The National Gallery of Art is, until the end of May, home to more than twenty Spanish devotional pieces of art—many exhibited for the first time outside their permanent homes in churches and monasteries—as part of the exhibit The Sacred Made Real: Spanish Painting and Sculpture, 1600-1700 . These sculptures and paintings might not get out much because they are, quite frankly, not easy viewing. In her review of the exhibit for the Weekly Standard, Maureen Mullarkey describes Pedro de Mena’s Christ as the Man of Sorrows:

This half-length spectacle of desolation shatters detachment. Christ stands bound, a common prisoner released from a near-lethal Roman scourging. No hint of divinity relieves the stark reality of torment. Blood streams in dimensional droplets down the face, the battered torso, and into the folds of a loincloth. Eyes are swollen partly shut. Every device to enhance verisimilitude is put to use: glass eyes in the sockets, eyelashes of real hair, ivory or bone teeth visible between half-open lips. For many viewers, such figures, together with crucifixes, are anthropological curiosities that flutter on the edge of morbidity.

The art of Spain’s siglo de oro, Mallarkey argues was the fruit renewed devotion during the Counter-Reformation, “Devotion itself flamed, once again, into an art.” The museum goer who stumbles into this exhibit will be lost if he approaches artwork as only objects of aesthetic appreciation:
It hardly takes a Catholic eye to see these emblems of sanctity and solitary suffering. Nevertheless, to greet them as something more than relics of the Castilian Baroque requires sensitivity to the high poetry of theological expression. Each of these works is a call to recollection before it is a specimen of style. A rich word, recollection—and so different from appreciation, the term that clings to art like a trained spaniel. Recollection, confessors know, is the penitential spirit in play: It is a summons inward toward an examination of conscience, that hard awakening to one’s own trespasses that ends in contrition. Appreciation inclines, instead, toward the museum shop.

Articles by Meghan Duke

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