BSL introduction to the exhibition
In 16th- and 17th-century Spain wooden polychrome (painted) sculptures were fashioned of Christian saints, scenes from the life of Christ – such as the Passion (the events leading to the Crucifixion) – and the Virgin Mary. They were carved and painted in great detail, even embellished with glass eyes and tears, human hair and ivory teeth.
The sculptures are displayed in churches throughout Spain and processed through the streets on holy days to inspire the devotion of the viewer.
The production of the sculptures was strictly controlled by guilds of painters and sculptors. Sculptors would carve and gesso the wood in white but they were not allowed to paint them. This part of the production was reserved for a specially trained painter known as the ‘pintor de ymaginería’ (‘painter of [religious] imagery’).
The tradition of painting sculptures to make them look more life-like than life, or hyper-realistic, goes back to ancient history and reflects the way that the Greeks, Romans and Egyptians painted sculptures of their gods. The practice fell out of favour in Renaissance Italy and was superseded by marble, but multi-coloured painted sculptures persisted in Spain.
Spanish polychrome sculptures fascinated not only contemporary Spanish painters, such as Velázquez, Zurbarán and Jusepe de Ribera, but later European artists such as the 19th-century French painter Edgar Degas, who took inspiration from them for his sculpture ‘Little Dancer Aged Fourteen”. Hyper-realism remains a powerful force in 21st-century art.