Sacred Spain


November 22, 2009


Recently I had the good fortune to visit Indianapolis, where I was able to spend several hours in the best pre-modern art exhibition I can remember seeing in ages, Sacred Spain: Art and Belief in the Spanish World at the Indianapolis Museum of Art. I have to admit to having expected good things from the organizer, Ronda Kasl, Senior Curator of European Art before 1800 at the IMA, whom I have long admired. She and her team surpassed themselves.

The exhibition is arranged in six thematic sections, “In Defense of Images,” “True Likeness,” Moving Images,” “With the Eyes of the Soul,” “Visualizing Sanctity,” and “Living with Images.” The selection of artworks—paintings, sculpture, illustrated books, metalwork—perfectly balances the aesthetic command that each object exerts with the role each plays in thematic exemplification. Generous grants allowed Ronda to research the topic in depth, tracing relatively unfamiliar examples of Spanish and Spanish colonial religious art not only in the US and the UK, but in museums, churches, and monasteries in Spain, Mexico and Peru.

Admirably, Ronda observes no status hierarchy among metropolitan and colonial artworks. She freely mixes objects from Spain and America. For instance, in the section “True Likeness,” large trompe l’oeil paintings depicting venerated sculpted images, one of the Virgen de los Desamparados (patroness of Valencia), another of the Virgen de la Soledad (venerated in Madrid) are shown near one another. The former, dated 1644 (Real Monasterio de las Descalzas Reales, Madrid), is by the Valencian, Tomás Yepes, whereas the latter (circa 1690; San Pedro Museo de Arte, Puebla) is by Cristóbal de Villalpando, an artist who was born, worked, and died in Mexico City. In both cases, the painters have exerted themselves to the utmost in order to evoke the presence of a distant cult object. Close by, borrowed from a private collection, is an extraordinary accoutrement of another venerated sculpture of the Virgin, a seventeenth-century gold crown, amended in the eighteenth century, encrusted with over 200 emeralds, made to adorn the statue of the Virgin of the Immaculate Conception in the cathedral of Popayán, New Granada (now Colombia).

Throughout the exhibition, Ronda Kasl explores how Spanish and Spanish American artists used verisimilitude to convey abstract doctrines and to promote devotion by evoking a heightened awareness of the senses. Sacred visions play a large role in such works, including Antonio Montúfar’s 1628 painting of Saint Francis of Assisi Appearing before Pope Nicholas V (Los Angeles County Museum of Art). So do images themselves, as in the case of The Miracle of Saint Dominic in Soriano by Alonso Cano (Instituto Gómez-Moreno, Granada) in which the Virgin Mary, Saint Mary Magdelene, and Saint Catherine are shown appearing to a Dominican friar in 1530 with a true likeness in the form of a painting of the founder of his order. Reflexivity in art-making takes a specifically religious turn in the Spanish tradition, and nowhere is it more possible to gain an appreciation of the intensity with which it could be pursued than in this extraordinary exhibition. This is a single venue show, so, if at all possible, get to Indianapolis before it closes on January 3, 2010!