SAN DIEGO, CA.- The San Diego Museum of Art
has acquired a remarkable polychromed wood sculpture by Pedro de Mena (16281688), among the greatest sculptors of the Spanish Baroque. Depicting San Diego de Alcalá, the work was created around 1665.
Given the famous group of Spanish paintings at The San Diego Museum of Art, we have for several years sought a significant piece of Spanish Baroque sculpture to add to the collection, says John Marciari, Curator of European Art. The San Diego is precisely the sort of work we had in mind. Pedro de Menas extraordinary realism is the counterpart to our still life by Sánchez Cotán, while the ecstatic expression of the saint reminds one of our great Saint Peter by El Greco. Like both of those works, the sculpture simply commands attention. The fact that the works subject is San Diego de Alcalá, the namesake of our city, was a secondary concern but should only add to the pieces popularity with our audiences.
Spain and Spanish art have long been important to me personally. When I arrived in San Diego two and a half years ago, I brought with me knowledge and deep appreciation of Spanish art adds Roxana Velásquez, the Maruja Baldwin Executive Director for The San Diego Museum of Art. Since my arrival, one of my ambitions has been to build on the great collection of European art already in San Diego. The new work by Pedro de Mena strengthens our collection of Spanish art. Combined with the acquisition of the Portrait of Don Luis de Borbón by Anton Raphael Mengs that we acquired last year, we are expanding important holdings for San Diego.
San Diego de Alcalá, otherwise known as Saint Didacus, was born in Spain around 1400 to impoverished parents who placed him in the care of a religious hermit leaving outside Diegos native town of San Nicolás del Puerto, near Seville. Following a religious vocation, Diego became a lay brother of the Franciscan order. He worked at monasteries in the Canary Islands, Spain, and Rome, Italy, before finally settling at the Convento de Santa María de Jesús in Alcalá, Spain, where he lived until 1463. He spent much time working in the infirmary of these monasteries and is said to have brought about miraculous cures to those in his care. The earliest depictions of San Diego following his canonization in 1588 show his healing miracles, but in seventeenth-century Spain, however, another miracle came to be the standard form of the saints iconography, and it is this miracle that is depicted in Menas sculpture: Diego was devoted to the poor and often took them bread from the monastery table. During a shortage of food at the monastery, Diego was forbidden to do so but continued to take bread to the poor, hiding it in the folds of his monastic habit. On one occasion, the superior of the monastery caught Diego in the act of taking bread and challenged him to show what he was carrying in his bundled robes. When Diego looked down, the bread was miraculously changed into roses. As was often the case for sculptures depicting this miracle, the roses are not carved, for the faithful would place real or silk flowers in the lap of the sculpture.
It has been said of Pedro de Mena that he was unsurpassed in conveying religious feeling, adds Marciari. That is fully evident here in the expression on the saints face, which simultaneously captures his guilt in being caught stealing and his awe at the miracle that then occurs.
Pedro de Mena, born in Granada, was the son of Alonso de Mena, who operated the most active sculptural workshop in the city. Alonso died, however, when Pedro was only 18 years old. Pedro assumed control of the workshop, but in 1652, Alonso Cano returned to Granada, and Pedro, still only 24, fell entirely under Canos influence. Cano had spent the previous decades in Seville and Madrid, where he worked alongside the greatest sculptors (Juan Martínez Montañés) and painters (Diego Velázquez) in Spain. Mena quickly assimilated the lessons offered by Cano, and when around 1655 Cano was given the commission to produce four life-sized sculptures for the convent of the Angelo Custodio, he entrusted Mena with the project. Those sculptures, representing Saints Anthony, Diego, Peter of Alcantara, and Joseph, are Menas first major works, and although executed under Cano, they established him as an important independent master. Shortly afterwards, Mena was offered the project to carve the choir stalls in the cathedral at Malaga. He moved to Malaga in 1658 and remained there for the rest of his life, occasionally travelling to Granada, Toledo, or Madrid, but for the most part, producing works in Malaga that would be sent to patrons around Spain.
Menas most important works include the aforementioned sculptures for the Angelo Custodio in Granada of around1655 (now at the Museo de Bellas Artes in Granada); his Saint Francis for Toledo Cathedral of 1663; his Mary Magdalene of 1664 for the Jesuit Casa Profesa in Madrid (now at the Museo Nacional Colegio de San Gregorio in Valladolid); and paired sculptures of the Mater Dolorosa and Man of Sorrows, for example the royally-commissioned set at the Descalzas Reales in Madrid. Although relatively little known outside of Spain, Mena was one of the revelations in the ground-breaking exhibition The Sacred Made Real held at the National Gallery in London and the National Gallery of Art in Washington in 2009-10.
The sculpture, which stands just over two feet tall, will be on view in the Museums gallery dedicated to Spanish art, alongside paintings by El Greco, Sánchez Cotán, Zurbarán, Cano, Murillo, and others. The work has been purchased with funds from the Estate of Donald W. Shira, a bequest of $7.4 million that The San Diego Museum of Art received this year.