What better way is there to spend Halloween than at an exhibition detailing the gratuitously violent death of a pacifist? Clearly the directing mind of the National Gallery had one eye towards timing when their latest exhibition, The Sacred Made Real: Spanish Paintings & Sculpture 1600 - 1700 was commissioned.
The exhibition is a mixture of paintings and sculptures, which starkly portray the visceral side of Catholicism. These works portray the crucifixion and death of Jesus Christ, as well as devotional works to various other religious figures. Located in the basement, the rooms containing the exhibition are softly lit, adding to the impression that we are entering an underground church, a last bastion of religious devotion.
These works are meditations on violent death, and the artists clearly wanted to impress upon devotees the suffering of Christ's death. In the crucifixion works, beautifully crafted blood and lesions mutely confront the viewer, eloquently reminding us of both Christ's suffering and essential mortality.
The images are shockingly graphic, even to a modern audience. These are not works of optimism - there is not one work depicting the Resurrection, the sunnier side of Catholicism. This is dark, pre-Vatican II, Mel Gibson Catholicism. Initially it is difficult for the audience to square these frankly pornographic images with normal conceptions of religious austerity. But it does begin to make sense, when it is realised that these images are religious propaganda. This what you believe in, the works tell us, this is the alpha and omega of your belief system. They remind us over and over again that the fact of his death and the magnitude of his suffering is not an abstraction but is rather an act of self-sacrifice for which we should be eternally grateful.
Works representing other figures are equally didactic. The piety of the figures remind the devotee of what is required for the good life. St Francis kneels deep in prayer, oblivious to his stigmata. Cano's Borgia rejects the crowned skull, choosing duty over reward - a morality lesson if ever there was one for those currently in Westminster and the Square Mile.
It is not hard to imagine the impact that works of this power and beauty must have had on devotees. Such well-crafted propaganda can only serve to fan the flames of fundamentalism, and we remember that the Spanish Inquisition was not the butt of a Monty Python gag during this time.
This is a timely, and reflective exhibition. It discomfits a largely secular audience by reminding us in the starkest terms of the power of belief. It confronts us not only with Christ's mortality, but also of our own. It is not a show that cheer-leads, but rather probes, reminding us of half-remembered religious stories and asking us to reappraise our own belief systems. This is definitely not PopART.
By Paul Carr
The Sacred Made Real is at the National Gallery until 24 January 2010. Opening hours are 10:00 - 18:00, except on Friday when it closes at 21:00. Entrance fee is £8, £7 concessions and £4 for students and the unwaged.