The reviews were alluring and tantalising. Referred to, simply, as the best exhibition of the year, when it opened in 2009. There was a lot to like… only a few pieces were shown in each room. Each piece therefore was given the space to breathe. Each piece important enough to command your undivided attention. The lighting low and subdued; encouraging the audience to whisper or remain silent. These are objects of devotion normally seen in churches and there was a reverential silence in each room.
In 17th-century Spain, religious art got the realism treatment… whether it was meant to shock, I’m not sure… but realism brought a much needed oomph to the Catholic Church. You were no longer just praying to an icon; you were face to face with a living person, whose very pain and sadness was there for you to see.
The austerity of the works in sharp contrast with some of the goriness on display. The severed ‘Head of Saint John the Baptist’ certainly proved a hit with a couple of children in the room at the same time as me; the blood on the severed neck hinting at the fresh decapitation. ‘Christ on the Cross (‘Cristo de los Desamparados’)’ invites you to reflect on the pain which Christ suffered but if you have any doubts, his shadow on the wall will refute these as you see him pulling from the nails; his body slumped forward, helplessly.
The Culture Show’s review of this exhibition drew our attention to a couple of pieces, ‘The Virgin of Sorrows (Mater Dolorosa)’ and ‘Dead Christ’ and these were indeed fabulous in their realism… but ‘The Virgin of the Immaculate Conception’ was one of my favourite pieces. The detail of her drapery and her face meant that you had to look twice to reassure yourself that it was a statue you were looking at, not a real person. As for ‘Saint Francis Borgia’, I simply could not hold his gaze.
Yes, the standard of the works on show was extremely high… but this exhibition was a success because the curator got it spot on. They didn’t want you to simply visit this exhibition; they wanted you to experience it. Simply astounding.