In Seventeenth century Seville, a very specific art form aimed at making the invisible real. .This art form was composed by painted wooden sculptures which I particularly like because they do not claim attention as works of art but as vivid mimetic depictions of humanity in its paradoxical shares of beauty and suffering. These objects functioned in a different way than works of art do in museums. They were objective invocations of presence. In their very paradoxical nature, they were both subjects and objects for they supposed to present what they represented while functioning as instruments to awaken devotion.
One of my favourite examples is Juan Martínez Montañés’ (1568-1649) and Francisco Pacheco’s (1564-1644) Saint Francis Borgia which was an ‘imagen de vestir’; that is, a sculpture in which only the visible parts, namely the head and the hands were carved. The bodies, which is covered with a simple cassock of sized cloth, is made in the form of manikins so that they could be dressed in elaborate liturgical dress on solemn ocassions. The realistic effect of this was further heightened by the polychromy of the flesh areas which were painted by Pacheco (Diego Velazquez’s teacher and father in law) using the matt finish technique and imitated flesh tones in an extremely naturalistic manner. I must say that in seventeenth century Spain painters in order to be allowed to work as painters had to pass an exam of this kind of painting. This is key to understand the work of Diego Velazquez in its conflation of elegance and pathos.
The standard image of Saint Francis Borgia, great-grandson of the Borgia pope Alexander VI, had already been established in 1624, the date of his beatification. A painting in the collection of the Duke of Gandia (his family), now in the convent of the Descalzas Reales in Madrid, testifies to his likeness. What I particularly like about Montañés’ carved image is the elegance of the pose which is reminiscent of classical statuary. He combines the classicism of a philosopher with the realism of a saint. There is contemplation but also emotion, with his face expressing humility as he meditates on the fragility of life and the vanity of worldly power. In his left hand he used to hold a skull that originally had a crown, a reference to the Empress Isabella of Portugal, whom he served during her lifetime and who body he escorted to her tomb in Granada on her death.
Having said this, it is with this conflation of classicism and emotion that Montañes overcomes the dramatic psychologism imposed by another realist who used to work in Italy. I am referring to Caravaggio who was wrongly thought to have influenced Spanish painting. Nothing further than the truth. Spain had a very different and specific kind of (religious) painting. While in the Italian, devotion was conveyed through represented suffering, the Spaniard represents suffering through elegant restraint. For that the pose and movement of the hands is particularly important for it conveys a sense of courtly elegance that at the same time brings about a sense of divinity. I find these image an example of sober grief and discreet suffering which was supposed to be the educated (and humanistic) way of understanding (and also bearing) the horrors of human transience. J A T