The Sacred made Real at the National Gallery was an exhibition I wanted to escape because the subject matter is distressing. But I'm glad I finally confronted my fears. It's shattering, alright, but shattering in a compellingly positive way.
The fact is that most people in this world aren't Spanish Catholics, far less Christian at all, so it's valid to ask "What's in this for me?" But human suffering is universal and many people, religious or not, wonder what's the point of life. "The Sacred made Real" is for those who want to get past the incessant, frantic mental muzak of society and enter a quieter spiritual place. This exhibition, frightening as it is, is therapeutic, because it opens out a world far beyond ourselves and venal concerns.
The hyper-realism in these sculptures is meant to shock. 3D is more personal than any painting can ever be. The Virgin of the Immaculate Conception (attr Juan Martínez Montañés c 1628) upstages the famous Velásquez beside it. As you enter, your eyes are drawn to this glorious, golden Madonna, and you revel in the beauty of its detail. She's ecstatic because she knows Jesus is coming into the world. Then you see a disembodied head. It's John the Baptist, decapitated for spreading the news. Only when you look from the back, the horror hits you. There in realistic, photographic detail is his severed throat, blood vessels and bones protruding.
These sculptures weren't carved as decoration They're supposed to jolt you out of any sense of complacency, forcing you to think about their meaning. They're created to provoke an extreme response, but one which lifts you out of mundane cliché. If it's hard to look at these images of suffering, how much more horrible it must be to experience them? And why did John, Jesus and generations of martyrs suffer willingly for their faith?
These sculptures are rarely seen because normally they live in churches. Some, like the Dead Christ (1625-30, Gregorio Fernández), lie in tabernacles where the devout can contemplate, but others are placed high above altars. Their mysteries aren't revealed: which makes them all the more elusive. This exhibition is unique because it allows us to engage with them up close. We may never get the same opportunity again, even if we go to the churches they inhabit.
The hyper-realism is disturbing because no veil of propriety is drawn over them. St Francis of Assisi is famous for being so humble he can talk to birds. It's a surprise how small his statue (Pedro de Mena 1628-88) is, because the detail is amazing: the very textures of his roughly woven garment are depicted, so you can feel what it means to take a vow of poverty. The textures flow so well over the folds of his robe, that you're hypnotized. Then suddenly you see the wound in his side. St Francis welcomed the stigmata because he wanted to live out Christ's suffering, to come closer to the mystery of the Crucifixion. However stigmata appear, they do cause pain, but look at St Francis's eyes, limpid and moist as if he's alive, filled with compassion and love.
Why is St Francis so inspired? Shouldn't he be indignant that Christ suffered? But St Francis believed that God became man in order to experience the human condition and the pain that entails. The Resurrection shows that mankind will be saved. Suffering and death are a part of life, but can be endured because they will be overcome.
Hence the steely determination on the face of St Mary Magdelene meditating on the Crucifixion (Pedro de Mena 1664). She's wearing a robe which looks like it's woven from reeds. It's so carefully carved it's tactile, and for a reason: you're supposed to imagine why a pretty girl would want to suffer like that. Frail as she is, she holds the crucifix as if she's clinging to it for dear life. and you realize, it "is" the reason for her life. The robe is held together with delicate ropes, each thread finely carved. They look as if they might break at any time, but we know they're carved of solid wood. So the statue is saying, what looks weak is supported by a force greater than you'd expect.
Despite the realism, these painting and sculptures are surreal. The glow on the faces of Mary and the saints isn't ordinary but it's sublime light, Urlicht, that comes from a source that doesn't exist in mundane nature. They look upwards, towards something no-one can see. So you have to think, and imagine. You're engaged, not passive. In the film, outside the exhibition, the curator Xavier Bray comments on Velásquez's Christ after the Flagellation. It looks straightforward, but follow the eyes of the observer. He's looking behind Jesus, at his back, to the wounds we cannot see. The flat painting becomes four dimensional, when you engage your mind.
These objects are more than "art". Gregorio Fernández prepared himself before sculpting by prayer and fasting, and there's no doubt that for others - and their audiences - the works were a doorway to heightened spiritual experience. The statues of St Ignatius Loyola, St Bernard of Clairvaux and St Bruno depict them almost as photographic images so that we see them clearly as normal human beings, transfixed by the mysteries they're contemplating. They're not idols, nor even icons but a way of helping other ordinary people to connect to the amazing ideas behind them.
Kings and magnates want their portraits to make them look good. These images, however, show the saints warts and all, ugly old men whose voluminous garments probably weren't ever washed. Yet they're beautiful because their sprituality mnakes them glow.
Watch the video - photographs just don't come near! Click to make it full screen. Better still, get to this exhibition before it ends 24th January. Some of these things may never be seen like this again. If you like Sacred Made Real, you'll maybe like my other posts UNIQUE TO THIS SITE like those on Japanese baroque. (and all my 20 plus posts on MACAU, Jesuits in Asia etc.