An intriguing hour at ‘The Sacred Made Real’, a National Gallery exhibition of Spanish religious art from 1600-1700. Although it had some wonderful paintings, its main focus was a series of statues – of Christ, of Mary, and of various saints – carved from wood and beautifully painted by artists who specialised in making the facial features and the skin tones look as realistic as possible.
Hair was made of twisted wicker, or of woodshavings varnished and painted black or brown. Wounds were made of cork bark coloured a deep red. Bruises on the skin were rendered in the subtlest of blues floating under the paint surface. The eyes were cups of painted glass, inserted into the hollow wooden faces from behind, and given sparkle by touches of egg-white varnish. Tears were made of glass, and tracks of tears suggested with lines of animal glue on the cheeks. Eyelashes were made of human hair, teeth from ivory or bone. The complexions were finely shaded and shadowed, the eyelids defined in black, the cheekbones highlighted much as a make-up artist would do today. All this skill was deployed to make the wooden figures look as much like the living saints as possible, especially as encountered in the half-light of a monastery or church.
As Bob said, one had to push away the irreverent and wholly unhelpful comparison with waxwork figures in Madame Tussaud’s – which, of course, came later and in a very different spirit.
Curiously, the effect of all this hyper-realism was to make me feel slightly distant. Perhaps our more northern culture has trained me in the ways of understatement, of hints and suggestions. I rather like being left to do some of the imaginative work myself. I felt I would have believed more in the figures if they had insisted less on their anatomical realism, the verismilitude of the blood. Yet there were moments when I could almost feel my way into the emotion they must release in a devout Spanish audience.