Exemplum: The Sacred Made Real

Mary Eberstadt of The Catholic Thing writes on a recent exhibition at the National Gallery of Art titled “The Sacred Made Real: Spanish Painting and Sculpture 1600-1700”. The article (and, it appears, the exhibition itself) has much to contribute to our understanding of the artistic vocation.

This collection of hyper-realistic paintings and sculptures has made quite an impression (the exhibition was described by critic Andrew Graham-Dixon as the “museological equivalent of the ‘dark night of the soul’”), regardless of one’s religious standing. Writes Eberstadt:

“‘They’re marvelous,’ as an abstract sculptor remarked to the Wall Street Journal reviewer: “Why are they so marvelous?” It’s a question that goes to the heart not only of the exhibition, but also to the creation of all great sacred art, period. And thereby hangs an interesting historical tale. What really accelerated the appearance of these Spanish Baroque masterpieces was the Council of Trent – which beginning in 1545, and working against the influences of Protestantism, specifically affirmed the Catholic need for realistic images that might, by their aesthetic power, draw the viewer into contemplation and emulation.

“In other words, while making clear that Catholic art was not to become what some Protestants accused it of – namely, idol worship – the Council nevertheless maintained as the Church traditionally had that such images were an asset to those seeking God, rather than an impediment. This, then, was the great historical fountain from which these astonishing works flowed: from the need to re-affirm, at a time following scandal and corruption, that the truth of the Church still remained the truth.

“Quite obviously, whatever effect these pieces may have had on the prayerful between then and now, the Council’s mandate ultimately worked at least one near-miracle. Four centuries later, it would capture throngs of Western people who say no penance, know no fasts beyond those designed to burn ketones, and who are generally more ignorant about their Christian heritage than any baptized Christians who came before, including the illiterate ones. Yet as the respectful and wondering public reception of “The Sacred Made Real” goes to show, this Catholic art nevertheless still speaks to them anyway, calling even the restless and relentlessly quotidian Western mind to the possibility of a transcendent realm.”

Eberstadt’s last point strikes me as particularly poignant. Laura Cumming of The Guardian writes: “It is not common for people to weep at a press view, nor to fall silent with awe, but both happened this week at the National Gallery.”

Beauty arrests. It demands attention, even among those numbed by the digital noise of today’s media schlock. This ought to be the work of artists, especially artists of faith: to materialize beauty. It is quite possibly as close as we can get, aside from childbearing, to the miracle of the First Artist, the Incarnation. And as such, it is not only a possibility for our human faculties, but perhaps a responsibility.

The world is starved for work like that in “The Sacred Made Real.” Who will make it today? Who will train, support, and patronize those who will make it?

There is another issue at play here, one best to discuss in another blog post, but it came to mind while watching the video below. The narrator mentions that much of the work in this exhibition has been overlooked by the art world because these pieces remain as objects of devotion in churches and are not in museums. There seems something fundamentally wrong with how we think about art if this is true.

The exhibition is now closed, and I’m sorry I’ve only just learned of it. It would have been worth the drive. But I suppose there’s always the book.



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