National Gallery’s “Sacred Made Real”

01/11/09 | Posted by MattPage

The kind of statue that you would normally expect to find parading through Spanish backstreets at Easter seems like an unlikely basis for a high concept art exhibition. But this is exactly the sort of thing on show in the National Gallery’s “The Sacred Made Real” which opened last week and runs all the way through until 24th January.

 Gregorio Fernández: Dead Christ (1625-30).
 Photograph: Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid

The exhibition, the brainchild of curator Xavier Bray, has brought together some of the most powerful pieces of 17th Century Spanish art and cleverly exhibited them in such a way as to make them appeal to contemporary audiences.

Many of the works are painted wooden sculpture – something that is generally looked down on as kitschy and lacking in artistic merit. And yet the reaction from many of the country’s best art critics has been huge acclaim. Writing in The Guardian, Adrian Searle confesses that even though he’s “a non-believer”, he “left devastated and deeply moved”. Meanwhile Richard Dorment of The Telegraph concluded his review “This isn’t just a good show - it is one of the best I’ve ever seen at The National Gallery”.

Much of this seems to come down to Bray’s inventive use of lighting and shadow to give the pieces some kind of context. Rather than being housed in glass caskets, or on pristine white walls, Bray has located them in blackness and low lighting. But it’s also the result of his determination to fly in the face of popular opinion and pursue a hugely derided medium, and his tenacity in bringing the project to fruition. It’s taken him 10 years to get to this point and many of these works are still so revered that they are leaving Spain for the first time for this exhibition.

Yet for all Bray’s creative showcasing, the quality of this exhibition owes much to the original works, a mixture of paintings and sculptures which remind those who view them of the grim realities of Jesus’ death. There are other works here too of course - particularly devotional works of various saints - but it is those works examining Jesus’ suffering which are being most widely applauded. These pieces create space to reflect on the death of Jesus and view it in a fresh, and sometimes shocking way. The attention to detail, the occasional use of materials such as hair, ivory and oxhorn, and the carefully determined poses all mean that these pieces were always far more than tacky statues.

What Bray has done is to help sophisticated, modern and often non-believing audiences, to enter into the devotional experience, in effect doing for 21st Century audiences what the works did in their original context. But it seems like this is something different from Mel Gibson’s film The Passion of the Christ. Not only is the exhibiton counter-balanced by those more peaceful works, it also fascinates it’s audience with the more gory aspects of the sculptures whilst nevertheless still horrifying them. It’s both compelling and disturbing all rolled into one. And this is so often the way that Jesus’ death is experienced. As the ultimate act of love and self-sacrifice, it will always draw people towards it even though what that act resulted in was disturbing and horrific.

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