I have always been a fan of art. Whether it be music, writing, or visual, I enjoy experiencing well crafted art. Being a Catholic I have come to enjoy the many forms of religious art that the Church has produced throughout history. There has never been a more splendid art form than that which presents the truths of the Catholic faith. Earlier this year I made a pilgrimage to Quito, Ecuador in an effort to experience firsthand devotion to Our Lady of Good Success. During my pilgrimage I had my first real contact with Spanish colonial art. It was eyeopening for me to say the least. As we begin the Year of Mercy, there are many false ideas floating around which detract or derail Our Lord's true message of mercy and I think sharing these pieces of art help to properly orient one towards the true meaning of mercy.
In Quito there are many Churches and museums that have splendid pieces of Spanish art. The statues are the most expressive I have ever seen. There are several pieces in the Franciscan convent that caught my attention and have remained in my mind since my visit. The three I cover here are all related to Our Lord's passion in one way or another. The Spaniards have always had a unique emphasis on Our Lord's passion in art, which is something that is sorely needed in today's Catholic climate.
The Franciscans were the first to establish a convent in Quito. The Franciscan Church and museum found within the cloister both contain fantastic pieces of art including statuary and paintings. The three pieces I will focus on are in the museum of the Franciscan convent. The artistic heritage found in many places throughout Quito derive from Spain, especially from Seville and Granada, which were known for their artistic achievements. After the Reformation the Catholic Church had to counter the evil of the Protestant heresy, and certain changes took place in the wake of the rebellion. One of them was establishing reforms to deepen the traditional values and teachings of the Church, including emphasizing the cult of the Saints, the Blessed Mother and devotion to Christ, especially in His Passion. Thus we see an astounding flourishing of spiritual art following the Reformation, which would come to be known as the Baroque period.
The style which developed sought not only to communicate a theological truth of the faith, but also sought to engage the senses, emotions, and to draw the viewer into the artistic setting personally. Art scholar Gabrielle Palmer says the new art form, "...yielded to organic profusions and to expression of physical vigor and emotional exuberance." Many of the pieces were used in processions on large floats for example, which would draw the viewers into the passion scene. These pieces of art were produced from a guild system in which sculptors and painters would undergo years of apprenticeship. The apprentices often began the work while the master completed the final stages. The process of making the statues which are the focus of this piece, included carving the pieces out of cedar, black oak, balsa or pine. The pieces were then put together with strips of cloth and glue and then covered with many layers of gesso. Often the head was carved in two pieces so the eyes could be glued in place before assembly. The piece was then sized with Armenian bol or clay compound. Finally the statue was then painted, dressed and polished. Final polishing with leather gives the glazed appearance that you see in many of the pieces. The three pieces I will cover are from southern Spain and are known as part of the Granadan tradition.
Jesus del Gran Poder
The first piece that I will talk about is what is known as, 'Jesus del Gran Poder.' Christ is depicted carrying His cross to Golgotha. The image dates to 1620. The statue is carved and originally was supposed to be clothed, but the clothing is actually carved. The style is similar to that which is seen from southern Andalusian Spain. I find the Spanish halo style always striking and the expression on Our Lord's face is very engaging, yet no overly so. As I stood before this image the price Our Lord paid for my sins became very real. The intent of the artist is sure to be felt by those who gaze upon the statue. I was so moved by the statue that I had a large blown up image made of it on canvas to hang on my wall. It is a tremendous image to contemplate what Our Lord has done for us, and the suffering He endured to bring us the gift of mercy.
The second piece is another life size statue called, 'Ecce Homo.' The statue is thought to be made by Pedro de Mena's workshop in Spain in the mid 1600s. Again the image demands an emotional response from the viewer. One cannot stand before it without having to reflect on the reality of Christ's suffering. Our Lord is judged as a criminal and sentenced to death before one's eyes. When contemplating the idea of mercy, it should be noted that our sins are what cause such pain and suffering to Our Lord. Looking upon this image you can see your own sins materialize on the body of Our Lord.
Oracion de Jesus en el Huerto
The last piece I will cover is called, 'Oracion de Jesus en el Huerto.' This was the first statue that caught my attention as walked through the museum. The title conveys that this is Christ in His agony in Gethsemane, praying just before being apprehended. The face of Our Lord is expressive and one can actually feel Our Lord's love for us as He contemplates what lies before Him. It is carved out of balsa wood. Notice how He is sweating blood as He prays looking up to God the Father.
As we celebrate the Year of Mercy, we need to focus on what mercy really means. Gazing upon and contemplating Our Lord in His Passion will move us to repentance so we can live in a state of grace serving Our Lord. An idea of mercy disconnected from Our Lord's Passion is not an authentic image of mercy and these Spanish pieces of art can help us contemplate the way mercy has come to us, which was through tremendous suffering. The words below written by the great Spanish Saint of the 16th century sum up the theology behind these great works of art.
In the passion of our blessed Saviour, six things chiefly are to be meditated upon. First, the bitterness of his sorrow, that we may be compassionate with him. Secondly, the greatness of our sins, which were the cause of his torments, that we may abhor them. Thirdly, the greatness of the benefit, that we may be grateful for it. Fourthly, the excellency of the divine charity and bounty therein manifested, that we may love Him more fervently. Fifthly, the conveniency of the mystery, that we may be drawn to admiration of it. Lastly, the multiplicity of virtues of our blessed Saviour which did shine in this stupendous mystery, that we may partly imitate and partly admire them; wherefore, in the midst of these meditations, let us sometimes be compassionate with our blessed Saviour in the extremity of his sorrows; extreme indeed, both by reason of the tenderness of his body, as also, for the great affection he bore unto our souls. He did suffer them without any manner of consolation... Sometimes let us stir up in ourselves compunction for our sins, which were the cause of his great sufferings. Sometimes let us kindle in our souls an ardent affection, considering his great affection towards us, which upon the cross he declared and manifested to the whole world. And the benefit which he bestowed upon us in His passion, because He bought us with the inestimable price of his precious blood, of which only, we reap the benefit and commodity.
(St Peter of Alcantara)
Sculpture in the Kingdom of Quito- Gabrielle G. Palmer
A Golden Treatise of Mental Prayer (Chapter IV)- St. Peter of Alcantara