October 23, 2009

Connecting art and faith: Historic Catholic artwork and artifacts are celebrated in ‘Sacred Spain’ exhibit

Indianapolis Museum of Art conservator Christina Milton O’Connell works on restoring the “Virgin of Guadalupe” to prepare the painting for display in the museum’s new “Sacred Spain: Art and Belief in the Spanish World” exhibition. The oil on canvas painting was created by an unknown artist in Mexico in about 1700. (Submitted photo/courtesy Indianapolis Museum of Art)

Indianapolis Museum of Art conservator Christina Milton O’Connell works on restoring the “Virgin of Guadalupe” to prepare the painting for display in the museum’s new “Sacred Spain: Art and Belief in the Spanish World” exhibition. The oil on canvas painting was created by an unknown artist in Mexico in about 1700. (Submitted photo/courtesy Indianapolis Museum of Art)

By Mary Ann Wyand

Stunning. Inspirational. Unforgettable.

“Sacred Spain: Art and Belief in the Spanish World,” a unique, one-time exhibition at the Indianapolis Museum of Art, is an incredible assembly of 17th-century Catholic artwork and artifacts from Spain and Latin America.

Free admission to the temporary exhibit—which opened on Oct. 11 and continues through Jan. 3—was made possible by a $1 million grant from the Allen Whitehill Clowes Charitable Foundation. Tickets are required, and are available at the information desk inside the main museum entrance.

Ronda Kasl, senior curator of painting and sculpture before 1800 and a museum staff member for 17 years, said “Sacred Spain” is “an exhibition I’ve wanted to do for a very long time.”

During a tour of the exhibit on Oct. 8, Kasl said her “interest in this subject comes out of a long-standing preoccupation with how works of art function in the context of belief, which is slightly different from the ways in which works of art are typically viewed in art museums.”

This exhibit was specially created for the Indianapolis Museum of Art, she said, and provides viewers with the opportunity to reflect on the original context, use and significance of historic, religious artwork and artifacts from Spanish-speaking countries explained on bilingual labels.

“These are functional objects,” Kasl explained. “They weren’t made strictly for decoration. They were made to convey meaning. The Church in the 17th century … had very precise notions of how works of art should function in religious practice. (Related story: Restored ‘Virgin of Guadalupe’ and Mainardi altarpiece are now on display)

“This [artwork] comes on the heels of the Reformation and the iconoclasm in northern Europe,” she said. “It’s very interesting that, during this period, artists, theorists and theologians were rather preoccupied with defending the use of images in religion. They were faced with allegations of idolatry so they wanted to be very, very clear about the fact that these images existed to awaken devotion—to move people to devotion—or to teach them. … In some ways, their devotional function was to serve as a conduit to the divine.”

“In Defense of Images,” the title of the first gallery, begins with an explanation that, “In 1563, faced with allegations of idolatry and abuse, the [Church’s] Council of Trent [1545-63] reaffirmed the usefulness of images as a means for the instruction and edification of the faithful.”

Paintings in this gallery address complicated theological and doctrinal matters like the Immaculate Conception, Kasl said, which wasn’t formally defined by the Church as dogma until the 19th century.

The doctrine of the Immaculate Conception—the belief that the Virgin Mary was conceived free of the taint of original sin—“was the subject of heated debate in the Spanish world, in particular,” she explained. “The Spanish monarchs were great advocates of the doctrine.

“It’s a very complicated thing to represent it visually,” Kasl said. “The key figure in this pictorial debate was a painter in Seville named Francesco Pacheco, who codified the imagery of the Immaculate Conception. Pacheco was very deliberate and very explicit. His famous treatise on painting, first published in 1649, includes instructions for painting the Virgin of the Immaculate Conception in which he specifies her age, the color of her hair, the color of her clothing and the nature of the symbols that surround her … [taken] from the Book of Revelation.”

Among other paintings in this gallery are “The Dream of St. Joseph” by Francisco Rizi of Madrid, which dates to about 1665, and “Philip IV Swearing an Oath to Defend the Doctrine of the Immaculate Conception” by Pedro de Valpuesta, completed about 1645-50.

Also featured in this gallery is a beautiful Spanish colonial monstrance from Colombia made of silver, gilt, diamonds, emeralds, amethysts and pearls, which was created by an unknown artist during the second half of the 17th century.

“True Likeness,” the second gallery, explores the idea that some sacred images exist because of their miraculous origin. St. Luke the Evangelist is recognized in the exhibit as the first Christian painter.

Particularly notable is a painting of Jesus, titled “Holy Face,” by El Greco and his workshop in Toledo dating to 1586-95, which reproduces the miraculous image on “Veronica’s cloth,” believed to have been imprinted with Christ’s features when he wiped blood and perspiration from his face on the way to Calvary.

Another image of the “Holy Face” by Fray Alonso López de Herrera, a Spanish-born Dominican friar, dates to 1624, and includes a rubric attesting that this image has a miraculous origin, is genuine and was divinely inspired.

Also in this gallery is a large painting of the “Virgin of Guadalupe” created by an unknown artist in Mexico about 1700. It was acquired by the Indianapolis Museum of Art in December of 2008 and restored for this exhibit. Four roundels in the corners depict the Virgin’s appearance to St. Juan Diego at Tepeyac in December of 1531 and her image’s miraculous origin.

Nearby is the legendary golden “Crown of the Andes” topped with a cross and created by an unknown artist to adorn a sculpture of the Virgin of the Immaculate Conception venerated at the cathedral in Popayan, Colombia. The crown is decorated with 447 emeralds, the largest collection of emeralds in the world, and has rarely been displayed publicly.

“Moving Images,” the breathtaking third gallery, features blood-red walls and is dominated by “Dead Christ,” a life-size sculpture of Jesus made of polychromed wood by Madrid sculptor Juan Sánchez Barba. The torn, bruised and bloody body of the crucified Christ lies on a table in the center of the gallery, and is surrounded by paintings depicting his Passion.

This figure of Christ has been venerated during Good Friday processions in the Spanish town of Navalcarnero since 1652. Around 1735, the corpus was modified to create moveable arms articulated at the shoulders so it could be used to enact “The Descent from the Cross” and “The Entombment” during Holy Week. Until now, it has never been exhibited outside of Navalcarnero.

“With the Eyes of the Soul,” the fourth gallery, takes its name from St. Teresa of Avila’s writings and demonstrates the challenges that Spanish artists faced in representing the invisible by visible means. Images of St. Teresa, St. John of God, St. Bernard, St. Rose of Lima and St. Francis of Assisi illustrate their visionary experiences.

“Visualizing Sanctity,” the fifth gallery, pays tribute to some of the saints that serve as models of Christian holiness.

A large reliquary bust of St. Francis Xavier, the patron saint of the Archdiocese of Indianapolis, is attributed to Seville sculptor Juan de Mesa. It dates to about 1625 and depicts his heart aflame with the love of God. At one time, it contained a relic of the Jesuit missionary from Spain.

“Living with Images,” the sixth and final gallery, features images that functioned as visual aids to private prayer and meditation in homes and cloisters.

This gallery features an ornately painted, flat wooden crucifix by Juan Carreño de Miranda of Madrid, which was created in 1658 as a gift from the artist to King Philip IV.

Of special note in this gallery is a sculpture of “The Virgin Mary Adoring the Christ Child” after his birth in Bethlehem. Pedro de Mena of Granade sculpted the compelling images of the Nativity using polychromed wood and vitreous paste in 1684.

Mary’s hands are joined in prayer as a model of devotion while she gazes at the naked infant Jesus. An exhibition label explains that his newborn nakedness symbolizes his poverty, humility and innocence, and a shroud-like cloth under him alludes to his sacrifice on the Cross, revealing the link between the Nativity and the Eucharist.

“This new exhibit was organized by the Indianapolis Museum of Art and will only be shown here,” Kasl said. “As a curator, I’d like to see people not just looking at the images, but also contemplating them.”

(For more information about “Sacred Spain: Art and Belief in the Spanish World” and the museum hours, log on to the Web site at www.imamuseum.org.)

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