12 Jan 2010

What's in a severed head?

There’s under two weeks left in which to get to one of the most electrifying and under reported exhibitions in London.

The other night, as an erstwhile trustee of the place, I had the good fortune to be taken round the Sacred Made Real show at the National Gallery.

This is an institution with a tradition somewhat resistant to the three dimensional. But enter the Sainsbury Wing and you almost immediately assaulted by the bloody severed head of John the Baptist.

It lies horizontally with the throat pipe and main arteries exposed. Yet curiously it’s a thing of beauty – beauty in its carving and in the paint work of flesh tones and indeed its encrusted dried blood.

This is a show in which 16th and 17th century Spanish religious painting and sculpture are brought together in a form never attempted before. For the first time you understand the scale of the extraordinary industry that swept across Spain and her empire at the time.

There was ferocious demarcation between artist and sculptor. The sculptor did the carving, the painter did the paint work on the completed form. And still other painters used the “craven images” to inspire their painting. So that in one room Valazquez depicts the agony of Christ next to a sculpture it is hard to believe was not the very model for his work.

The juxtaposition of paintings and the three dimensional human form centred on the crucifixion of Christ is startling.

Priories and cathedrals across Spain have been raided for masterpieces that have never previously left their hiding places let alone Spain itself.

The show is an extraordinary testament to the scholarship of its curator Xavier Bray and of his diplomatic skills in wresting the pieces from reluctant prelates and abbots.

I cannot do justice here to what I saw and its effect. It is an intriguingly unreligious, but deeply aesthetic experience. I rate it a must-see exhibition. Don’t miss it! It ends on 24 January.

Interestingly, the National Gallery in Washington has successfully bid to show it there. And Spain, which originally had no interest in staging it, is now going to take it on from there. An exhibition hatched in London about Spanish art, eventually exported to both the USA and Spain itself – that we rate as a highly visible yet invisible British cultural export.



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10 reader comments

  1. adz says:

    Art is an extraordinary gift given to those who were/are lucky to have.
    My views lie in the salvation of the planet and not someone telling us that a man, who very possibly was a man of peace, died on a cross to save the human race. There are so many different opinions within the christian faith alone, on why, how and where, that all add to my personal opinion. It is pure manipulation of human beings and a massive cash generator. That money is not used in a humane and only safeguards dirty past and present secrets. My strong words on this comment are going to offend many I know but there should only be one religion. Workout and understand the real problems together in peace.
    adzmundo CND

    1. margaret brandreth- Jones says:

      Religion is power adz.. however a lot of those so called and ‘erstwhile’ wicked believers rely on that spiritual entity to help them cope with very difficult lives.

      To pray ,gives a collective voice and expression of good will towards others in the world. I don’t deny the power of collective good will.


  2. margaret brandreth- Jones says:

    I am afraid my poor heart could not take aesthetic pleasure in arts for arts sake where brutality is concerned and futhermore ,particularly in consideration of the derivation of my surname from that of St John.

    St Johns’ head has been on the plate hanging from the hands of some victor or other for long enough to realise I can not turn that suffering into an appreciative gaze. There must be models of severed heads for a school of realism as well.Whose heads were on show then?

  3. margaret brandreth- Jones says:

    A bolt of nostalgia. My art teachers initials were ARTaylor and he advised me to stay away from figure drawing in favour of landscape. He was also concerned that I was disturbingly affected by artistic representation of St Thomas.

    I can listen to Bachs mass in B minor though and detach myself from the physical.

    Isn’t there a Turner exhibition on until the 31st somewhere? Rod’s speciality was Turner.

  4. Saltaire Sam says:

    As a practising atheist – where was god in the tsunami? – I am neverthess struck that art – and probably architecture – has never been so powerful since we non believers started to dominate the world

    Tracey Emin’s bed simply can’t compete with a terrific pieta

    1. margaret brandreth- Jones says:

      Sam I have always wondered how someone denounces god , when according to your argument he does not exist?

    2. Saltaire Sam says:

      Margaret, I’m denouncing the myths that have so much power in our world. Today people are suggesting we should pray for the people of Haiti. To whom or what? The god that was either unable or unwilling to prevent the catastrophe in the first place?

      I’m weary of the way people’s passion for their god as against someone else’s is used to generate so much hatred and chaos in the world.

    3. margaret brandreth- Jones says:

      It does not take a genius to work out that nature will work its own way whether humanity likes it or not.

      The idea of anyone attempting to interpret god as a being who if we pray will answer our demands is absurd.To even suggest it is subscribing to an infantile theory that King Canute would would have attemted to refute.

      I myself am an agnostic, but don’t put myself above things which we ‘little humans’ dont know.

      At a time where Haiti is suffering.. I ask you to deny the Haitians.. comfort in prayer to their God !

  5. Meg Howarth says:

    I intend to follow your advice and pay a visit. But this is because I’m lucky to live in London and can do so. Your blog unintentionally raises the issue of the predominance of the capital’s galleries over those of other cities. Is a dominant centre any longer such a good idea?

  6. margaret brandreth- Jones says:


    good will is not the problem, the problem is those who take the name of god like spirituality to manipulate events to their own advantage.

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