Spanish Polychrome Sculpture, Ancient and Modern

by David Clayton on July 16, 2010

I was disappointed recently not to be able to get to see exhibition that was recently at both National Galleries (Washington DC and London) called The Sacred Made Real. It featured the Spanish baroque naturalism that I love, painters such as Velazquez and Zurburan. It also had a number of examples of Spanish baroque sculptors who worked in wood. These are referred to as ‘polychrome’ meaning many colours, because as you can see, they were all painted. I was not aware of this tradition at all until I visited Granada about five years ago. The Bishop of Granada, who I was lucky enough to meet had a great interest in art. He told me that he thought Alonso Cano the greatest Baroque artist because of his polychrome sculptures. I was only able to find one of his polychrome sculptures to reproduce here, but have included a wonderful painting by him instead. (Notice how in classic baroque style, the focus is on the person of Christ and so his face is in shadow.)

Back to the sculpture; you can see the same stylistic features used by the stone sculptors of the time, even though these artists are not ‘painting in shadow’, as stone sculptors such as Bernini did (as I wrote about last week, here). For example, they display the same exaggerated angular folds in the cloth to give the form vigour. Perhaps this is because the artist who sculpted the figure, who is the one usually given the credit, did not do the painting as well. There were specialist polychrome painters who did that.

There is an artist in Spain today who is producing work in a similar vein called Dario Fernandez. Unfortunately, I couldn’t find any images that I am able to reproduce here, but there are plenty on his website and he is well worth looking up.

Works shown (all from the 17th century), from top: Scourging at the Pillar, Gregorio Fernandez; John of God, Alonso Cano; The Scourging at the Pillar, Alonso Cano; Suffering Christ, Gregorio Fernandez; St Teresa of Avila, Gregorio Fernandez; Christ of Sorrows, Pedro de Mena; Crucifixion, Juan Martinez-Montanez

{ 6 comments… read them below or add one }

Douglas Bonneville July 16, 2010 at 1:53 pm

Wonderful. Have you seen this 12 minute video?

It shows the whole process for creating a Spanish Polychrome statue of a saint. Wonderful…I saw this several months ago.

The mention of folds is interesting. I can’t recall where – I think it was either on your blog or on a resource linked from it – that folds done in an angular style are better than draped and curvy ones because curves can express a false sentimentality. Can you elaborate on that? I agree with that statement, but I can’t articulate why just yet.


davidicons July 16, 2010 at 2:07 pm

I haven’t seen the video – thank you! I did refer to this idea of breaking up the curves into combinations of angles in my last posting on Bernini. Why it works? I have to admit I’m not really certain. I thought that it creates a sense of speed of execution perhaps. Another reason might be that it is easier for us to see the rhythm between different lines relate if they are straighter. Beauty is the narmonious placement of the parts and I think we pick this up more easily and gain a sense of order if we have a few straighter lines.


Douglas Bonneville July 16, 2010 at 2:21 pm

I don’t have the names of the painting in mind, but there is one well-known Gothic Madonna and Child that has a veritable plume of angular folds in the gown of the blessed Mother, literally tumbled into a pile in front of her. I’ll see if I can find it. Anyway, when I see those kinds of folds, I immediately think how beautiful they are, and how no folds really look like that. Its like the ancient version of “photoshopping” an image. However, in the context of Gothic work, it doesn’t come across as disingenuous but rather as sincerely pointing to, along with the rest of the image, to an ideal perfection not of this world: they are “heavenly” folds.


davidicons July 16, 2010 at 3:30 pm

Just fyi – posted this video on the New Liturgical Movement site to come out on Monday, so thanks for showing to me.


davidicons July 16, 2010 at 3:06 pm

Hi Douglas
If you look at Romanesque and Celtic art it goes in the other direction they can be very curly and soft, yet they work. So it seems as with much else there are no hard and fast rules. however, it does seem that for today’s artist, one way of avoiding sentimentality is to go for the angular folds, Bernini-fashion.


b. poole December 27, 2010 at 9:38 pm

Thank you David for the beautiful pictures of these amazing statues..:-)

P.S…your mug is anything but ugly..;-)


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