A realistic painted wood bust of the Mater Dolorosa (Virgin of Sorrows) by Pedro de Mena (1628-1688) with glass eyes and teardrops and eyelashes made from human hair has been saved for the nation through a public appeal.
The work has been on show at the Fitzwilliam Museum
since the end of July whilst the institution raised funds to acquire it. The acquisition had been supported with £30,000 from the Art Fund and £10,000 from The Henry Moore Foundation, but £85,000 was still needed through the public appeal.
Mesmerisingly beautiful and just under life size at 33.6cm tall, the Virgin of Sorrows gently furrowed brows, natural flesh tones, glass eyes and teardrops and eyelashes made from human hair, still elicit a powerful response from the viewer 350 years after it was made. It was most likely created for the private chapel, study or bedchamber of a devout patron, and would almost certainly have been protected under a glass dome and originally paired with a similarly-sized bust of the Ecce Homo (Christ as the Man of Sorrows).
The Spanish Golden Age, early 16th to late 17th century, was a period of incredible artistic and economic output for Spain, seeing the nation rise to one of the greatest empires the world has ever seen. From the conquest of the New World, to the writing of Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes, this period changed the course of world politics and culture. The Fitzwilliam Museum has a small collection of Spanish art, including two works by Bartolomé Esteban Murillo, but the more emotive Catholic works, exemplified by painted wood sculpture are extremely rare in British collections. Taste and religion played their part in this: indeed, most of de Menas sculptures remain in the churches, monasteries and convents for which they were made.
The Spanish sculptor Pedro de Mena (1628-1688) was taught the art of wood carving by his father, Alonso de Mena (1587-1646), a well-regarded sculptor of traditional religious images in Granada. Following his fathers death, the eighteen-year-old Pedro took over the workshop and was joined by established artist Alonso Cano (1601-1667), who taught him how to realistically paint sculpture. Cano also encouraged Mena to enhance the naturalism of his sculptures by including additional elements, such as eyes and tears made from glass, and eyelashes from human hair. As such, Menas statues and busts have a remarkable lifelike quality, which can be unnerving to the 21st century viewer. Mena left Granada in 1658 and spent the rest of his career in Málaga, becoming increasingly well regarded with prestigious patrons from church and state. Mena was known for his intense faith and was elected by the Inquisition in both Granada and Málaga as a censor of images.
The Director of the Fitzwilliam Museum, Tim Knox commented: "Thanks to a last-minute rush in donations, and a number of extremely generous donors who promised to make up the shortfall, we proudly announce that we have successfully raised the money needed to secure Pedro de Mena's Virgin of Sorrows for the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge. This has been right to the wire, and every single penny has counted. Our sincere thanks go out to all who donated towards the appeal - you have helped secure an important and beautiful work of art for the nation. We hope that visitors to the Fitzwilliam will enjoy seeing the Virgin of Sorrows for years to come."