Xavier Bray. The Sacred Made Real. Spanish Painting and Sculpture 1600-1700. London: National Gallery Press, 2009. 208 pp. $65. Review by JOSEPH R. JONES, UNIVERSITY OF KENTUCKY.
Like other conservative Spanish art forms that non-Spanish historians have neglected or, worse, rejected as kitsch, Spain's polychrome wooden religious sculpture is as worthy of serious attention for its beauty, emotional content, and display of exquisite craftsmanship as the colorless marble saints of, say, the Italian Renaissance, which even those who disapprove of religious statuary on principle have been taught to appreciate. The prejudice against the venerable tradition of painted statuary has also affected otherwise sympathetic art historians, who have been intimidated by taste-makers and have failed to integrate these unique Spanish creations into mainstream European art history. A reevaluation of Spanish (and indeed of pan-Iberian) religious imagery is long overdue. The examples that have miraculously survived the social upheavals that Spain has endured since at least the period of the French Revolution constitute a class of works that merit comparison with the world's finest religious sculpture, like the similar and much-admired German pre-Reformation or Japanese polychrome wooden statuary. Thanks to the work of a large team of experts headed by Xavier Bray of London's National Gallery, English and American art lovers who have never seen supreme examples of this Spanish form had the opportunity during 2009-2010 to study the sculpture--and the paintings which it often inspired--in the neutral atmosphere of two great museums, where the light, background, and isolation of the pieces provided an entirely new way of seeing them. The Ahmanson Foundation, which sponsored the exhibition and the magnificent catalogue, deserves universal gratitude for yet another example of its enlightened philanthropy.
It is the catalogue that is the object of this review. It begins with a list of acknowledgements that reveals how complicated and costly it is to assemble such an exhibition, since the objects borrowed come not just from museums but from religious institutions where the images are still the focus of centuries-old veneration.
Xavier Bray's introductory essay argues that many Spanish painters, like Zurbaran and Velazquez, received training in the decoration of the "hyper-real sculptures" that are the centerpieces of the exhibition and that the visual and emotional impact of these lifelike images had a profound influence on artists who grew up observing them in churches and processions. He believes that careful study of the images taught some of Spain's greatest painters how to depict three-dimensional figures on canvas. Zurbaran's remarkable canvas of "Christ on the Cross," from 1627, is an example of such an "illusionistic masterpiece" based on sculptural concepts. Bray supports his thesis, that the two arts of sculpture and painting fed each other, with convincing photographs of paintings copied from images or, in one remarkable case, of an image of St. Francis copied from a picture by Zurbaran by Pedro de Mena, who, though one of the brilliant practitioners of the genre, is virtually unknown outside of Spain.
The second essay, by A. Rodriguez G. de Ceballos, continues the theme of the interaction of sculpture and painting. According to the essayist, the popular depiction of the Immaculate Conception so common in Spanish painting was first produced in statuary by Juan Martinez Montanes, the greatest sculptor of his day, around 1606. Rodriguez provides a useful theological and historical context for the other essays in the catalogue with his discussion of the patronage that supported the enormous output of colored wooden imagery. The funding came, as one would expect, from religious institutions and from a small number of wealthy private individuals, though both groups represented only a small percentage of the total population.
Two experts in conservation who work at Washington's National Gallery, Daphne Barbour and Judy Ozone, explain how the artists of Golden Age Spain produced the masterworks on display. Barbour and Ozone use the Gallery's life-size image of St. John of the Cross, attributed to the sculptor Francisco Antonio Gijon and gilder Domingo Mejias, to illustrate the techniques of carving, gilding, painting, and estofado (the method that produces the illusion of sumptuous textiles). The 21-year-old Gijon carved and completed his commission in seven weeks, using a team of craftsmen to assemble the complicated figure from separately carved elements (the head, hands, feet, drapery) and to prepare the surfaces with various glues, gesso, fabrics, and bole. The painter or painters and gilder then applied different types of oil-based and egg-tempera paints and gold leaf in a system of collaboration inherited from the practices of medieval guilds.
Pages 74-193 of the catalogue contain detailed analyses of thirty-five individual works, both paintings and sculptures, beginning with Velazquez's portrait of the sculptor Juan Martinez Montanes, several of whose statues were among those on display, particularly the superb St. Francis Borgia. A close-up of the arresting face of this image is on the cover of the catalogue.
Pages 198-205 contain the most up-to-date bibliography on this subject. The tiny number of studies on the sculptures, as opposed to the paintings, in languages other than Spanish illustrates, if it were necessary, the indifference of art historians to any genre not in the outdated canon from which they and textbook-writers still take their cues.
While the excellent essays and descriptions fill most of the pages, it is the extraordinary illustrations and photography that set this catalogue apart. The diagrams of the stages of the construction of a statue, the x-rays, and the magnified cross sections of paint layers illuminate the explanations of technical matters. The photographers listed on page 208 certainly merit more credit than they receive. The large color photos of the statuary are so fine that the catalogue is worth the price for them alone. No one, after looking at the pictures of these amazing creations, can fail to see why art historians must give them a place of honor in future accounts of Western sculpture.