Archbishop Pietro Sambi, apostolic nuncio to the United States, gets an up-close view of a sculpture "Christ as the Man of Sorrows" by Pedro de Mena as he tours "The Sacred Made Real" exhibit Feb. 19 before its opening at the National Gallery of Art in Washington. The exhibit features religious paintings and sculptures from the Spanish golden age, when artists portrayed Christ, Mary and the saints with an intense realism. The exhibit of 11 paintings and 11 sculptures runs through May 31 at the National Gallery of Art's East Building.
Archbishop Pietro Sambi, apostolic nuncio to the United States, gets an up-close view of a sculpture "Christ as the Man of Sorrows" by Pedro de Mena as he tours "The Sacred Made Real" exhibit Feb. 19 before its opening at the National Gallery of Art in Washington. The exhibit features religious paintings and sculptures from the Spanish golden age, when artists portrayed Christ, Mary and the saints with an intense realism. The exhibit of 11 paintings and 11 sculptures runs through May 31 at the National Gallery of Art's East Building.
The author of a new book on religious art says "The Sacred Made Real" exhibit of paintings and painted sculptures from the Spanish golden age now on display at the National Gallery of Art in Washington can offer a powerful experience this Lent for Catholics of all ages.

"There's something there for all of us," said Jem Sullivan, the author of the book "The Beauty of Faith: Using Christian Art to Spread the Good News" which was recently published by Our Sunday Visitor. Sullivan, who serves as the interim director of the Secretariat for Evangelization and Catechesis for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, also volunteers as a docent, leading visitors on tours at the National Gallery of Art.

She walked through "The Sacred Made Real" exhibit on its Feb. 28 opening day with her husband and their young son. She said the exhibit would appeal to youth and young adult groups, in addition to older Catholics. "It draws you to something deeper," she said.

The exhibit of masterpieces including 11 painted sculptures by artists like Juan Martinez Montanes - whose nickname was "the god of wood" - and 11 paintings by transcendent artists like Diego Velazquez and Francisco de Zurbaran. All the works deal with Christian subjects, ranging from Mary's Immaculate Conception, to portraits of saints, to depictions of Christ's Passion and death on the cross. The paintings and painted sculptures were created in an intensely realistic style, expressing the passionate faith of the saints and of the artists themselves, and are meant to stir the viewer to experience God in a personal way.

"It's a wonderful opportunity for us this Lent, we have an added bonus to meditate on the Passion of our Lord through these beautiful, moving images," Sullivan said. The exhibit also offers Christian viewers the opportunity "to reflect on ways (that) our human experience is related to the Passion of the Lord, of (how our) sufferings, challenges and difficulties are made sense of in light of the Lord's Passion. That," she said, "is the purpose of art, to draw us in, to be transformed by what we see."
The paintings and painted sculptures display "artistic and technical achievement that's astounding," Sullivan said, but she emphasized that they were created as works of sacred art, to be seen in cathedrals, churches, chapels and in processions. Viewers today, like those who first saw the works in 17th century Spain, can be led from "seeing to contemplation to adoration and worship, which is the original purpose of the art," Sullivan said.

She noted that the artwork in the exhibit "comes out of the living faith of the people, the rich devotional life of the people in Spain, and the artists who created" the works. "The realism of the paintings and sculptures make sense only in reference to the central mystery of our faith - the incarnation of God in His Son, Jesus Christ," Sullivan said. "When you think about the Incarnation, (it means) God becomes one of us."

One of the most moving works in the show is a painted wood, glass and cloth sculpture "Ecce Homo" carved by Gregorio Fernandez, which depicts Christ after He has been scourged, and Jesus seems to be looking directly at the viewer, in pain and sorrow. Spanish art historian Antonio Palomino later noted that Fernandez "did not undertake to make an effigy of Christ our Lord or His holy Mother without preparing himself first by prayer, fast, penitence and Communion, so that God would confer His grace upon him and make him succeed."

Sullivan said the intense realism of the paintings and sculptures offers people "an encounter with the Lord, in an immediate way. You are standing at the foot of the cross. You're witnessing His passion... You are led to reflect on the love of Christ," which helps people understand the meaning of His suffering, death and resurrection, she said.

("The Sacred Made Real: Spanish Painting and Sculpture, 1600-1700," will be on display at the National Gallery of Art through May 31.)