Baroque Spanish sculpture was long considered gaudy and secondary to the paintings of the same era by celebrated artists like Diego Velázquez and Francisco de Zurbarán. Both the sculptures and paintings embraced pathos in religious-themed art, with the open weeping of Mary, the suffering of Jesus, and the torment of the saints. Recently the Metropolitan Museum of Art acquired two 17th-century statues by Pedro de Mena, the master of this emotive sculpture, and the rosy, tear-streaked cheeks of the “Mater Dolorosa” and the bloodied body of “Ecce Homo” are now on view in the European Paintings galleries.
Luke Syson, Iris and B. Gerald Cantor chairman of the Department of European Sculpture and Decorative Arts, writes at MetCollects that “until very recently, painted wood sculpture of this kind, produced in Baroque Spain, was ignored by most mainstream art historians, or even dismissed as religious kitsch.” He adds that such polychrome works by Spanish sculptures are “at the top of the Department of European Sculpture and Decorative Art’s list of sculptural desiderata.” He notes that Met visitors could perviously only see one example from this era of Spanish sculpture: Saint John the Baptist by Juan Martínez Montañés, acquired in 1963. That statue, created in Seville a few years prior to those by de Mena, is on view in Gallery 611 along with the new acquisitions, which far exceed it in their visual drama.
Pedro de Mena lived from 1628 and 1688, and agony was something of his speciality. Unlike previous eras of sculptors in a guild system, he controlled each aspect of his art, painting clothes that were carved separately to drape over the religious figures. He used ivory teeth and glass eyes with real hair lashes to instill an immediacy and realism in the sculptures, while keeping them theatrical with their gestures. Mary and Jesus were regular subjects, and he experimented with extremes of emotion, such as a 1660–70 “Virgin of Solitude” who is downcast and resigned, while another “Mater Dolorosa” turns her eyes upwards, mouth agape, with a tear fallen all the way to her collarbone. Similarly he interpreted the martyrdom of Jesus with various levels of injury; one has a face so bruised he can only open one eye. He also gave other Catholic saints the same intensity of emotion, such as the cadaver of Saint Francis standing up in his tomb in ecstasy from 1663, or a 1680 sculpture of St. Acisclus with his throat slit, on view at the Hispanic Society in Manhattan.
According to the National Gallery of Art, which in 2009 hosted an exhibition on this period, part of the artists’ motives was to revive Catholicism against the rising wave of Protestantism. Pedro de Mena’s half-length “Ecce Homo” and “Mater Dolorosa” were meant to startle, to remind viewers of the pain suffered for humanity.
Pedro de Mena’s “Ecce Homo” and “Mater Dolorosa” are on view in Gallery 611 of the Metropolitan Museum of Art (1000 Fifth Avenue, Upper East Side, Manhattan).