The 16th century Council of Trent, in response to the Protestant Reformation, called for religious imagery that would encourage piety, uphold doctrine and be decorous.
Much sacred art already met that description. But in Spain, in the early 17th century, several leading sculptors and painters took up that challenge with particular passion. They produced works of art designed to nurture the piety and devotion of the faithful through an intense realism.
One such piece was Juan Martinez Montanes’ Christ of Clemency that still hangs in the cathedral in Seville. Montanes portrays in a most realistic fashion the crucified Christ moments before his death looking down at the person praying at the foot of the cross. Christ’s eyes are open and he is ready to offer forgiveness to the repentant sinner kneeling before him.
THE SACRED MADE REAL
Christ of Clemency was not one of the artworks that I was privileged to observe during a recent visit to the National Gallery of Art in Washington where 22 pieces from 17th century Spain are currently being displayed in an exhibit entitled The Sacred Made Real. Christ of Clemency remains in the Seville cathedral doing what it has always done – inspiring devotion and strengthening faith.
Indeed, several of the pieces that were on display had never before been shown outside of a church setting. Because of that, they have been overlooked as an art form and are virtually unknown outside of Spain.
Intense realism is the common feature of the 22 pieces on display. The piece I found most gripping was Gregorio Fernandez’s statue, Ecce Homo (Behold! The Man) that depicted Christ at the moment he was brought before Pontius Pilate.
Already beaten and scourged, Jesus appears to know his fate before Pilate has pronounced it. He looks toward his judge with eyes that are sorrowful yet also compassionate.
What Fernandez managed to achieve with wood, glass and paint is striking. Ecce Homo is a statue before which one can meditate at length and with fruitfulness on the soon-to-be-condemned Christ. It speaks volumes about our pride-filled human condition and about God’s willingness to look upon it with compassion and understanding.
Another similar, but more bloody statue by Fernandez, Christ at the Column, is annually taken on procession through the street in Valladolid during a Holy Week devotion similar to those that take place in many Spanish cities and towns. Floats weighing up to two tonnes and bearing life-sized sculptures are carried through the streets to help the faithful meditate on the sorrows of the Passion.
In a film made to accompany the exhibit, curator Xavier Bray sings a flamenco lament to Christ that is inspired by one of the paintings. Such laments spring spontaneously or ready-made from occasional onlookers during the street devotions and testify to the powerful effect of the statues and the processions themselves.
Even St. Ignatius of Loyola, the founder of the Jesuits whose own writing was economical and barren of rhetorical flourish, recognized the importance of art that could fire the imagination during prayer. For Ignatius, imagination was crucial to the development of deep devotion.
So it is perhaps fitting that a life-sized statue of Ignatius – by Montanes and Francisco Pacheco — is included in the current exhibit. As a devotee of Ignatius, I have long been dismayed by the many poor representations of him. Montanes and Pacheco, however, have to my mind captured the unique combination of practicality and mystical spirituality that helped make Ignatius both a trailblazer and a saint.
Pacheco, perhaps immodestly, felt the way I do – he described the Ignatius he produced with Montanes as the best representation of the saint “because it seems really alive.”
Seeming really alive is a relative judgment. Today, of course, we are entertained by high-tech movies such as Avatar next to which the optical effects created by the use of painted, carved blocks of wood in the 17th century can seem primitive by comparison.
Fortunately, we don’t – most of us, at least – kneel before Avatar. Unfortunately, we don’t kneel much at all. Reverence before the sacred is a crucial virtue for both individuals and society as a whole. But it is a virtue that is becoming endangered.
Perhaps one reason for the lack of reverence is the paucity of suitable images in our churches today. Attention is rightly directed to the Eucharistic sacrifice on the altar. But after the mass-produced statues were trucked out of churches following the Second Vatican Council, little was brought in that might inspire private prayer and devotion.
Nevertheless, as I visited this exhibit on two afternoons, it seemed that many in the art gallery were viewing these pieces with eyes of faith at least as much as with the eyes of the art critic. The human need to revere the infinite God of love has not been vanquished. Nearly 400 years after they were created, these Spanish statues and paintings retain their ability to stir the human soul and lead it into the presence of God.