In the centre of a shadowed room lies a pale and bloodied corpse. Hair, matted and tangled, is spread out on a pillow as the head lolls onto one shoulder open-mouthed, eyes open but staring into nothingness, freed from the pain of grievous and grizzly wounds. Dirty fingernails and emaciated flesh are yet to be cleaned in preparation for entombment. Only a piece of blue cloth saves this man from complete indignity in death. The eye is drawn to puckered holes on hands and feet – to the sliced and deep hole in this man’s side, its leaked blood smeared down his stomach toward that blue cloth. This was not an easy death. In the words of Isaiah,
He is despised and rejected of men, a Man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief. And we hid as it were our faces from Him; He was despised, and we esteemed Him not. Surely He hath borne our griefs and carried our sorrows; yet we did esteem Him stricken, smitten of God, and afflicted. But He was wounded for our transgressions; He was bruised for our iniquities. The chastisement of our peace was upon Him, and with His stripes we are healed. All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned every one to his own way; and the Lord hath laid on Him the iniquity of us all.
Gregorio Fernández’s The Dead Christ stuns in its physical reality. No theological abstraction He. The works immediacy serves to deepen the mystery of the Incarnated God scourged, humiliated, and crucified for the salvation of the world. It must never be forgotten that this is the butchery of the divine: in this moment, gazing at this corpse, the light has gone out of the world. It is that darkness and that suffering which is depicted over and over again in this exhibition.
The title of this remarkable exhibition at the National Gallery in London could not be more appropriate. The Sacred Made Real seeks to give polychrome wooden sculpture – of which Fernández’s is a striking example – the place it deserves in the history of Spanish art. As the catalogue explains these sculptures have suffered from a Protestant disdain for objects of ‘superstitious veneration’ in a way that the paintings of the Spanish Golden Age have not. Thankfully the curators are looking to change all that. Hence works by Fernádez, Juan de Mesa, Juan Martínez Montañés, Pedro de Mena, Alonso Cano, Francisco Antonio Gijón and José de Mora are placed alongside the accepted masters Francisco de Zurbarán, Diego de Velázquez, and Jusepe de Ribera. All of whose works, it is argued in this exhibition, betray the influence of the hyperrealism of polychrome sculpture: realistic flesh-tones, proportions, facial expressions, light and shade.
Indeed, these works were collaborations of sculptor and painter. Zurbarán, for example, is known to have painted at least one wooden sculpture in his career. His Christ on the Cross seeks to mimic polychrome works in its portrayal of a niche sculpture and was painted for a chapel whose window on the upper right provided the light source supposedly throwing his body into such sharp relief.
Yet why did the artists of 17th Century feel impelled to depict Christ’s death so faithfully, so shockingly? To understand Fernandez’s work and the Golden Age we must turn to the Counter Reformation. In Spain this involved not only the countering of Northern European Protestantism but also a reaffirmation of Catholic identity after centuries of iconoclastic Muslim rule. It would be hard to find a more striking microcosm of the Spain at this time than in the building of a cathedral in the centre of Cordoba’s Great Mosque during the 16th Century at the behest of Emperor Charles V (who came to regret his disfiguring action). In the face of the intensely Catholic modern nation, it is easy to forget that Spain was not long a Christian country after seven hundred years of Muslim rule. The long and bloody Reconquista generated a dark and febrile Catholicism committed to reconnecting with the Spanish population through the medium of art. Pain became associated with spirituality in a way explored by painters like José de Ribera whose graphic images of martyrdom shine a light on the preoccupations of a nation. The 16th Century mystic St. John of the Cross – himself experienced in sculpture – asserted the value of polychrome sculptures as necessary for inspiring reverence. God has been made flesh; and that flesh has been scourged and beaten.
This is why we encounter in The Sacred Made Real so uncompromising a Christianity: a faith of blood and tears made disturbingly real. These sculptures are still paraded through the streets on feast days, part of the fabric of Catholic worship. This is a realism designed to bring you to your knees.