Dimensions of the Holy: Sacred Spanish art at the National Gallery

Describing Jesus and his disciples as they go up to Jerusalem, Mark the Evangelist writes: “Jesus was walking ahead of them; and they were amazed, and those who followed were afraid” (10:32). That coupling of amazement and fear, according to Rudolf Otto in his classic The Idea of the Holy (1919), is the essence of human experience of the divine or numinous. When God appears to human beings, it is, in Otto’s memorable phrase, as mysterium tremendum et fascinans, a holy mystery that awakens both fear and fascination. There are, of course, a variety of ways the experience can be expressed—as humbling and exalting, as awe and embrace, as deepened desire yet remorseful recoil. The experience can lead to tears of consolation or the desert of immense distance, both beyond words.

Such an experience of mingled awe and enchantment arises as one enters “The Sacred Made Real,” an exhibition of 17th-century Spanish painting and sculpture currently at the National Gallery of Art in Washington. Somewhat abbreviated from an earlier installation in London’s National Gallery, the show offers stellar examples of two types of art, one two-dimensional, the other three-dimensional, which are generally shown separately but here enter into revealing conversation.

During the Catholic Reformation, the artists of Spain’s Golden Age developed an intense realism to stir and even shock viewers with stark, emotional and often anguished presentations of Christ, the Virgin and the saints. Several of the era’s greatest painters are represented in the current exhibition, including Francisco de Zurbarán and Diego Velázquez. They are matched by less well-known sculptors like Juan Martínez Montañés and Pedro de Mena.

No pairing of works more vividly represents the interaction of painterly and sculptural interests than two versions of the Immaculate Conception (see pg. 17), one a sculpture attributed to Montañés (c. 1620), the other an early painting by Velázquez (1618-19). Both depict the Virgin slightly larger than life-size, according to the Book of Revelation’s description of “a woman clothed with the sun, and the moon under her feet, and upon her head a crown of twelve stars” (12:1-2). Together they exemplify a typology developed by Baroque artists in 17th-century Seville: a naturalistic young girl takes all her dignity from her clothing and surroundings.

Velázquez places his Mary, with her broad face and full cheeks, against an inky night sky, whose billowing white clouds give cosmic dimension to her swirling blue mantle. (She may have been modeled on Juana Pacheco, the daughter of Velázquez’s master, Francisco Pacheco, whom the painter married.) At her feet are symbols suggesting her purity—a temple, a fountain, a palm tree. The sculptural effect is striking, and Velázquez may well have studied an earlier Immaculate Conception by Montañés.

The Montañés Virgin evokes a similar serenity. But additional majesty at-taches to the figure through the tunic decorated with pale flowers under a black cloak enriched with effulgent golden arabesques. Delightfully, the angels at her feet and on the pedestal seem neither awestruck nor prayerful but simply happy to be there.

You can stand before these two wondrous works, beguiled by the lovely faces, imagining the inner grace of each figure, drawn into the mystery of innocence enduring all experience, transported to another time and still sensing a deeper root in your own.

Art that enthralls begets other art that enthralls, and nearby are three interpretations of St. Francis of Assisi that could define the word. Zurbarán’s mid-career masterpiece, “Saint Francis Standing in Ecstasy” (c. 1640), from the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, shows the saint anachronistically in the habit of the reformed branch of his order, the Capuchins, his hands folded in sleeves and his face looking heavenward, the whole figure lit by a suggestion of candlelight. (Legend has it that when his tomb was opened before Pope Nicholas V in 1449, the saint’s body was found in exactly this position, miraculously preserved.) Next to the larger-than-life-size painting is the half-life-size, polychromed statue of “Saint Francis Standing in Ecstasy” (1663) by Mena, which may have been inspired by the Zurbarán. A celebrated object of veneration by pilgrims, the piece has never before left the Cathedral of Toledo.

Next to it is one of the greatest of all representations of prayer: Zurbarán’s “Saint Francis Kneeling in Meditation” (1635-39), from London’s National Gallery. You can enter the darkness with Francis as he kneels silent and enraptured, a skull cradled in his exquisitely painted hands. Light falls over your left shoulder onto his right shoulder. Looking up toward his face, you realize that you do not see his eyes, deep in the shadow of his cowl, but only his handsome nose and parted lips. No words come, to him or you, no motion, no desire to be anywhere but here. The presence of God suffuses this image of the poorest and perhaps most beloved of all the followers of Christ.

Your eye moves across the canvas, from the strong hands with the slight indication of the stigmata on his right hand, to the tattered robe, down the plumb-line of the cord falling from his waist, over to the folds that cover his feet and knees, up again to the holy face. The figure is almost entirely on the right side of the painting, yet it balances because the coarse white of the habit at Francis’s right arm pulls the figure to the left and gives it a pulsing stasis, an insistent silent presence. You wish the gallery were empty so that you could kneel.

The face of Francis is holy, not sacred. An unfortunate perpetuation of the dichotomy between the sacred and the profane continues to be used in art criticism (and many other places as well) when dealing with Christianity. It was, for example, the cause of considerable conceptual confusion at a major exhibition on religion in art two years ago at the Centre Pompidou in Paris, “Les traces du sacré.” But what “sacred” means, in contrast to “profane” (that which lies outside the temple and is purely of this world), is “something set apart” in relation to the divine. It is separate, by some form of consecration, for religious usage.

But for a faith that confesses God’s living among us and enduring for us death itself in Christ, our human world is no longer a realm apart but, rather, radically God’s own. Its story and ours have come to be because the holy mystery of God graciously chooses to create a story that will be God’s own, the story of God’s holiness enfleshed in human holiness and suffering for it. Of all the words that might speak less deficiently of the God beyond all language, it is “holiness” that best accompanies “love.” And so the representations of Christ and Mary and the saints that are magnificently brought together at the National Gallery might be said to be sacred, as art or music or dance in a church might be said to be. But the human beings represented by the art are holy, because the God of holiness has dwelt in them through God’s own Spirit—and always will.

C Walter Mattingly
7 years ago

Fr. Donovan, would you please write more articles for America, also expand the scope of your essays here (although your essays on art are fine enough)?

Domingo Garcia
6 years 11 months ago

 I liked this section on Spanish art.  I just took a Spanish history class (in spanish ironically enough) and a lot of the history is just brought to life through the remarkable works of art throughout the ages by some of these artists mentioned above.  I'd love to see more!

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