person who has been central to the restoration of these delicate objects and the reason we now find them so powerful today.

While polychromy can be found throughout European art, it was the Spanish who took the form to its living, breathing conclusions—merging the crafts of woodworking and clay-sculpting with the skill of painting. The verisimilitude, of “wood and clay made flesh,” went against the ideals of neoclassical statuary, and it can still strike us as unusual today, more mannequin-like than high sculpture. Yet the results give Spanish devotional sculpture a life of its own. The society’s survey of twenty-two of these sculptures follows the work from the Spanish Renaissance through the baroque—and on to the New World, as local craftsmen merged Mesoamerican design with Spanish tradition.

Starting clockwise to the left of the door, in a rather jumbled visual presentation, the exhibition begins with The Resurrection (ca. 1485–1500). This polychromed and gilded pine altarpiece is attributed to the late-Gothic master Gil de Siloé. Here the risen body of Christ is not so much moving up as sliding down the top of his tomb into a space populated by devoted disciples and snoozing soldiers. His chest, his legs, and especially his hands have an uncanny corporeality. The message is to be present. The Resurrection would be one thing you don’t want to sleep through.

Juan de Juni, Saint Mary Magdaleneca. 1545, Polychrome wood and wax, on view at the Hispanic Society Museum & Library. Photo: Hispanic Society Museum & Library.

Polychromy lent itself to the creation of reliquary objects, with lifelike forms designed to contain the actual forms of life. Juan de Juni’s Saint Martha and Saint Mary Magdalene (both ca. 1545) are busts that were originally animated by the relics placed on wax seals covering their hearts. Here the saints in different modes of contemplation serve as pendants to each other. Their gilded garments are accentuated by an overpaint that is then scored to reveal the gold beneath.

The most astonishing example here must be Pedro de Mena’s bust of Saint Acisclus (ca. 1680). The saint was a third-century Roman in Córdoba who converted to Christianity and refused to apostasize. De Mena captures him in his moment of martyrdom, as his throat is slit. His furrowed brow, his dark glass eyes, his slight build, his tousled hair, and his parted lips revealing ivory teeth all speak to the emotions of the moment. A thin line of blood drips from his neck as he contemplates his final breath. This detail, overpainted with flesh tones in later years, was brought back to bloody life through the society’s restoration work.

Luisa Roldán’s baroque tableaux of Magdalene, Catherine, and the flight from Egypt, all from 1692–1706, reveal the extra level of detail that can be imparted through painting terracotta rather than wood. Practically miniatures, these packed cinematic scenes would have been intended for private devotion and, despite their complexities, were created from single pieces of clay.

Andrea de Mena, Mater dolorosa and Ecce homo, both 1675, Polychromed wood, on view at the Hispanic Society Museum & Library. Photo: Hispanic Society Museum & Library. 

Andrea de Mena, the daughter of Pedro, carried on her father’s legacy even after she joined the convent across the street from the family workshop. Her time with the nuns did little to temper her inherited sense for emotion and gore. Andrea’s Ecce homo and Mater dolorosa, both from 1675, incorporate tiny ivory teeth, hair, eyelashes, and at one time a crown of thorns to give these works their extra fleshiness. With the Ecce homo, or “Christ as Man of Sorrows,” the blood gushing from his wounds is made from red glass that has been dripped onto his head. Each work comes with its original seventeenth-century glass case, encapsulating these emotions in gilded three-dimensional frames.

As Spain brought her saints to the New World, she also brought her art. St. James the Moor-slayer, or Santiago Matamoros, was the apostle who was taken up by the Spanish for miraculously appearing at the battle of Clavijo, itself a mythical fight that became a rallying cry for the expulsion of Muslims from Spain. From the Iberian to the Yucatán peninsula, Santiago Matamoros became the patron saint of the conquistadors in their colonization of Mexico. A 1600 relief by an unknown Mexican sculptor features the equestrian saint trampling the Moors under hoof—but it also works Aztec patterns into the saddle and an unusually carved frame. Everything was not conquered after all.

For the many strengths of the Hispanic Society’s art collection, its library of books, arts, and manuscripts is even more rarified. One reason for this was Huntington’s own self-guided collecting practices. So as not to deplete Spain of her artistic patrimony, Huntington generally collected Spanish art abroad, gathering works that had already left the country. For the creation of his library, however, which he started first, he imposed no such self-restrictions. His literary sources were that much more abundant and rich than his potential artistic supply. When it came to the books, he could tap into the main arteries of Spanish heritage.

Installation view of “Treasures from the Hispanic Society Library” at the Grolier Club, New York. Photo: Charlie Rubin.

“Treasures from the Hispanic Society Library,” organized by the society’s former director Mitchell A. Codding and its current curator of manuscripts and rare books, John O’Neill, presented many of the highlights of this aspect of the society’s collection. And what highlights they are: a 1605 copy of Don Quixote, hand-drawn maps of the New World, Torah fragments from Andalusia, and a letter from Charles V to Henry VIII regarding his challenging of Francis I to a duel over the Treaty of Madrid. The standout of the show might have been the small Black Book of Hours, by the circle of Willem Vrelant from around 1458—a haunting work, most likely marking a death, that is written on black vellum. The Grolier Club exhibition supplemented its elegant installation with informative labels giving the backgrounds for each of these objects. When it came to the story of the works, you could hang on every word.

It should be said that for all of these highlights, there is much more in the society’s archive that was not on display. At three by eight feet, Juan Vespucci’s Map of the World, from 1526, may have been too large and delicate to travel. This astonishing chart, a centerpiece of the society’s collection, is by the nephew of Amerigo, the man who can lay claim to giving two of our seven continents their names. Juan (i.e., Giovanni) Vespucci was Amerigo’s successor as chief pilot (“pilato desus ma[jes]ta,” as he wrote on his map) for the House of Trade in Seville.

The Florentine explorer took a rather expansive view of Spain’s global claims and decorated his detailed map with the flora and fauna of its more exotic domains. The last time I saw this map in person, it was in the society’s dusty private library. Having flagged me down in an empty gallery, a friendly guard waved me over and gave the library’s door a gentle knock. The librarian answered and ushered me inside, bringing me past the card catalogue and piles of books that seemed to be overflowing in the small study room—itself just the forward-facing end of the library’s extensive closed network of stacks, which runs beneath the terrace’s public plaza. On one of the walls was a curtain. The librarian pulled a cord. Eso, there was the Vespucci.

The Hispanic Society presents the world through such expansive visions of Spain. I look forward to the time when the map-lines again point the way here. Until then, we are grateful for whatever glimpses and glances we can get of these many sparkling treasures.

1 “Gilded Figures: Wood and Clay Made Flesh” opened at the Hispanic Society Museum and Library, New York, on October 15, 2021, and remains on view through January 9, 2022. “Treasures from the Hispanic Society Library” was on view at the Grolier Club, New York, from September 28 through December 18, 2021.

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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 40 Number 5, on page 75
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