Jusepe de Ribera, "The Sense of Touch" (c.1615–16), oil on canvas, 45-5/8 x 34-3/4 inches (image courtesy the Norton Simon Foundation)

PASADENA, Calif. — The Expressive Body: Memory, Devotion, Desire (1400-1750), a new exhibition at the Norton Simon Museum, tackles a sweeping subject in just three rooms. Contemplating sacred and secular bodies in painting and sculpture, and how our bodies as viewers interact with them, the show is a perfectly timed refresher on the importance of physicality in art.

In the early modern era, artwork was expected to act upon the body in ways both mystical and mundane. It was thought that a pregnant person gazing on particular images could affect the beauty of their unborn child; meditation on devotional objects could stimulate the soul, while erotic works — well, you get the picture. A central point of this show, which intermingles portrayals of agony and ecstasy, is that divine and erotic passions are not as polar as they may seem to us today.

“There’s a lot of interplay between the passionate feelings that one might feel looking at a representation of a beautiful body in an erotic context and the deep emotion [or] bodily response that someone might have to a picture of the suffering Christ,” the show’s curator Maggie Bell explained to Hyperallergic.

The first room, “Love and Suffering,” guides the viewer through the sensory expectations of art: illustrations of the five senses, erotic images intended for both entertainment and moralizing, and mythological stories that emphasize physical transformations, including childbirth. An interesting contrast here is the way class was mapped onto morality: didactic depictions of supposedly crude or immoral sensuality tended to feature the poor, while more positive erotic depictions reveled in luxury. The latter often veiled their sexual intent by featuring Biblical subjects as well, making the eroticism more acceptable within the bounds of a predominantly Christian society.

“Madonna and Child,” after Donatello (15th century), terracotta (image courtesy Norton Simon Foundation)

“Accessing the Divine” entwines physical and spiritual experience even further, focusing on Christian representations of divine suffering and love through images of crucifixion and self-abnegating devotion as well as tender (and, occasionally, stiff) familial images of Mary, Jesus, and St. Joseph. These works visualized the Holy Family’s humanity and Christ’s physical suffering for worshippers in tangible, relatable ways. Bell drew from the museum’s deep vault for the show, with 50 of the 62 objects in the exhibition on display rarely or for the first time. The finds include a cuddlesome terracotta “Madonna and Child,” after Donatello, and several poignant objects from Mexico and North America, including a visceral, polychrome “Head of Christ” in the agonizing pose of Man of Sorrows, and a potent retablo of “Nuestra Señora de los Dolores/Our Lady of Sorrows.” Bell points out that making art could be a tactile, devotional act in itself: an artist had to drive the arrows into a sculpture of the martyred St. Sebastian (since removed), while another recreated Christ’s stigmata with pegs on a carved New Mexican cross.

Unknown artist, Mexico, “Head of Christ” (18th century), polychrome wood, 17 x 15-1/8 inches (image courtesy Norton Simon Museum, gift of Mrs. Henrietta S. Cecil)

“All of these works were experienced in multisensory ways,” Bell said. They were often touched for devotional purposes and surrounded by music, incense, and candles. Her aim was to resurrect those sensations for visitors — though of course, we’re not allowed to touch. To keep the works as accessible as possible, only one vitrine (required by a loan agreement) is used in the exhibit. The other objects are open to the viewer’s gaze and contemplation — especially the two works in the show’s final gallery, which include guided meditations to reflect on both sensual and divine kinds of touch.

There is a lot of ground to cover, but the show manages to encapsulate the scope of bodily depictions in the era and open many avenues for thought. At times, the flow between subjects seems slightly tangled, but that may hark back to the show’s thesis — that the categories of sacred and mundane are intertwined.

Initially planned before the pandemic, the exhibition has become a timely reflection on touch when that sense has developed new and anxious meanings. With the meditation gallery and focus on individual, physical experience, Bell is enthused by “the possibility that this could be a healing space,” and the idea that seeing art physically can create “a real connection, kind of a weight off our shoulders, that we could share this together.”

Jan Massys, “Susanna and the Elders” (1564), oil on panel, 42 x 77-1/2 inches (image courtesy Norton Simon Art Foundation)

The Expressive Body: Memory, Devotion, Desire (1400­–1750) continues at the Norton Simon Museum (411 West Colorado Boulevard, Pasadena) through March 7, 2022. The exhibition was curated by Maggie Bell.

Anne Wallentine is a writer and art historian based in Los Angeles. She received her MA from the Courtauld Institute of Art.