If you are within driving distance or other reach of Washington D.C. right now, one of the most genuinely provocative exhibitions in the history of the National Gallery of Art is packing up and heading back to Europe just a few days hence:“The Sacred Made Real: Spanish Painting and Sculpture 1600-1700 .  Not only is the art showcased therein manifestly great (as well as hitherto unknown to most American viewers). It is also and indisputably capital-C Catholic through and through – one more fact that might just tip the balance toward a last-minute visit.
To the surprise of no one who has seen it, “The Sacred Made Real” has been celebrated on both sides of the Atlantic since its first appearance in London in 2009. Secular sources acclaiming the show include among many more the Washington Post, whose reviewer Blake Gopnik suggested that it might “turn out to have been one of the most substantial, important events our Washington museum has hosted.” Similarly, this is “the sort of show for which the National Gallery should be applauded,” wrote a London Times critic. Indeed, the runaway success of “The Sacred Made Real” in London took even its organizers by surprise – including self-described agnostic Xavier Bray, the assistant curator who made it happen. Secular or not, the British and American publics have more than vindicated Bray’s aesthetic judgment. In cosmopolitan post-everything London, fully four times more people turned out to see this show than even he anticipated.
Such public enthusiasm for unapologetically, fervently, thoroughly Catholic art in the far-off country of Spain four centuries ago is worth pondering for a moment – all the more so since it comes at a time when the Church’s standing in the secular world hovers near an all-time low. For here, truly, is realistic sacred art at its most staggering. Foremost are the brilliantly painted wooden statues scaled to life-size by masters who ought to be household names: Jose de Mora, Francisco Pancheco, Alonso Cano, Juan Martinez Montañés, Francisco de Zurbarán. Related paintings from the period demonstrate the fascinating give and take between canvas and wood, palette and carving knife. But with all due respect to the paintings, the three-dimensional art is most unnerving in its immediacy and realism.
Detail from The Immaculate Conception by Juan Martinez Montañés
Here a bleeding, suffering Christ stretches tautly on the Cross, staring both piteously and pitiably at the penitent near his feet. There a dewy yet tormented Mary Magdalen, her dazzling soiled skin wrapped roughly in a penitent’s coat of rushes, hunches in sorrow over a crucifix. A statue of Saint Ignatius Loyola looms so lifelike and animated that a recitation of his Exercises seems a strong possibility. Many more shocks await. Of course, the extreme realism owes plenty to the esoteric artistic minutiae – inserting carved elephant ivory for finger and toenails; painting gilt under a coat of white paint to make it glow eerily; using glass for eyes and then painting them on the inside for particularly vivid effect; and all the rest of the stagecraft discreetly enriching these pieces. Even so, no one viewing this exhibition will think that the overall effect is simply equal to the parts of such parlor tricks – beginning with the people who made the pieces in the first place. In fact, some were certain enough of their encounter with the divine via this work that they inserted written confessions of their own into the statues before sealing them.
“They’re marvelous,” as an abstract sculptor remarked to the Wall Street Journal reviewer: “Why are they so marvelous?” It’s a question that goes to the heart not only of the exhibition, but also to the creation of all great sacred art, period. And thereby hangs an interesting historical tale. What really accelerated the appearance of these Spanish Baroque masterpieces was the Council of Trent – which beginning in 1545, and working against the influences of Protestantism, specifically affirmed the Catholic need for realistic images that might, by their aesthetic power, draw the viewer into contemplation and emulation.
In other words, while making clear that Catholic art was not to become what some Protestants accused it of – namely, idol worship – the Council nevertheless maintained as the Church traditionally had that such images were an asset to those seeking God, rather than an impediment. This, then, was the great historical fountain from which these astonishing works flowed: from the need to re-affirm, at a time following scandal and corruption, that the truth of the Church still remained the truth.
Quite obviously, whatever effect these pieces may have had on the prayerful between then and now, the Council’s mandate ultimately worked at least one near-miracle. Four centuries later, it would capture throngs of Western people who say no penance, know no fasts beyond those designed to burn ketones, and who are generally more ignorant about their Christian heritage than any baptized Christians who came before, including the illiterate ones. Yet as the respectful and wondering public reception of “The Sacred Made Real” goes to show, this Catholic art nevertheless still speaks to them anyway, calling even the restless and relentlessly quotidian Western mind to the possibility of a transcendent realm.
It’s enough to make one wonder what would come of Catholic artists today re-committing themselves to the pursuit of truth, as Pope Benedict for one has presciently asked them to. After all, like those Spaniards before them, they too follow an era of great scandal and corruption in the Church. It’s also enough to make one wonder which among the works being created in our own time will have anything like this exhibition’s effect on foreigners four centuries from now – or whether that question answers itself.