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Indianapolis Museum of Art Organizes Groundbreaking Exhibition Devoted to Art and Belief
Francisco de Zurbaran, Agnus Dei, 1636-1640, Oil on canvas, San Diego Museum of Art (Gift of Anne R. and Amy Putnam) 1947.36.

INDIANAPOLIS, IN.- The first exhibition to examine the religious visual culture of 17th-century Spain and Latin America will premiere at the Indianapolis Museum of Art on October 11, 2009. Sacred Spain: Art and Belief in the Spanish World brings to life the challenges faced by visual artists such as El Greco, Francisco Zurbarán, Alonso Cano, Franciso Ribalta, Bartolomé Esteban Murillo, Juan de Valdes Leal, Juan Correa, Cristobal Villalpando and others, who were charged with the creative task of making religious images that were useful, truthful and moving. The exhibition will feature 80 works of art, including paintings, polychrome sculpture, metalwork and books, many of which have never before been seen in the United States. Sacred Spain will be on view exclusively in Indianapolis from October 11, 2009 through January 3, 2010.

A $1 million grant from the Allen Whitehill Clowes Charitable Foundation for Sacred Spain will allow the IMA to offer free general admission to the exhibition, reinforcing the IMA’s reputation as a leader in audience accessibility.

Exhibition highlights include:

* The legendary golden Crown of the Andes, made to adorn a statue of the Virgin Mary, venerated as the Queen of the Andes. The crown celebrates the devotion of the faithful to their protectress and makes visible the mystical tie with divinity. Set with 447 emeralds, the crown is the oldest and largest collection of emeralds in the world and has rarely been displayed publicly.
* A life-size and realistically-rendered sculpture, Juan Sánchez Barba’s Cristo Yacente, which is featured in Holy Week processions in the Spanish town of Navalcarnero and has never been exhibited outside of the town.
* Juan de Valdés Leal’s long-separated Allegory of Vanity and Allegory of Salvation, a pair of symbol-laden still lifes that contrast temporal attainments and eternal rewards.
* A trompe l’oeil “statue painting” by Cristobal Villalpando of a famous miracle-working image of the Virgen de la Soledad carved by Gaspar Becerra.
* Francisco Zurbarán’s Agnus Dei, an illusionistic rendering of a lamb bound for sacrifice and presented as the object of prayer.

This groundbreaking exhibition offers a new perspective on the sacred art of the Spanish world during the baroque period. In a departure from usual museum practice, in which religious images are treated solely as historical or aesthetic artifacts, Sacred Spain: Art and Belief in the Spanish World recognizes the possibility of transcendent images and seeks to reassert the art museum as a primary venue for cultural interpretation based on a deeper understanding of the creation, reception and uses of art.

“While the scenes depicted in these works may be familiar to many, Sacred Spain puts these paintings and sculptures in the context of a pivotal period in Spanish history,” said Maxwell L. Anderson, the Melvin & Bren Simon Director & CEO of the IMA. “This exhibition illuminates the remarkable role that the artist played at a time when art was believed to have divine power.”

“In an important sense, the exhibition is about the power of art,” said Ronda Kasl, Senior Curator of Painting and Sculpture before 1800 at the Indianapolis Museum of Art. “It features works of art that were created with explicit responsive goals—they were meant to arouse wonder, devotion, and identification. We hope that viewers will be moved by the sheer visual impact of these works.”

The exhibition will be divided into six key sections: In Defense of Images; True Likeness; Moving Images; With the Eyes of the Soul; Visualizing Sanctity; and Living with Images.

In Defense of Images - Sacred Spain will begin with an introduction to the essential elements of Spanish Catholic religious practice as they relate to images. These were used to aid memory, inspire devotion, and convey the worshiper toward contemplation of the divine. Faced with persistent accusations of idolatry, the Council of Trent (1545-63) previously had reaffirmed the usefulness of images for the instruction of the faithful and set the stage for an intense preoccupation with the theological arguments that shaped creative practice in 17th-century Spanish culture. This section features works by painter-theorists such as Francisco Pacheco, Fray Juan Ricci, Vicente Carducho, and others, including Juan de Valdés Leal, who contemplates the potential for creative human action, and the resulting attainment of glory or hell, in his Allegory of Vanity; its dense accumulation of symbolic objects makes pointed reference to the visual arts.

True Likeness - Sacred Spain also will explore the idea that some religious images offered the possibility of divine presence. Some images owed their sacredness to a supposedly miraculous origin. The theological justification for the veneration of these works depended upon the acceptance that they were not made by mortals. Countless “portraits” of the Virgin are ascribed to the hand of St. Luke, while the face of Christ impressed on Veronica’s veil and the Virgin of Guadalupe on Juan Diego’s cloak are believed to have been transferred through direct physical contact with the divine. Francisco de Zurbarán’s trompe-l’oeil Veronica bears the miraculous impression of Christ’s bloodied face and implies the presence of the actual relic of the sacred cloth. Alonso López de Herrera’s Holy Face, an image he replicated many times, was proclaimed a “true effigy” and authenticated by his signature.

In other cases, the religious authority of an image resides in its convincing, sometimes exaggerated, lifelikeness, conveyed through artistic means such as realism or illusionism. The latter is powerfully on display in Zurbarán’s Agnus Dei, which presents a lamb bound for slaughter as the object of prayer, challenging the boundary that exists between the representation of the sacred and its actual presence.

Moving Images - One of the most compelling justifications for the use of religious imagery was its ability to provoke empathetic response and move the beholder toward contemplation of God. Spanish art often manifests the divine in terms that are both palpable and proximate, underscoring the role of the senses in apprehending purely spiritual qualities. Artists employed a wide range of techniques, but most of them shared the aim of intensifying emotional response. This is especially apparent in representations of Christ’s Passion, where the subject is the graphic depiction of human suffering. This section will feature works by both painters and sculptors, including Bartolomé Estebán Murillo, Alonso Cano, Antonio Pereda, Gregorio Fernández and Juan Sánchez Barba.

With the Eyes of the Soul - The works in this section of the exhibition reflect deliberate efforts by artists to render purely spiritual values in visual form. The exhibition considers the ways in which artists depicted visionary experiences and expressed what was at once unknowable and unrepresentable. Similarly, it explores the religious practices and aspirations that informed and motivated these artistic representations. Key works include Francisco Camilo’s painting of a vision experienced by the Spanish mystic St. John of God, who receives a Crown of Thorns upon contemplating an image of the Crucifixion. Similarly, Cristóbal Villalpando depicts a rapturous St. Teresa being clothed by the Virgin and St. Joseph in a shining garment and a golden collar. The artistic challenge of representing such a vision is suggested by the saint herself, who wrote that the experience was beyond human understanding or imagining, and so beautiful that in comparison, everything on earth appeared to be a smudge of soot.

Visualizing Sanctity - The visual representation of sanctity constitutes one of the most fertile areas of Hispanic artistic production in the 17th century. Saints were the protagonists of a religious history that was continually updated through the addition of new episodes that featured both historical and contemporary acts of heroism, holiness and virtue. Images of the saints were of fundamental importance in the promotion of the faith, and artists were faced with the problematic task of creating likenesses of them. The motive of truthful portrayal underlies the diffusion of images like Alonso Cano’s Miraculous Portrait of St. Dominic at Soriano, depicting the “portrait” of St. Dominic said to have been given by the Virgin Mary to the monks of Soriano and Zurbarán’s stark effigy of St. Francis, based on Pope Nicolas V’s contemplation of the saint’s mortal remains. Insistence on the necessity of truthful likenesses of the saints also resulted in portraits of individuals renowned for their saintliness, as well as postmortem portraits and death masks of the recently deceased.

Living with Images - The final section of exhibition focuses on images created for use by individual worshipers, both lay and religious. Such images functioned as visual aids to prayer and meditation, practiced privately in the confines of home and cloister. The goal of these prayers was nothing less than spiritual perfection: to rise above mundane reality and achieve a closer union with God. Images connected with this pursuit provide an inventory of the religious values of the Spanish world and an index of its spiritual aesthetics. Works, including Francisco Ribalta’s double portrait of a nobleman and his wife displaying a devotional image of St. Joseph and the pregnant Mary, chart the intimate, interactive relationship between worshiper and image and explore the visual strategies used by artists to activate memory and arouse response.

Sacred Spain: Art and Belief in the Spanish World is organized by Ronda Kasl, Senior Curator of Painting and Sculpture before 1800 at the Indianapolis Museum of Art. The exhibition concept and checklist were developed in consultation with an advisory committee of specialists in the art, history and culture of Spain and Spanish America. Principal curatorial advisors to the project include Javier Portús (Museo Nacional del Prado) and Concepción García Sáiz (Museo de América), two leading authorities on Spanish and Latin American baroque art.

Sacred Spain will be accompanied by a fully illustrated scholarly catalogue with essays by Luisa Elena Alcalá, María Cruz de Carlos Varona, William A. Christian, Jr., Jaime Cuadriello Concepción García Sáiz, Ronda Kasl, Javier Portús and Alfonso Rodríguez Gutiérrez de Ceballos.

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