In the centre of the black room, on a crumpled stretch of fabric, lies a skeletal white figure flooded with dramatic spotlight, his mouth half opened, his knees blotched with coagulating blood. His hands and feet are freshly torn. Walking around the figure you see that his lifeless eyes are not quite fully closed, his lips are greying, his forehead scratched and stained.
Gregorio Fernández’s sculpture ‘Dead Christ’ (1625-30) is just one of the 30 works on display at The Sacred Made Real, the National Gallery’s autumn exhibition, which reveals in all its visceral intensity the violence and vulnerability at the heart of the Christian story. Bringing together paintings and sculpture from 17th century Spain, depicting the tortures of Christ’s passion and images of the saints in lifelike three-dimensionality, its exhibits are described by the Gallery as created ‘to shock the senses and stir the soul.’
From the perspective of a 21st century Protestant culture, some of the sculptures seem crass, even kitsch in their hyper-realism, particularly when removed from their devotional context and placed at the heart of the National Gallery. While the painters of the Spanish Golden Age - Diego Velázquez and Francisco de Zurbarán for example - are revered as masters of high art, the sculptors who inspired them and with whom they often collaborated are all but forgotten. Seeing these sculptures alongside their two-dimensional counterparts for the first time leads one, however, to question this discrepancy. One of the effects of the exhibition is to resurrect the reputation of sculptors such as Juan Martinez Montañes and Pedro de Mena, highlighting the interdependence of the two media.
The Spanish term encarnación described the subtle art of giving life to the wooden form of sculpture by adding colour, and also attests to the theological resonances of the practice. Fernandez’s ‘Dead Christ’ has teeth made from ivory and fingernails from bull horns, the face of Pedro de Mena’s ‘Virgin of Sorrows’ is adorned with glass tear drops, and John the Baptist’s head, sculpted by Juan de Mesa in 1625, is tipped on its side to reveal the inner details of his severed neck. Such minute attention to physical corporeality makes these works truly incarnational art. The almost tangible humanity of these figures, both in the paintings and sculptures, accounts for the powerfully emotive effect of such images as they formed the centre of Spanish acts of popular devotion and public ritual. As Jesuit Priest James Hanvey comments on the audio guide to the exhibition: ‘We are human beings, we are flesh and blood and we live in time and space, and therefore we need to touch. It’s the title of the exhibition itself, the need to make the sacred real.’
Throughout the last two millennia, images from the Christian story have, for good or ill, shown themselves to be capable of wielding incredible power. From Constantine’s use of the visual symbol of the cross to emblazon his own military campaign of empire-building, to Francis Bacon’s crucifixion paintings which explore the anguish of a tortured artist, images of the crucifixion particularly have repeatedly been co-opted for all sorts of ideological and aesthetic ends. Video artist Bill Viola writes: ‘Christians don’t own the resurrection, the crucifixion, the visitation, the deposition. These are elements of human life that have been utilised by all great traditions.’
Nevertheless it is worth spending some time dwelling on the devotional power of visual art, as something that has often been neglected, even deliberately stripped away, in the Protestant Church ever since the Reformation. If our faith is nurtured by words alone, then we risk missing something of great importance. Medieval prayer books commonly illuminated the initial ‘T’ of the ‘Te igitur’ prayer with a representation of the crucified Jesus, and the interweaving of word and image makes a profoundly theological point about the relationship between words and pictures in the Christian economy. The image and word are intimately connected; it is the Word becoming flesh that is the ultimate manifestation of God’s astonishing grace – the renunciation of all power in exchange for a broken body, literally vulnerable, lifted up for all to see the wounds.
The paintings and sculptures displayed at the exhibition certainly do not make comfortable viewing. Such art does important devotional work if it shocks us into contemplating again the brutal reality of Jesus’ crucifixion. At the heart of Christian faith and practice is, after all, the remembrance of an act of horror, and confrontational visual art - the making real of the sacred - is crucial if it helps to undo the centuries of cleanup work that have commodified the events of Good Friday. The cross is not something we should be able to look upon comfortably.
Part of the disturbance of the National Gallery’s display is its ability to excite the senses and trigger an acknowledgement, in our guilty enjoyment of the scenes, that we are in some sense complicit with those original torturers, playing our own part in the structures and mindsets that foster oppression and brutality against the innocent. The display highlights clearly the paradox at the heart of much Christian art: the depths of barbarism of the events of the crucifixion have inspired an artistic culture at the pinnacle of civilisation. Creation is here founded on ultimate destruction. New life engendered in a broken body.
The overwhelming visual experience of the exhibition is an important counterbalance to much of our Western Church culture which often seeks to nurture faith through words: sermons, Bible-reading, song. It is a jolting reminder that not only Jesus’ words, but also the naked fact of his corporeality, is a crucial part of God’s divine speech to us. The central text 1 John 1:1-3 presents a radical understanding of God entering a visual realm, linking the visual and the verbal.
That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked at and our hands have touched—this we proclaim concerning the Word of life. The life appeared; we have seen it and testify to it, and we proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and has appeared to us. We proclaim to you what we have seen and heard, so that you also may have fellowship with us.
The Sacred Made Real exhibition confronts us with the vitally visual and tangible nature of the Word. At the centre of the Christian faith is an image of a crucified saviour, the Word incarnate raised up in suffering and in glory, a decisive theological moment of visual rhetoric which offers the ultimate union of Word and image.
Russian icon painter Leonid Ouspensky writes that, ‘without images, Christianity is no longer Christianity’. Jesus has revealed divine Truth to be located within a human being, with a visual image and a body that breaks and bleeds. This is why the Church must not just speak of the truth, but also show the truth: the image of Jesus Christ incarnate.
The Sacred Made Real: Spanish Painting and Sculpture 1600–1700, curated by the National Gallery's Xavier Bray, runs from 21 October 2009 until 24 January 2010