I saw 'The Sacred Made Real' exhibition advertised on a poster on the tube and thought it would be worth a bash. I had no concept that it would actually be a spiritual experience. These sculptures were carved from wood and a method called polychroming was used in order to make them appear life like. The statues were exhibited with paintings of a similar time that borrowed ideas from sculpting to create a sense of the 3D. These sculptures are without doubt the most beautiful and awe inspiring I have seen and they indeed seemed to me to be very sacred. Most of the have never left Spain and are still in the convents, monasteries and churches which the were commissioned for- they have been loaned under very particular circumstances. One picture at the end of the exhibition was taken from the room where monks of the Mercedarian order were laid out, awaiting burial. How could one fail to be moved by the peace and symbolism of this? The fact that seeing some of these works together again would be highly unlikely after the end of this exhibition added to the sense of privilege and intimacy one felt standing before them. They have been, and still are, treated as objects that are sacred because they aid prayer and transport us into meditation. I was surprised by how this was the case even in an art gallery and London. The Mater Dolorosa exhibited in Room 5, the room called Meditations on Death is felt to be so sacred that it was only loaned to the gallery on the condition that it was no to be photographed. One can understand when you look upon the true expression of sorrow etched on the face. No one could capture it on camera, but by some amazing grace this artist was able to capture it in wood.
The art form itself is little known outside of Spain because it was thought by many protestant groups to feed idolatry they believed those "crazy catholics" practiced but suddenly the walls have fallen and the National seems to have taken a gamble in recognising a thirst for the sacred here. Certainly, I never thought I would see the day when Rosaries would be sold in the secular shops of the National Gallery but God is great and indeed nothing is impossible for Him - I think we are starting to see the proof of that here in England. In the most unlikely of times there is work afoot. A journalist from the Times newspaper said this week:
"With the arrival of The Sacred Made Real at the National Gallery, however, I think we can safely conclude that the Reformation in Britain is finally over, and that admirers of the remarkable popish art gathered before us here will not now be dispatched to the Tower. Henry VIII’s revolt has run its course at last." (source here)
To be fair it has been nearly five hundred years- its about time we got a break. I certainly am not carried away with the idea that all our troubles are over- far from it- you only have to read the full 'Times' article to get an idea of the underlying resentment people still feel for our Church. However, at least there is hope and more than that - perhaps even opportunity for people to encounter something of the divine.
The exhibition encouraged more than a passive observation - it was about meditation with music specially composed to accompany the pieces. One was asked to reflect in quite a deep way on what they were looking at - with commentary by a Jesuit priest. This was more than just showing art that has not been see before. This was about the sacred and I was surprised by that. In a world where we throw words around, often without a full regard for their meaning I had expected something beautiful, unusual, ethereal even, but probably not sacred. To use a somewhat colloquial phrase I was blown away, my soul responded.
There were five rooms in total and each of them held a separate aspect of meditation. One room called Saint Francis in Meditation was dedicated to depictions of Saint Francis in ecstasy and one could see something in that art of revelation. No artist could have created that expression on the face of Francis without some interior life. They rendered something beyond my own vocabulary. They rendered something we can all understand - the effect of God on a man who is completely focused on God. (There was also a rendering of St Bruno meditating on the crucifix that made me think the same)
I could probably go on all day about the aspects of Christ shown through this exhibition with one room dedicated to Meditations on the Passion and another, as already mentioned to Meditations on death. My words can never do it justice. Many of these artists were quote aesthetic in their own way and before beginning their work would fast, receive communion and pray. The effects are very clear.
I wanted to just share with you some of my delight and joy at having the privilege to encounter this exhibition. It is a very personal reflection but if you want to find out more the website is here