Thursday, January 28, 2010

Nearly 100,000 Drawn to Sacred Art Exhibition

Almost 100,000 people drawn to exhibition of devotional art
By David V Barrett

29 January 2010

Archbishop Nichols pictured in front of Pedro de Menaa's St Francis Standing in Meditation

The Sacred Made Real exhibition at the National Gallery has "exceeded all expectations" with almost 100,000 visitors - triple the number of visitors expected by the gallery.

The exhibition of Counter-Reformation Spanish painting and sculpture, from 1600 to 1700, opened on October 21 and closed on January 24. On Monday the National Gallery announced that it attracted 99,136 people.

The exhibition included polychrome wooden sculptures that had never been seen outside Spain, where they are used in devotional ceremonies. They included the simple but realistic Mary Magdalen Meditating on the Crucifixion (1664) by Pedro de Mena.

The paintings and sculptures were a product of the Spanish Counter-Reformation, when religious patrons, including the Dominican, Franciscan and Carthusian orders, challenged artists to bring the sacred to life. When the National Gallery launched the exhibition it said it was "created to shock the senses and stir the soul". Many of the works displayed the brutal treatment of Christ: the sculptures Christ as the Man of Sorrows (1673) by Pedro de Mena and Dead Christ (1625-30) by Gregorio Fernández, which used the bark of a cork tree to simulate the effect of coagulated blood, and bull's horn for Christ's fingernails. The artist's intention was that believers should feel truly in the presence of the dead Christ. Both sculptors used glass eyes and tears and ivory teeth in their sculptures for greater realism. The sculptures were displayed alongside more familiar paintings, which included Diego Velázquez's Immaculate Conception (1618-1619).

As well as the themes of the Immaculate Conception and the Passion of Christ, the 16 paintings and 16 sculptures portrayed a number of saints.

It took the curator Xavier Bray three years to put the exhibition on, including persuading Spanish churches and monasteries to part with their devotional works. Pedro de Mena's St Francis Standing in Meditation (1663) had never before left the sacristy of Toledo Cathedral.

The National Gallery had expected around 30,000 people to view the exhibition; the fact that three times that number came astonished them. Dr Bray told The Catholic Herald that it was "the immediacy of the images" that drew such a large number of people.

He said: "The images of Christ were very truthful, profound depictions; you were meeting the Virgin, Christ and the saints in a very direct way."

He said the visitors were of all ages, art students, Catholics, Anglicans and members of other religions. In a crowded gallery, he said, "there was a wonderful sense of silence - awe-inspired people. I met a Sufi woman in tears."

When the exhibition was over and the last member of the public had left, Dr Bray spent about three hours in the gallery on his own. "I said goodbye to every single piece," he said.

The impact of the exhibition was so strong that he hoped it would be remembered for the next 10 years. He alleged that his "dream exhibition" would be on Goya as a religious painter.

Days before the exhibition began in October Archbishop Vincent Nichols of Westminster took the press on a tour of three of the sculptures: The Dead Christ by Gregorio Fernandez, St Francis Standing in_Meditation and Mary Magdalene Meditating on the Crucifixion, both by Pedro de Mena.

He said the sculpture of St Francis "takes us to the very heart of who St Francis is".

"His face is raised to God, his eyes open, his mouth slightly open, and a posture that's both of utter surprise and also of recognition. Astonished delight to be approaching the presence of God as he was. But there's also recognition: this is fulfilment," he said.

Source: The Catholic Herald

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