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Ecce lignum crucis

Francisco de Zurbarán, Saint Luke Contemplating the Crucifixion (1630s, Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid)
A remarkable exhibit at the National Gallery of Art, The Sacred Made Real: Spanish Painting and Sculpture, 1600–1700, is perfectly timed for a Holy Week reflection that follows nicely after yesterday's post on the Lamentations. The art on display shows how Baroque artists in Spain responded to the ideals of the Catholic Reformation. This attitude can be traced back to the teachings of the Jesuits and the preaching of Filippo Neri in the Oratory in Rome: an attempt to reconnect everyday people to the stories of the Bible through simple means, just as Neri reached out to the poor communities of Rome. Caravaggio's plain-Jane, barefooted Madonna of Loreto and her baby come to life before the simple peasants who kneel in devotion at her feet. Catholic mysticism became less esoteric and more direct.

The Spanish types of sculpture in this show were created with unusual techniques to make them as life-like as possible. Juan Martínez Montañés (1568-1649) made glass tears that shimmer on the cheeks of Ignatius Loyola, the founder of the Jesuit order -- Gregorio Fernández used glass to make the eyes of his Ecce homo figure shine (the figure seems closely modeled on Michelangelo's Cristo della Minerva, and not only because it was originally completely nude) -- and followers of Pedro de Mena (1628-1688) used bits of horn for the fingernails of the penitent Magdalen. Mena himself left a permanently glistening wetness in the trails of blood on his Ecce homo, as if the wounds are fresh and the blood still actually flowing. (While the sculptures were made of realistically painted wood, the clothing is often real clothing, glued in place and painted.) Francisco Ribalta (1565-1628) has his Christ reach from the cross to return the embrace of Bernard of Clairvaux who is lost in meditation before the crucifix.

Francisco de Zurbarán, St. Francis in Ecstasy (c. 1640, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston)
The mixture of art and reality is a common theme, for example, in Francisco de Zurbarán's St. Luke contemplating his own depiction of the crucifixion (shown above): palette in hand, the first Christian painter (whose works are by tradition the models of the oldest images of Jesus and Mary) looks with the eye of both the artist and the believer. His crucifixion is not yet finished -- there is no spear wound in the side, as if the events of Good Friday have not yet been completed -- and it seems to draw the artist into the story, experiencing it as it happens, even causing the wounds by painting them. Another famous Zurbarán -- the best pieces in the show are those by him and by Diego Velázquez (especially a stunning, surreal, nightscape Immaculate Conception) -- shows St. Francis in a moment of ecstasy, posed as if he is already a life-like statue in a niche. Not all of these works -- not even all of the crucifixion scenes -- emphasize the gory aspect of their subject matter: there is only a hint of the stigmatic wounds Francis received, on the hands partially hidden under his sleeves and the spear wound in his side making a slight stain on his habit.

This small but exquisite show will be open through May 31, but be warned that if you visit during the Triduum, as I did, you may be tempted to reach out to reverence these depictions of the crucifixion with the words, "¡Dulces clavos! ¡Dulce árbol donde la vida empieza!" If you cannot get there in person, the next best thing is this slideshow of many of the artworks. The soundtrack behind it is a recording of Stephen Hough's Requiem aeternam, based on Victoria's setting of the Requiem Mass. You can hear it performed live this Easter Sunday afternoon (April 4, 6:30 pm) in a free concert at the National Gallery of Art (unusually, on the concourse of the East Building).

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