The Sacred Made Real at the National Gallery

The Sacred Made Real at the National Gallery

‘The Sacred Made Real’ at the National Gallery is a groundbreaking exhibition of hyper-real religious works that will change the way we see art.

By Martin Gayford

In the northern Spanish city of Valladolid, I am examining the corpse of a man who has suffered a terrible and sustained assault. His eyes are glazed in death, his mouth hangs open, his body is covered in a mass of wounds and lacerations. It is quite hard to look at, yet at the same time it is beautiful. “This,” says Maria Bolanos, the director of the Museo Nacional Colegio de San Gregorio, which I am visiting, “is our Rokeby Venus!”

She is joking, of course, but only a little. We are contemplating Dead Christ (c1625-30) by Gregorio Fernández, one of the great masterpieces of 17th-century Spanish sculpture. Next week it goes on show as one of the star exhibits in a remarkable and ground-breaking exhibition at the National Gallery, The Sacred Made Real.

To compare Fernández’s Dead Christ with Velázquez’s naked Rokeby Venus is startling, but in some ways it makes perfect sense. The two artists were contemporaries; Velázquez would almost certainly have known this work – which belonged to a Jesuit religious institution in Madrid – and others by Fernández. Like Velázquez’s painting, the sculpture is a work of great realism, and also extraordinary art. Both men were greatly esteemed in their lifetimes. The difference is that Velázquez is now one of the most famous artists who ever lived, whereas Fernández – in company with the other leading sculptors of Renaissance and Baroque Spain – is almost forgotten except by specialists. Their years languishing in obscurity, however, may be about to end.

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