The Sacred Made Real at the National Gallery

    Popish church decoration has never been a problem for me. I was brought up a Catholic, so I am used to the religious over-the-topness, the ornateness, the gold. But I know from a thousand overhearings in a thousand chur ches on the tourist trails of Spain or Portugal or Italy that it has been a substantial problem for others. I can hear their whispers now. Look at all that blood. Look at all those bones. Feel the guilt. See the gilt. It’s all too much.

    With the arrival of The Sacred Made Real at the National Gallery, however, I think we can safely conclude that the Reformation in Britain is finally over, and that admirers of the remarkable popish art gathered before us here will not now be dispatched to the Tower. Henry VIII’s revolt has run its course at last. The show examines a particularly spooky urge in 17th-century Spanish art: the urge to make impos sible sights appear utterly convin cing and tangible. It is one thing, after all, to read of Christ’s crucifixion in a blurry passage of the New Tes tament, and another thing entirely to watch it actually taking place before you, life-size, in colour, the blood oozing, the wounds suppurating, so real you can touch it. Which is what Juan Martinez Montañes achieves so consummately in a sculptural Crucifixion of stunning nobility and verisimilitude that hangs in the central gallery of this superbly dark event.

    Seventeenth-century Spanish art seemed to realise more fully than any other national school that sightings that are unlikely in life became fully possible in art. On paper, the story of St Francis’s corpse appearing to Pope Nicholas V 200 years after his death, unblemished and youthful, might sound incredible, or even ridiculous. When Francisco de Zurbaran paints the scene, though, he brings such unshakable realism to the task that you feel yourself to be in the presence of an eyewitness with 20/20 vision.

    Half of the exhibiting artists resort to intense hyperrealist painting to confirm the authenticity of their miracles. But it is the sculpture I will remember best from this brave display of revisionist popishness. Partly because it is so unfamiliar and so unfashionable. But mostly because it is so astonishing.

    In the show’s brilliant opening gambit, Juan de Mesa presents us with the decapitated head of St John the Baptist, preserved in 3-D on a silver platter. Salome has had her wicked way, Herod has had John beheaded, and these are the results. Your first view of de Mesa’s gruesome sculpture is actually from the side. So you can see right into the severed neck and the clogged veins; the sliced muscles and the cut-up oesophagus. Apparently, de Mesa modelled his gory anatomy on the head of a decapitated criminal. He certainly modelled it on a real corpse somewhere.

    All of which is scary and amazing. A largely illiterate churchgoing audience was being instructed in the bizarre fundamentals of 17th century belief by an art that appeared as miraculous as the events it was depicting. On the other side of the room from Montañes’s great Crucifixion, Gregorio Fernandez gives us a life-size flagellated Christ who covers up his appalling wounds with a shy crossing of his arms, like a modest girl in a bathroom.

    The National Gallery has placed this eerie Catholic doppelgänger away from the gallery wall, so you can walk around it and see how the terrible scarring on Jesus’s back is more disturbing even than the ghastly wounding on his front. So obsessively detailed is Fernandez’s carving that a recent restoration has revealed a beautifully achieved set of genitals underneath Jesus’s skimpy loincloth, whose task is to ensure the correct drooping of the covering rags.

    The lengths to which the great 17th-century Spanish illusionists would go to achieve their uncanny effects are dwelt on interestingly in the catalogue. Christ’s fingernails were usually made from carved slivers of animal bone. His eyes were glass. His gory gashes and wounds were built up with plaster surrounds. Real ropes would have bound the crossed wrists of Fernandez’s humiliated saviour.

    Although the first generation of sculptors unveiled here only did the carving, while someone else painted the wood, the next wave of superrealists did it all themselves. Chief among these was the delightful Pedro de Mena, from Malaga, whose specialities were tearful Virgins and penitent Magdalenes. His Mary Magdalene Meditating on the Crucifixion is perhaps the most affecting sculpture here. It shows a scruffy female figure with unkempt hair staring intently down at a cross. Every strand of her eyebrows has been individually painted. The way de Mena has captured the confusion of her matted hair, and the coarse textures of the straw mat she has tied around herself, is breathtaking.

    In a nearby Virgin of Sorrows, he actually traces the tracks of the tears rolling down Mary’s face with a line of glistening pine resin. A bead of glass becomes the tear itself. Picasso, who grew up near de Mena’s house in Malaga, never forgot this tearful Virgin, and later transformed her into his celebrated Weeping Woman.

    The National Gallery has turned down the lux levels at the show to an unprecedented low, and carefully spotlit every exhibit in a well meaning effort to capture the mood of a candlelit Spanish church. At times, this ersatz twilight becomes mildly irritating, but having seen many of these overlooked masterpieces in their current settings in Spain – in corridors, round corners, haphazardly placed and overlit – I happily forgive the National its occasional lurches into melodrama.

    Back at the start of the show, there is a curious portrait by Velazquez of Montañes at work in his studio. I have seen this painting scores of times before, because it usually hangs in the same room in the Prado as Las Meninas. And I’ve always assumed it was unfinished, because sketched in near the bottom is the rough outline of the face of Philip IV, which Montañes has begun working on. It turns out this unpainted section was left deliberately bare by Velazquez to imply the great act of creation that lies ahead. What a shockingly modern piece of picture-making.

    Montañes, who deserves to be held in the same regard as Zurbaran and Velazquez, but isn’t, is at his best here in a set of thoughtful life-sized images of monks: St Ignatius Loyola, peering intently at a cross; St Francis Borgia, staring closely at his own hand; Saint Bruno, gazing forlornly at a crucifix. When the blood and viscera on show at this unusually visceral event begin to pale, the restraint and nobility of Montañes’s art continues to shine. Where the show’s lesser sculptors squirt you with gore, Montañes bathes you in religious reflection. Why he isn’t considered among the evident baroque giants, alongside Velaz quez, Rubens and Rembrandt, I cannot imagine.

    Or perhaps I can. Art history is essentially a 19th-century invention, and most of its authors were German Protestants living in Vienna, so the entire discipline has a Lutheran tang to it. True Catholic art, with its sweaty religious messaging and extreme fondness for glittery gewgaws, has had to wait an inordinately long time to achieve critical respectability. Which is why El Greco was only “rediscovered” in Picasso’s time. Why Caravaggio was forgotten until the 20th century. Why Spanish art in general was rated so lowly that it scarcely receives a mention in the pioneering treatises. And why a display as compelling and dramatic and exciting as The Sacred Made Real has had to wait until now to arrive here.