The National Gallery of Art in DC this weekend opens a very interesting exhibit of Spanish religious painting and sculpture from the 1600-1700s. Under the title “The Sacred Made Real” the exhibit includes a series of delicate, dramatically telling and brutally real pieces from the Spanish master painters and sculptutors of the time: Velázquez, Zurbarán, Ribera, Ribalta, De Mena, Montañés and others.
Many of these works of art, created to move the soul and to elicit a deep connection to the divine, had never before left the walls of the churches, convents and chapels that usually house them. It is a marvel in and of itself that they are here—London and Washington being the lone engagements for the exhibit before returning them to the faithful who still so revere them—let alone, that they are exhibited outside of their natural habitat: the houses of prayer.
I must acknowledge that to eyes such as mine, so accustomed to seeing these images in the context of the baroque setting of the Catholic Churches of the time, some of these paintings and polychrome sculptures seemed almost naked and out of context. The exhibit, however, provided a rare opportunity to appreciate each image and the sacred message they represent with new depth.
The ambiance the organizers have created— half museum, half church —helps the curious eye appreciate the artistic value of the pieces while at the same time relishing a respectful atmosphere for meditation that might elicit a quiet prayer in more than one soul.
Kudos to Xavier Bray, curator of the exhibit, and assistant curator of 17th and 18th-century Spanish and Italian paintings at the National Gallery in London, who in his first solo exhibit has assembled a remarkable collection of works representing the masters of Spanish realism and hyperrealism in the Spain of the Counter-Reformation.
At a time when Spain and most of Europe seem to be turning away from its Christian roots, this exhibit seems to ironically take pride in that heritage and represents the nation’s rich cultural and spiritual wealth. More so, it is presented on the occasion of the Spanish Presidency of the European Union and with the support of the Ministry of Culture of Spain.
A word of warning: sensible souls unaccustomed to raw representations in religious art of human suffering or spiritual ecstasy (see the face of Saint Francis painting by Zurbarán) are in for a shock … or a treat! And who knows, they might even, all of a sudden, realize the divine.