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"Crucifixion" (1617) a statue by Juan Martínez Montañés

Just once in a while an exhibition comes along that profoundly changes the way a certain type or era of art is perceived. The Sacred Made Real: Spanish Painting and Sculpture 1600-1700 at the National Gallery is one such exhibition. The period covered is that of the Spanish Golden Age — the age of El Greco, Velázquez, Zurbarán and Murillo. These names are so illustrious that it is easy to forget that they lived and worked in a country that was quite unlike any other in Europe and that their artistic traditions were every bit as idiosyncratic. What this exhibition does, using a mere 16 paintings and 16 sculptures, is redefine the Spanishness of Spanish art.

It does so by putting a vital but almost unconsidered strain of its art — the polychrome wooden sculptures that are to be found in so many of Spain's religious buildings — alongside the work of its leading painters. All of a sudden, a country that seemed to have no real sculptural tradition is shown to have a rich and distinctive one and, because the sculptors and painters worked hand in hand, the pictures we thought we knew are suddenly endowed with an entirely new provenance. 

The Council of Trent (1545-63), which reaffirmed Catholicism in the face of the Protestant threat, led, in Spain in particular, to a burgeoning of religious orders and consequently a surge in demand for religious imagery to service them. Counter-Reformation art was an expression of the new purified faith. It stressed the spiritual rather than the sensual and aimed to inspire devotion in its viewers and personal communication with God. 

The response of Spain's artists, whether working in two dimensions or three, was identical. They developed a powerful, stark realism, which was displayed to charged and often brutal effect in crucifixions, depositions and martyrdoms: the new corporeality was ideally suited to bodies in extremis. The reason their work was so similar was that they had shared origins. Most significant painters, including Velázquez, worked on polychrome statues as part of their training. Indeed, guild regulations stipulated that the sculptors themselves were not allowed to paint the works they carved. Applying the flesh tones — the encarnación, literally the incarnation — that brought the statues to life (or rather death) was entrusted to the painters alone. 

The results of this collaboration were sculptures that appear so real that the sacred feels palpable. They put the worshipper almost into the presence of the crucified Christ or St Francis in Ecstasy. The techniques adopted to increase this illusion included using glass eyes, eyelashes made from real hair, ivory teeth, horn fingernails and blood fashioned from cork-tree bark. The paints used varied from the glossy to the matt depending on the flesh tone required. And the act of painting itself was an expression of faith: if it wasn't well done how could the painted figure work as it was meant to and transmit the viewer into the realm of the holy?

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