The first thing you see when you walk into The Sacred Made Real at the National Gallery is the neck end of John the Baptist: pulpy red meat surrounding a severed windpipe. This wooden head by Juan de Mesa is an excellent introduction for what's to come.
The exhibition's stated purpose is to explore the interdependency of religious painting and sculpture in 17th-century Spain. But the paintings didn't interest me that much (especially since I'd already seen many of them in the Gallery's general collection). I'd come for the sculptures, several of which had never been displayed outside Spain before.
The painted wooden ("polychrome") sculpture of baroque Spain is an underrated art form, often dismissed as pious and sentimental or simply overlooked altogether. Walking through the exhibition, I found it impossible that anyone could not, at the very least, be impressed by the sculptors' sheer technical mastery. Wood had been carved into perfect depictions of muscles, bones, sinews, bulging veins. Elsewhere it formed the folds of garments (the flowing cassock of Juan Martínez Montañés's St Ignatius Loyola, or the brilliant blue and gold mantle of his Virgin of the Immaculate Conception) and the contours of the bodies underneath.
But above all, the artists' skill was put to use in depicting the wounds of Christ and other martyrs: the nails bulging from the hands and feet of Montañés's "Christ of the Helpless"; the sores on Christ's flogged back in Gregorio Fernández's Ecce Homo. Pedro de Mena's Christ as the Man of Sorrows had blue paint beneath the flesh tones to show the bruising of his skin, and the rivulets of blood running down to his loincloth seemed to have been touched up with egg white to make them sparkle. When these effects were carried to extremes, as in Fernández's Dead Christ, the result was simply horrifying.
This brutal imagery was, of course, the product of a brutal time: Mesa's John the Baptist was most likely modelled on the severed head of an executed criminal, while Montañés's St Francis Borgia would once have held a real human skull in his hand. Many have commented on the sculpture's naturalistic facial expressions. I found myself wondering whether the artists had depicted these out of compassion, or out of a documentarian's desire to show pain in every possible detail.
By far my favourite piece in the exhibition was one that showed no gore at all: Mena's Mary Magdalene Meditating on the Crucifixion. Like many depictions of the Magdalene, this one contains some hints of the erotic: despite her exquisitely depicted sackcloth dress, her shoulders are bare and her long hair (made of twisted wicker) flows freely over them. Her attention, however, is focused entirely on the crucifix in her hand, and her pose and facial expression are astonishingly moving.
The exhibition is fairly small, and I was skeptical of the Gallery's decision to display the last painting, Francisco de Zurbarán's "Saint Serapion", in a room by itself. They claimed this was meant to recreate the mortuary chapel in a 17th-century monastery, but it looked to me more like an attempt to cover up the fact that they had six rooms to fill and only five rooms' worth of stuff.
The lighting in the exhibition was very low, both for conservation reasons and to reflect the fact that the sculptures would originally have been seen by candlelight. In some ways this was frustrating, because I couldn't get a good view of the faces of the crucified figures of Christ. But it did mean that the sculptures cast dramatic shadows which formed part of their overall effect.
The Gallery also has an interesting little free exhibition showing how the polychrome sculptures were made. This was illustrated using a replica of Francisco Antonio Gijón’s St John of the Cross, but there were also a couple of original sculptures on display, including José de Mora’s Virgin of Sorrows, which impressed me so much when I saw it at the V&A back in June. I was very glad to have the chance to see it again.