Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
March 9, 2010
Ronda Kasl, ed. Sacred Spain: Art and Belief in the Spanish World Exh. cat. Indianapolis and New Haven: Indianapolis Museum of Art in association with Yale University Press, 2009. 400 pp.; 125 color ills.; 25 b/w ills. Cloth $65.00 (9780300154719)
Exhibition schedule: Indianapolis Museum of Art, Indianapolis, October 11, 2009–January 3, 2010
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Unknown artists. Popayán, 17th–18th centuries. Crown of the Andes (ca. 1600–1700). Gold, cast, repoussé, and chased, with emeralds. Height: 13 1/2 in. (34.5 cm). Diameter: 13 1/4 in. (33.7 cm). Private collection.

Sacred Spain: Art and Belief in the Spanish World defied conventional boundaries of what constitutes “Spanish” art. It was a refreshingly intelligent exhibition, and ideally will set new standards for how the field is studied. It presented the imagery of Catholicism as a common denominator of Spanish identity in Old World and New. The stunning selection of objects was presented in six thematic sections to remind viewers of their original raison d’être: “In Defense of Images,” “True Likeness,” “Moving Images,” “With the Eyes of the Soul,” “Visualizing Sanctity,” and “Living with Images.”

Ronda Kasl, Senior Curator of Painting and Sculpture before 1800 at the Indianapolis Museum of Art, worked with an international team to bring together an evocative and often exquisite selection of paintings, sculptures, manuscripts, and objects intended for private devotion from collections in Spain, Mexico, Peru, the United Kingdom, and the United States. Familiar works such as Velázquez’s Madre Jerónima de la Fuente, Alonso Cano’s Dead Christ Supported by Angels (1620 and 1646–52; both Museo del Prado, Madrid), and Juan de Valdés Leal’s two allegories of Vanity and Salvation (1660; Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art, Hartford; and ca. 1660; York Art Gallery, York) took their place among thematically related pieces by artists far less familiar. That the “masters” did not overwhelm, but graciously accepted their place within the larger thematic context, attests to the success of the approach. Within each gallery, the interplay among various objects was left largely for the viewer to discover; no overly didactic (and limiting) wall texts discussed these at any length. Judging from the conversations about the works witnessed among visitors in the gallery, this was an effective strategy.

“In Defense of Images” opened with the Allegory of Vanity by Valdés Leal paired with the Allegory of Salvation, where knowledge is represented through piled books, clearly identified by titles on their spines. Those in the Allegory of Vanity include a number of artistic treatises. As Kasl points out in her catalogue entry, the treatise at the center of the painting is Carducho’s Diálogo de la Pintura, opened to an engraving of a tabula rasa and proclaiming the “brush’s sovereign science to turn possibility into action.” The facing page reproduces the royal decree exempting painters from the alcabala (sales tax) on their works, thus supporting the qualification of painting as a noble art. What is not clear is the message conveyed by the inclusion of these volumes: did the artist mean to praise art, represented by both his painting and the treatises depicted, as a path to spiritual awakening? Or did he mean to suggest the vanity of art?

The inclusion of a manuscript of Pintura sabia (1659; Fundación Lázaro Galdiano, Madrid) by the monk/painter/theorist Fray Juan Rizi further elucidated the interplay between written word and artistic practice. Mirroring Valdés Leal’s open book, it showed the allegorical figure of Pintura sabia, who displays to the viewer a framed image of Christ and the Virgin Mary; she is accompanied by the Liberal Arts on the left and the Mechanical Arts on the right. Art imitates divine creation, makes the divine visible, conveys the Word, codifies the representation of the divine, and inspires.

An exquisite polychrome wood sculpture (measuring just under twenty inches in height) by Pedro Roldán represents Saint John on the Island of Patmos (ca. 1665; Monastery of Santa Clara, Clarisas Fransiscanas, Montilla, Córdoba). The seated saint looks heavenward, his divinity conveyed by his abundant gold polychrome robe and mantle and worked silver halo. His extended right hand once held a pen; his left holds his book, open to a quote from the book of Revelations, and, on the facing page, an illustration of the Woman of the Apocalypse. This is inspired by the engraving by Juan de Jáurequi included in a 1614 commentary on the Apocalypse, on view in the same case (Andover-Harvard Theological Library, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA), which also inspired Juan Correa’s The Woman of the Apocalypse (ca. 1689; Acervo del Museo Nacional del Virreinato, Tepotzotlán), hanging nearby.

Saint Luke Painting our Lady of Snows by Juan Correa (ca. 1680–90; Acervo del Templo de San Felipe Neri, La Profesa, Mexico City) opened the second gallery, dedicated to “True Likeness,” that is, images whose “truth” heightened the possibility of a sacred presence. Correa’s image seems straightforward, as St. Luke sits painting an icon of the Virgin and child, his extraordinarily detailed—almost trompe l’oeil—hand and palette overlapping the image he paints. Yet the distinctly archaic style of the icon invites further investigation: it is collaged onto Correa’s work. In fact, this was one of four icons of the Virgin of the Snows sent to Mexico by the general of the Jesuits in the late sixteenth century. Here appropriated, this true image inspires the faithful viewer, for whom St. Luke is a surrogate, as the historical St. Luke in turn creates the image.

More than any exhibition I have seen, Sacred Spain continually reminded viewers of the original function of these works, too often overlooked as they are taken out of context and into the museum gallery. Perhaps no image inspired greater devotion than the suffering Christ, introduced in the true image section by Holy Faces painted by El Greco and his Workshop and by Alonso López de Herrera (1586–96; Museo Nacional del Prado; and 1624; Acervo del Museo Nacional del Virreinato, Tepogzotlán). Those images served as a preamble to the subsequent gallery, dedicated to “Moving Images.” Although the title in English might lead to some ambiguity, its Spanish translation in the gallery as “Imágenes conmovedoras” leaves no doubt that its intended meaning was images that provoke an emotional response. At the center of the room rested the polychromed wood Cristo yacente attributed to Juan Sánchez Barba (1652; Church of the Asunción de Nuestra Señora, Hermitage of la Veracruz, Navalcarnero, Madrid). The catalogue entry tells the fascinating vicissitudes of this figure first introduced in the Good Friday procession in the town of Navalcarnero in 1652. In 1735 the confraternity sought to commission a replacement for a deteriorated Christ figure that was used to enact the Descent from the Cross. Unable to raise the funding, they separated the arms of this figure from its shoulders and reattached them so that they could be rearranged to represent both the Descent and the Entombment. The leather that covers the internal workings is clearly visible. Finances mattered, even in the seventeenth century; probably because they were unable to afford sculpture, the Parish church of San Lorenzo in Valladolid exhibited instead a painting by Mateo Cerezo of a life-size Dead Christ mourned by angels (ca. 1659; Church of Nuestra Señora de San Lorenzo, Valladolid), which according to Palomino was placed on the high altar on Holy Friday. Examination of the back of the frame clearly shows a structure for the insertion of the uprights that would hold it in place.

“With the Eyes of the Soul” focused on a range of artistic solutions to representing the private vision. Clearly, this was problematic: how does an artist convey the difference between what exists for our eyes and what exists only in the sight of the saint? Francisco Camilo shows the vision of Saint John of God by having the Virgin and St. John crown him with thorns, having left their rightful places in a painting of the Crucifixion above the altar behind (1653; The Bowes Museum, Co. Durham). An unknown early eighteenth-century artist of the Cuzco school offers a unique interpretation of the mystical experience of Mary Magdalene, who after days of penitence in the wilderness would swoon in ecstasy, only to be transported to heaven seven times each day (Colección Barbosa-Stern, Lima). To signal two levels of reality, the artist places before the Magdalene and angels a transparent curtain, through which we see, so that the curtain’s crocheted edges become a frame, separating the saintly experience from the nature surrounding.

Once the Council of Trent endorsed the veneration of the images of saints, artists faced the challenge not only of painting “true” images but also of creating images that confirmed the saint’s historical identity, featured here in the gallery dedicated to “Visualizing Sanctity.” These might include records of contemporary figures, such as Velázquez’s early portrait of Madre Jerónima de la Fuente (1620; Museo del Prado, Madrid) painted just before her departure to found the first convent in the Philippines, or images representing historical narratives, such as Murillo’s Martyrdom of Saint Pedro de Arbués (ca. 1664; Colección BBVA, Madrid). But perhaps the most fascinating image in this section was the engraved and etched frontispiece to Naturae Prodigium Gratiae Portentum (Prodigy of Nature, Portent of Grace; Madrid, 1651; Lilly Library, Indiana University. Bloomington). This tome defends St. Francis as a second Christ, elucidating the parallels between them in almost five hundred pages of text arranged in two columns, one for each. This mirroring underlies the construction of the engraved frontispiece, dominated by a bizarre hybrid with a torso that is half Crucified Christ, half St. Francis, its head and legs covered by wings inspired by text from the book of Isaiah (6:2) and the Office of St. Francis.

Having opened with the most public theme—the defense of images or the policy making, if you will—the exhibition closed on a far more intimate note in the section “Living with Images,” devoted to objects intended for private devotion. Those for whom Murillo’s Virgins of the Immaculate Conception seem too familiar would reconsider upon viewing the small version of the subject from the Arango collection. This is Murillo at his freshest: although we do not know if this was the small Immaculate Conception on copper that Palomino called a cosa maravillosa, it indeed is. The span of the objects of private devotion is suggested by comparing the Murillo with the portable Altarpiece of the Virgin of Copacabana (ca. 1650–75; Museo de Arte de Lima,) that reproduces the main altarpiece of Copacabana in an indigenous material combining paste with maquey.

A small copper plate (ca. 1625–40) from the Barbosa-Stern Collection perhaps best encapsulated the complexities of Sacred Spain. It is an etched copper plate, the verso of which was used as a support for a painting. The accepted identification of the etching is a scene of a kneeling Inca nobleman, with shaved head and pre-Hispanic costume, confessing to a member of the clergy, possible a Jesuit. The Inca’s sin is suggested by a snake coming out of his mouth, and his salvation is shown as his soul is greeted by an angel in the celestial realm above; a devil, his fists clenched in frustration, stands behind the seated cleric. No prints of the image are known; nor do we know when it lost its relevancy, or exactly when the verso of the plate was used as support for the Italianate scene of the Virgin of the Rosary with Saint Dominic and Saint Francis by an anonymous artist. An evocation of the changing nature of Christian imagery in a New Spain, this work epitomizes the intersections of art, cultures, and religion that pervade Sacred Spain.

Janis Tomlinson is Field Editor for Spanish Art at caa.reviews. She was not involved in the editorial process for this review.

Janis A Tomlinson
Director, University Museums, University of Delaware

Please send comments about this review to editor.caareviews@collegeart.org.