Published on Culture24
The Sacred Made Real at The National Gallery, London, until January 2010
As you would expect from a pallid corpse in a darkened room, Dead Christ draws quite a crowd. Gregorio Fernández’s wooden bier is surrounded by a dozen curious visitors. If this was a roadside, they would be driving past slowly, rubbernecking.
Thanks to 17th century special effects, the mortal wounds seem still fresh. Tree bark forms coagulated blood. A bull’s horn has been carved into fingernails. Glass has been used for half-closed eyes.
The pathos is heightened by spotless, sculpted white sheets and a heavily embroidered pillow. These touches are perverse, given that no one has wiped the blood from Jesus’ lifeless skin or thought to cover him up out of respect.
But that is really the point of polychrome sculpture, an artform for churchgoers rather than gallery visitors, which offers an immediate experience of the horrors and marvels of the Passion and the lives of saints.
Some guilt-inducing religious pieces result. Cristo de los Desamparados by Juan Martínez Montañés hangs off the cross with a dead weight that makes the nails strain. Ecce Homo by Pedro de Mena disrupts the conventions of classical art splattering blood across Christ’s otherwise perfectly toned back.
This is the first time such works have been seen alongside contemporaneous Spanish painting. It suggests their influence has been overlooked.
Indeed artists like Diego Velázquez and Francisco de Zurburán would have trained in guilds of painting where polychrome sculptures were brought for colouration. Owing to some baroque-era red tape, sculptors were not allowed to do this for themselves.
Now several paintings are displayed alongside three-dimensional works which could have directly inspired them. Immaculate Conception by Velázquez, for example, sits next to a stunning and very similar Madonna by Montañés.
All of which suggests that a Spanish tradition of realist painting, from Velázquez and Zurburán onwards, can be traced back to the work of some little-known sculptors. You cannot deny the impact of the examples on display here.