ARTYFACTS: Sacred made real - National gallery

Wednesday, December 02, 2009

Sacred made real - National gallery

Spanish Taliban
The counter-reformation needed some shock tactics as the chilly iconoclasm of the north crept south and when cornered in the Iberian peninsula art took on a form so extreme that, at times, you feel like averting your gaze. Like a wounded, cornered dog it barks back.

Shock tactics were needed to keep the flock in line so the horror of decapitation, crucifixion and torture is made real. Words were not enough in a semi-literate world, paintings were to flat, so painted sculpture was used to show wounds, blood and fear in three dimensional 17th century technicolour. Hollow cheeked, sorrowful and serious men, and the virgin Mary, were re-created to remind you of the consequences of sin. It worked in a way, and stemmed the tide of protestantism, allowing fanatics like the Jesuits, a sort of Spanish Taliban, to conquer the new world. Martyrdom is venerated and there's no room for doubt.

What of the works on show here?
You know you're in starnge territory aesthetically when you see The Miracle of Lactation in the first room, a painting where the statue of a saint has come alive and squirts milk from her breast a full six feet into the mouth of St Bernard. It's disturbing and debased. In the same room we have the sculpted, wooden, painted, decapitated head of St John th Baptist, with full anatomical detail on the exposed neck.

In room two the painted statues are superb. But this is where we see the fanaticism of saints such as St Francis Borgia and St Ignatius Loyola (founded the Jesuits). You can look them in the eye and let he who is without sin, blink first. Then there's the bitter and twisted Mother Jeronima by Velasquez.

Room three has the Zubaran monks. Not all of his images are of hooded monks, but these are dark and mysterious. In the next room is the true masterpiece, the almost classical Ecce Homo, with his slight twist but strange expression and bloodied and bruised back. The Dead Christ is as shocking as the show gets with his unwashed blood covered body lying prostate.

I was, in the end, relieved to get out of the gallery!


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