The Glory & the Grime

Spanish Realism at the National Gallery

 “The Sacred Made Real,” the National Gallery of Art’s exhibit on seventeenth-century Spanish painting and sculpture, is a quick but intense experience. Only twenty-two pieces are on display until May 31, gathered from museums and religious institutions across Spain, including the Prado, as well as American and British collections. Paintings and painted sculptures are paired to show how artists collaborated to create a new bloody-minded and realistic sacred art.

The museum has chosen to highlight that technical aspect of the artworks. There’s a short film accompanying the exhibit which shows exactly how artists in different media worked together to create painted statues. But even a technical approach can’t distract from the raw spiritual impact of the artworks themselves, many of which ordinarily reside in a “working” church or monastery. The nicknames given to two of these pieces by the faithful—the “Christ of Love” and the “Christ of the Helpless”—should indicate their purpose. These pieces weren’t designed just to be admired but to be used. The sculpture that opens the exhibit is still carried through the streets of Seville on Palm Sunday.

Even in a museum, with captions on the walls and the appreciative hush of tourists rather than the susurrus of rosaries, the paintings and sculptures still have their desired effect. Visitors walk out of the National Gallery’s bright, glassy expanses into the dark, quiet rooms of the exhibit as if they’re stepping into...

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About the Author

Eve Tushnet is a freelance journalist in Washington, D.C. Her blog can be read here.