Category Archives: religious

Photos: Museo Nacional de Escultura


A National Sculpture Museum is to be found in a small city, some 200 km north of Madrid. But don’t expect too much marble, bronze or mixed media here in Valladolid. During their golden age, Spain’s sculptors worked in wood.

intense wood

Presenting exhibit A: close up of a sizeable tiered seating arrangement for a church choir. Its makers really haven’t missed a trick, covering each surface with narrative carving and embellishing wherever possible. It’s overwhelming.


Most often they would paint their creations to make polychromes. Here are two sybils, perhaps dreaming of a future on a fairground ride or a carnival float. Polychromes are carried to the street during Holy Week here.


Levi, son of Jacob. My biblical knowledge is pretty inadequate, but since all his many brothers were all quite hirsute, he caught my eye. He looks like he’s getting riled by a refereeing decision, and somehow you feel his pain.


But I jest. They take their religion seriously in this part of the world. Here’s a flagellant getting down to business. I take back what I said about mixed-media. Those are real cords of rope. There’s very little heroic about polychromes.


Here’s the man behind the plan. I’ve not seen such a mannered crucifixion anywhere else. Just look at the tension in those feet. I think this is 15th century. Well before the German Expressionists, at any rate.


Contrast the delicate pillow with the flowing gore. This sculpture was perhaps the centrepiece of The Sacred Made Real at the National Gallery back in 2009. It’s by Gregorio Fernández, who we can call a wound fetishist.

ecce homo

This is by Pedro de Mena. Critics will argue that it is kitsch. And indeed, to be any more kitsch you would need to remake it with wax. But the seventeenth century’s most fiercely held beliefs reverberate throughout this museum.


This piece by Juan de Juni is pretty mannerist, but the forms have been compacted rather than stretched. This burly witness of Christ’s death has enough delicacy to show us a single murderous thorn. His expression is priceless.

san pedro

This Saint Peter, again by Fernández, offers a little light relief with his rosy cheeks and curly beard. It serves as an example to suggest that, as mediums go, wood carries less gravitas than stone or metal. I wonder why. Answers in the comments box, please . . .

Visit the Museum website and consider a tip to Valladolid:

Oliviero Rainaldi, Conversazione, 2011


Everyone loves a good car crash in the art world where no one really gets hurt. Last year we thrilled to the saga of Beast Jesus. The previous year this statue of Pope John Paul II became infamous.

Critics said it looked like Mussolini. The artist reworked it to produce the version you see here. But then critics said it looked even more like the Italian dictator.

It seems that in Italy, papal portraiture comes under a similar level of scrutiny to royal portraiture in this monarchical island of ours. Who will ever forget the first official picture of “Kate”?

What the photos don’t prepare you for is the location of this high profile piece of public art. It is out front of an unlovely bus station, more of a municipal than an ecclesiastical gesture.

Personal first impressions of the work were not too bad. The former pontif looks kindly at least. His robe is embracing. It welcomes you as surely as the arm-like colonnades of St Peter’s Square.

But if you stop to consider it, there’s a mysterious darkness behind the drapery. We cannot avoid the impression of secrecy, the hint of that horrendous cover up of which many accuse the church.

An awestruck visit to the Vatican does much to dispel any accumulated cynicism, mind you. Here you will find evidence of an ongoing patronage of the arts without which Catholicism might not be what it is.

The expression broad church surely comes to mind as the tiny state’s museum includes a study for Francis Bacon’s screaming pope and more than one statue to the Egyptian god Thoth.

In the ethnography department, you come across a photo of John Paul II with a koala no less. A previous holder of the highest office in this faith could not look more cuddly if he tried.

But had Rainaldi chose this image, it would surely have been hailed as the epitome of religious kitsch. So he went for something abstracted and paid the price.

You realise it would have taken some miracle to escape from Michaelangelo and Bernini in this city. They too are waiting in the heavily draped wings here, casting their shadow over the present.

You can read more about the unenthusiastic reception of Conversazione in Huffington Post here.

Janet Cardiff, The Forty Part Motet (2001)

When a gallery is a deconsecrated church and the artwork is a piece of religious music, walking in is a hair’s breadth from turning up for Sunday worship. It’s humbling, even humiliating.

The early choral work, Spem in Alium by Thomas Tallis, is drawing people in off the street, nevertheless. This is one church that’s full. The only people lacking are clergy and choristers.

Instead 40 state of the art speakers surround the ad hoc congregation. They are placed at person height and a different voice from Salisbury Cathedral Choir can be heard on each.

Were this a live performance, it would feel even less like art. Empassioned song fills the gallery, but the singers are absent. Their lack of presence is the most engaging aspect of the piece.

The choir is an effect of technology so perhaps God is just an effect of such choirs. He and they are both here and not here. It depends whether or not you close your eyes.

But the voices are in layers, so there is something fathomless about that question. And the several parts of the composition can surprise you. Phrases come at you from different angles.

Cardiff has said she wants this to work to explore the ways in which sound can structure a space. It can certainly dominate a place and resonate with a building’s original function.

So, walking in is strange. And as notes here point out, the experience is intimate. We are, one supposes, naked under the eyes of God. Hence a bit of embarrassment.

There’s little choice but to join the flock and accept the embrace of this work. But getting out of church is still a relief. Weddings, funerals, ecclesiastical art shows, you name it.

There are plenty more voices offering counterpoint to this. Classical music blog An Overgrown Path has specced out the audio equipment. Todd Gibson on From the Floor found it emotional.

Dugal McKinnon’s blog, meanwhile, offers a compelling analysis which spells out the transcendental qualities of the work and goes much further on the theme of presence and absence.

The current show at Fabrica runs until 30 May 2011.  See website for more details.


The Sacred Made Real: Spanish Painting & Sculpture 1600-1700

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.