‘The Sacred Made Real’ at the National Gallery

To quote their own blurb:

The Sacred Made Real’ presents a landmark reappraisal of religious art from the Spanish Golden Age with works created to shock the senses and stir the soul.

Paintings, including masterpieces by Diego Velázquez and Francisco de Zurbarán, are displayed for the very first time alongside Spain’s remarkable polychrome wooden sculptures.

By ‘polychrome wooden sculptures’ they mean things like this, Christ as the Man of Sorrows, 1673, by Pedro de Mena (I’ve had to take the picture from the Guardian, which has a good selection, because the NG has got no images on the exhibition website at all):


I find this business of coloured sculpture intriguing, because of course if you’re aiming for verisimilitude it makes perfect sense; and yet, largely by historical accident, we have come to expect sculpture in the fine art tradition to be in the bare material, whether marble, bronze or whatever.

These works looks especially foreign from a Protestant perspective. And yes, I know I keep going on about being an atheist, but I’m clearly a Church of England atheist when it comes to my religious sensibilities. And the Protestant aesthetic of whitewashed churches and plain glass is explicitly intended to contrast with this kind of art; it is sculptures like these that are processed through the streets of Seville in Holy Week by masked penitents, which must be the apotheosis of the bells and smells side of Catholicism. Protestants over the years have found that either tawdry and vulgar or solemn, dignified and mysterious, according to taste, but one way or the other it has a fascinatingly exotic quality for those of us brought up with the tea and biscuits kind of Christianity.

My initial reaction to these sculptures was ambivalent; there was something spooky or creepy or just a bit odd about them. And I don’t mean the gore; the head of John the Baptist where the cross section of the neck looks like something from the butcher’s, or Christ bruised and dripping with blood. No, even the statues of saints and the Virgin seemed a bit creepy at first encounter. St Ignatius Loyola, with his dark robes, looks like something that might lurch out of the dark at a carnival ghost train.

I’m tempted to invoke the uncanny valley, but actually I think it’s mainly simple unfamiliarity. The sculptures only seem like something from Madame Tussauds — something other than fine art — because of my expectations. Eventually, once I had been in the exhibition for a while, that sense of novelty wore off a bit; and eventually I was able to stop overthinking it and start to respond to the works as pieces of art.

And once that happened I did start to appreciate them and find them quite effective. They are not my new favourite thing, and I’m still not sure I’d say I really like them, even. But I’m certainly glad I went. Thought-provoking stuff.

There are also some fine paintings in the show as well, incidentally, by Velázquez and Zurburán particularly; but those were more familiar and less interesting to me, except in the way they provide a context for the sculptures. It is interesting, for example, that although they are recognisably part of the same religious culture, the paintings are immediately and obviously ‘art’, while my reaction to the sculptures was so much more difficult.

Going Dutch by Lisa Jardine

Full, slightly overblown title: Going Dutch: How England Plundered Holland’s Glory. This is a book about the relationship between England and Holland in the C17th. It’s an interesting period, of course: the C17th was Holland’s ‘Golden Age’, when the country was not only a wealthy global power but at the intellectual and especially artistic forefront of Europe. For me, the art is especially remarkable: there are three of the all-time greats in Rembrandt, Rubens and Vermeer, and a huge number of other important artists like Gerrit Dou, Pieter de Hooch, Frans Hals, Jan Steen, and Aelbert Cuyp.

Indeed, not only were the Dutch producing lots of their own great artists: they exported them over the channel; most notably but not only Anthony Van Dyck and Peter Lely, who between them seem to have painted most of the society portraits in England at the time. And of course the other most notable Anglo-Dutch connection was that by the end of the century, England had acquired a Dutch king: William of Orange.

That acquisition is usually referred to by the British as ‘The Glorious Revolution’, a name which combines just the right amounts of grandeur and vagueness to discourage too much analysis. But as Jardine makes clear, seen from an outside perspective, and especially perhaps from a Dutch perspective, it looks an awful lot like the Dutch conquest of England. William sailed across the channel with a fleet of 500 ships and 40,000 men, including 20,000 armed troops, marched on London and took power. The only reason it can be remembered as anything Glorious, rather than a bloody conquest or yet another Anglo-Dutch war, is that James II didn’t put up a fight. He was unpopular with just about everyone, not least because he was Catholic, and not really getting on with his own army, and he decided to flee rather than press the issue. Who knows what would have happened if he’d been a little more forceful and decisive.

This was, in some ways, a family affair: William and his wife Mary were both grandchildren of Charles I.* In fact they probably would have been most likely to succeed James II anyway, except that James’s wife, after a long string of miscarriages, unexpectedly produced a male baby and screwed everything up for the Oranges.

The strength of William-and-Mary’s claim to the throne made it easier for the English to accept them as joint monarch; Lisa Jardine’s books sets out to demonstrate that the tangled relationship between the Stuarts and the House of Orange is actually typical of a very strong cultural link between England and Holland throughout the C17th; that much of what became typically English, and much of the groundwork that enabled England to became a great power in the C18th and C19th, came from Holland.

She certainly successfully demonstrates an enormous amount of interaction between the two countries: in art, music, gardening, science and indeed socially. One of the most striking examples was the testing of Christian Huygens’s clock design on a British ship; Huygens had been corresponding with members of the Royal Society in London, who arranged for his new clock to be tested as a possible solution to the longtitude problem by a captain in the Royal Navy. On the very mission where he was testing this Dutch clock design, the captain plundered all the Dutch trading posts along the coast of Ghana, triggering the Second Anglo-Dutch War in the process. You might think this would interfere with relations between London and the Hague, but no, the correspondence carried on as though nothing had happened.

I suppose the only question a sceptical reader might have is whether you would find similar levels of influence and connection if you studied, say, Anglo-French relations at the same time. Is there a specific and exceptional connection between England and Holland at this period, or just the normal amount for two neighbouring countries? She seems pretty convincing to me, but I’m not in a position to judge.

* I’ll try to explain, but the same names keep coming up attached to different people, so you’ll need to concentrate. Charles I’s daughter Mary married William II of Orange; her son William is the one who became king of England. He, William III of Orange, married another Mary, the daughter of James II and thus the granddaughter of Charles I (and his own first cousin). So when he invaded England, he was deposing his uncle and father-in-law.

» The pictures are all details from the wedding portrait of the fourteen-year-old William to the nine-year-old Mary, painted in London by Anthony Van Dyck and now in the Rijksmuseum. Both because that picture seems appropriate and because there’s a high-quality reproduction of it in the Wikimedia Commons.

The Century of Revolution by Christopher Hill

The full title is The Century of Revolution, 1603-1714; i.e. the century in question is the longish C17th from the death of Queen Elizabeth to the death of Queen Anne. I guess most centuries are centuries of revolution somewhere, and in one way or another, but the C17th was the only time the English have had an actual literal political revolution. In fact we had two, or one and a half. The first one, in the 1640s, definitely was a revolution — with parliament deciding to put an axe through the king’s neck, and power resting with the army and so on — but is usually referred to as the ‘Civil War’. The second one is referred to, at least by the English, as ‘the Glorious Revolution’, but was really something else: half invasion, half coup. It’s probably a bit strong to describe it as the Dutch conquest of England, but it was probably something closer to that than a ‘revolution’.

I bought this book because I was aware of a gaping hole in my knowledge of British history when it came to this period; I mean, my historical knowledge is patchy anyway, but I’ve read quite a few books about the C18th and C19th, and some about the Tudors and the medieval period, whereas my knowledge of the C17th didn’t go much beyond the clichés; right but repulsive vs. wrong but wromantic, and all that. So I bought this book hoping to get an overview.

And it did provide that; if anything I think I should have gone for something slightly more specific. A book that covers a whole century of history in a few hundred pages is inevitably going to be a firehose of facts; an enormous amount to take in, and not much of the kind of detailed context and human interest that sugars the pill a bit when reading history. Hill divides the period up into four sections, and for each, he organises the material into  ‘Narrative of Events’, ‘Economics’, ‘Politics and Constitution’ and ‘Religion and Ideas’. Which works pretty well, and I do feel that I’ve been given a good grounding in what was going on. I don’t know how much of it I’ve retained, though. If I was really serious about trying to get a handle on the period, I should probably read it again. Which I don’t think is going to happen.

It’s an interesting period, though. The Elizabethans seem so distant and exotic; the Georgians are so modern in comparison, and that difference, that spectacular change, is what makes the C17th so fascinating. Constitutional power shifted from the monarch to Parliament, Cabinet appeared, the civil service started to develop, economic power shifted from the landed gentry to industrialists and merchants, the stock market was established, credit notes removed the need for all business to be done using discs of shiny metal, the religious monopoly of the Church of England was broken, Britain became a dominant naval power, agriculture was modernised. We became modern: or at least more modern than most.

» The photo of a Loyalist mural in Belfast was posted to Flickr by Benjamin Harrison and is used under a CC by-nc licence.