Baroque Spain: Experience Christ.

Save the art of Baroque Italy, nothing approaches the intense spirituality of Spanish Baroque art. Through a series of short essays over the next few weeks, we’ll explore the art, religious history, and politics of this militant, devoutly Catholic country in the seventeenth century.

In the seventeenth century, Spain was securing political, military and religious power for themselves. The Papacy had been ideologically and (in some countries) physically battling Protestants since 1517, and had been putting down various theological rebellions for centuries before that. Their response to the Reformation that rose up in the North was to launch internal reforms to improve the piety of Catholic nations. Spain was granted the privilege of taking their brand of militant Catholicism, which was slowly being refined with a new global catechism, to the New World. They had competition, and they were paid handsomely. The real prize was expanded political glory for Spain and new converts for Catholicism. Back home, piety was less adventurous but by no means was it less involved. This post will examine the communal, wrenching, detailed devotion found in Spanish polychromed sculpture.  (Note: Please view the gallery of images below for detailed images of  the polychromed sculptures discussed. Angles, lighting and (if applicable) dress all affect the way these sculptures appear to the viewer and it is truly remarkable how emotionally versatile these sculptures are.)

Gregorio Fernandez, Dead Christ, c. 1625-30

Gregorio Fernandez’ sculptures were known for their wince-inducing realism. Such realism was part of the experience of the sculptures, most of which were paraded through the streets during Holy Week. Many of Fernandez’ and other artists’ polychromed sculptures are still in processional use. Holy Week processions were a time of celebration, feasting, and mourning. Life-size, detailed, and poseable polychromed sculptures displayed the events of Christ’s Passion. Clerics and laymen alike lined Spain’s medieval streets, walking from one church to another. Music was played and prayers were shouted. Polychromed sculptures (paso) provided the faithful with visual and emotional cues to be lead into compassion, repentance and awe.

Fernandez, Dead Christ (detail)

Fernandez’ Dead Christ is life-size and modestly semi-nude. His body rests on a bed, and is a stationary part of the church in which he rests. Viewers can approach him, examine his body (although the sculpture is often enclosed in a glass case), and contemplate the dead Christ before them. The materials that Fernandez used contribute to the intensity and emotion affect of the sculpture. The dead Christ has glass eyes, fingernails from animal horn, and cork was used to build up Christ’s wounds. The detailed and skilled painting is equally important in affecting realism. The dead Christ is when he is at his most human. Christ’s body is simultaneously battered and beautiful; he is divine and human.  The intent behind this and other paso masterpieces was to induce in the viewer a state of sorrow and repentance – a turning back to Christ, and a realization of the severity, somberness, and violence of his death.

Piety extended from king to subject, from clerics to laymen, and from artists to viewers. By necessity, artists were Catholic, and firsthand accounts sometimes shed light on their individual acts of faithfulness. Antonio Palomino, an 18th-century Spanish art historian and painter, muses

Gregorio [Fernández] . . . did not undertake to make an effigy of Christ our Lord or His Holy Mother without preparing himself first by prayer, fast, penitence, and communion, so that God would confer his grace upon him and make him succeed.

Indeed, such practices of piety welcomed a large resurgance in Baroque western Europe, many thanks to Church’s reforms. In his Spiritual Exercises, the Jesuit father St. Ignatius instructs the faithful to

ask for shame and confusion, because I see … how many times I have deserved eternal damnation, because of the many grievous sins I have committed… I will consider myself as a source of corruption and contagion from which has issued countless sins and evils and the most offensive poison… I will consider who God is against whom I have sinned, going through His attributes and comparing them with their contraries in me…

Juan Martinez Montanes, Cristo de la Clemecia, 1603-4.

It was this type of deep contemplation that pasos and Holy Week processions intended to instill – directly or indirectly, obviously or not – in the populous.

Juan Martinez Montanes’ pasos don’t exhibit obvious signs of torture and gore like those of Fernandez, but they nevertheless are still meant to stir up compassion. He reduced stories to only their necessities. His Cristo de la Pasion  (below) has flexible limbs and is meant to be dressed up. This Cristo transforms the streets of Baroque Seville into the Stations of the Cross, recreating Christ’s passion. Indeed, as you can see from the gallery of images below, his Cristo is eerily human.

The creation of pasos such as the Cristo is a team effort, just as they are made to be experienced by community. Montanes, Fernandez, and  other Spanish paso sculptors collaborated  with painters and consulted their patrons to ensure that the finished work was up to the high standards of the new, post-Trent Catechism, which charged artists that art must be accurate, didactic and devotion-inspiring. Pasos could be painted by famous artists who did not limit their careers only to these monuments of wood. Pacheco, the teacher of Velazquez, painted Montanes’ Cristo de la Pasion. The caretakers of the church in which the paso rests during the rest of the year (non-Holy Week) are responsible for the upkeep of their pasos.

Juan Martinez Montanes, Cristo de la Pasion, c. 1618, Seville.

Devotion-inspiring art was not limited to sculpture in Baroque Spain. Painting was, in a certain way, a wider and more accessible medium for artists and their patrons to communicate with the public and elite sectors. For next week’s post in the series, we’ll explore the Caravaggesque art of Velazquez, Zurbaran, Ribalta, and other influential painters. Many of their religious scenes draw from pasos, which were unavoidable, and, of course, acknowledge the Tridentine Church’s reforms. The new boundaries set forth for artistic representation will be explained in more depth as they relate to painting.

For more information about paso sculptures (which are not limited to representations of Christ’s passion), I highly recommend that you explore the National Gallery’s slideshow of their 2010 exhibition, The Sacred Made Real.