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The Making of a Spanish Polychrome Sculpture

Issued: June 2009

21 October 2009 - 24 January 2010
Room 1
Admission Free

'Not everyone who can hew a block of wood is able to carve an image; nor is everyone who can carve it able to outline and polish it; nor is he that can polish it able to paint it…'
Saint John of the Cross, 1542–1591

Francisco Antonio Ruiz Gijón, 'Saint John of the Cross', 1675. Image courtesy of the Board of Trustees, National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC. Patrons’ Permanent Fund (2003.124.1) 

To coincide with the major National Gallery Sainsbury Wing exhibition, 'The Sacred Made Real', Room 1 hosts a special display examining the technical challenges of making a polychrome (painted) sculpture.

The exhibition focuses on the creation of Francisco Antonio Ruiz Gijón’s sculpture of 'Saint John of the Cross', 1675 (National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.).

Important new research carried out by the sculpture conservation team in Washington reveals the full complexity of the processes involved, from the carving and gessoing of the wood to the finishing touches of paint which render the sculpture ‘alive’.

The Spanish mystic, Saint John of the Cross (1542–1591), who himself spent part of his youth in a sculptor’s workshop, wrote of the necessity of sculpture to inspire reverence for the saints, to move the will, and to awaken devotion. He even used the division of skills involved in polychrome sculpture as a spiritual analogy in his mystical writings (see above).

The production of religious sculptures in Spain was strictly governed by guilds: the Guild of Carpenters ('carpinteros') for the sculptors ('escultores'), and the Guild of Painters for the painters who polychromed them.

Sculptors would carve and gesso the wood in white but were strictly prohibited from painting their sculptures. This was reserved for a specially trained painter commonly known in Spain as a 'pintor de ymaginería, 'a ‘painter of [religious] imagery’.

The tradition of painting sculpture began long before recorded history. Neolithic cult objects were often painted and the Ancient Egyptians, Greeks and Romans routinely coloured sculptures of gods to maximise the impression of divinity.

Spanish sculpture of the 17th century derives most clearly from the tradition of polychroming wood that began in the Middle Ages throughout Europe. In Renaissance Italy, plain colours of unadorned marble gradually took over, but in Spain the practice of painting wooden statues thrived in the service of the Church and remains alive today.

Indeed, the exhibition will feature a modern-day bust-length copy of Gijón’s 'Saint John of the Cross' by the Seville-based sculptor-painter Darío Fernández (generously supported by The Matthiesen Foundation, London, and Coll & Cortes, Madrid). Worked to various stages of completion, this sculpture enables visitors to explore the accumulative effects of carving, gessoing and the techniques of 'encarnación '(the' 'painting of flesh tones and facial expression; literally ‘incarnation’ or ‘bringing to life’) and 'estofado' (gilded, painted and scribed decoration).

Francisco Pacheco, who influenced a generation of artists in Seville, advocated a particularly naturalistic approach to the painting of sculpture, starting with the 'mate' (matt) rather than 'polimento' (glossy) painting technique, but also relying on paint to convey eyes, hair and fingernails.

In the second half of the 17th century, however, artists increasingly introduced other materials into the wooden structures. José de Mora’s 'The Virgin of Sorrows', about 1680–1700 (Victoria & Albert Museum), also on display in Room 1, features glass eyes, ivory teeth and corkscrews of wood-shavings for the Virgin’s hair.

Such bust-length portraits of the Virgin anguishing over the dead Christ were widely commissioned across Spain. In Malaga, the young Pablo Picasso would have been familiar with this arresting imagery, which seems to have exercised a major influence on his 'Weeping Woman' portrait series of 1937.

Throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, the finest examples of Spanish polychrome sculpture continued to fascinate artists and Hispanists alike. The exhibition features an early 18th-century replica (Victoria and Albert Museum) of Pedro de Mena’s celebrated 'Saint Francis Standing in Meditation', about 1663 (Toledo Cathedral) which itself can be seen in the main Sainsbury Wing exhibition. The replica was used for private devotion probably by lay members of an order attached to the Franciscans.

Pedro de Mena’s original was famous throughout the 19th century, when the Hispanist Richard Ford described it as the ‘cadaver in ecstasy’. In 1873, an exact copy by the French artist, Zacharie Astruc, was exhibited in Paris to great acclaim.

A likely admirer was Edgar Degas, whose best known sculpture, 'Little Dancer,' was strongly influenced by Spanish polychrome sculpture. First exhibited in 1881, critics were deeply unsettled by its realism, particularly Degas’s use of real fabric and hair, and the artist’s apparent homage to Spanish Catholic tradition.

Hyperrealism remains a powerful force in 21st century art. The work of Ron Mueck, Paul Fryer and Ana-Maria Pacheco owes a great deal to the uncompromising imagery and illusionist techniques of polychrome sculpture from the Spanish Golden Age.

For further press information please contact:

The National Gallery
Thomas Almeroth-Williams on 020 7747 2532 or at

Additional information


'The Sacred Made Real' is organised by the National Gallery, London and is curated by Xavier Bray, Assistant Curator of 17th- and 18th-century Paintings at the National Gallery, London.

'The Making of a Spanish Polychrome Sculpture' is generously supported by The Matthiesen Foundation, London, and Coll & Cortes, Madrid .


'The Sacred Made Real' (ISBN: 978 1 85709 422 0)
The exhibition is accompanied by a landmark catalogue examining the creative relationship of sculptor and painter, the religious role of polychrome sculpture and the technical challenges involved in its creation. Featuring approximately 180 colour illustrations including paintings by Pacheco, Ribera, Velázquez and Zurbarán alongside unique photography of polychrome sculpture by Gregorio Fernández, Juan de Mesa, Juan Martínez Montañés, Alonso Cano and Pedro de Mena.

Catalogue by Xavier Bray, Assistant Curator of 17th- and 18th-Century Paintings at the National Gallery, London; Alfonso Rodriguez G. de Ceballos, formerly Professor at the Universidad Autónoma, Madrid; Daphne Barbour and Judy Ozone, both Senior Object Conservators at the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.

With contributions from: Eleonora Luciano, Associate Curator of Sculpture, the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.; Marjorie Trusted, Senior Curator of Sculpture at the Victoria and Albert Museum, London; Maria Fernanda Morón de Castro, Curator of Collections, University of Seville; Maria del Valme Muñoz Rubio, Chief Curator and Rocio Izquierdo Moreno and Ignacio Hermoso Romero, curators at the Museo de Bellas Artes, Seville.

The special photography of sculptures reproduced in the catalogue was generously supported by a grant from The Henry Moore Foundation.

Published by the National Gallery Company, London. Distributed by Yale University Press. £19.99 paperback, £35 hardback.

Dates and opening hours
Press view: 20 October 2009, 10.30am–1.30pm
Open to public: 21 October 2009 –24 January 2010

Daily 10am–6pm, Friday until 9pm
Last admission 5.15pm (8.15pm Friday)

Nearest entrance: Portico
Admission free

For advance tickets to The Sacred Made Real please visit or call 0844 209 1778 (booking fee). You can also book tickets by post and in person from the Gallery.

For public information, please contact 020 7747 2885 or

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