WHEN 800 years of Arab rule ended in 1492, to be replaced by the zealous Catholic monarchs Isabella and Ferdinand, Spanish Christian religious art once again began to flourish. In Islam, the portrayal of a human being was discouraged, and it was a capital offence to portray the Prophet Mohammed or Muslim saints, and Islamic art was expressed in geometric designs and quotes from the Qur’an in fine calligraphy. By the 17th century, the crucifixion, the nativity, and the saints in art and sculpture filled the churches. The wealth coming from the newly acquired territories in South America meant generous commissions attracting fine foreign artists, including El Greco.
As part of the Year of Compassion decreed by Pope Francis, the Bishop’s Palace in Málaga is holding a religious art exhibition on the theme of compassion, “Misericordia”, focusing on Spanish and especially Andalucian artists between the 16th and 20th centuries.
The Immaculate Conception, 17th-century polychrome on wood, by the sculptor Pedro de Mena (1628-88) has a prominent position in the exhibition; for, the curator, Fr Miguel Gamero, says, “it shows God’s great compassion to sinful mankind.” The young Virgin, in voluminous robes, has hands together in prayer, and her tight mouth indicates how aware she is of her mission.
One of the earliest paintings is Calvary, oil on board, early 1500s, by an unknown artist of the school of Seville. Christ hangs limply on the cross while, on the right, the rabbis with their books discuss together, and, on the left, Mary and John comfort one another. Behind them we see the helmeted handsome heads of Roman soldiers.
A later work, of 1632, oil on copper, by Basilio de Salazar (1613-45), Christ, Man of Sorrows, shows Christ stripped to the waist and humbly bearing the accusations and interrogations.
St Francis of Assisi, with his life of poverty and compassion towards all living creatures, is one of Spain’s favourite saints, and is represented very realistically in a wooden painted sculpture by Fernando Ortiz, from the 18th century. The hands and feet bear the stigmata, and his face is full of love as he gazes at a small crucifix in his hands.
Also 18th-century is an allegorical oil-painting on canvas of the Good Shepherd. Four disciples — Peter recognisable on the right — stand amazed as the resurrected Christ in sombrero and staff appears to them in gentle white light.
At the Palacio Episcopal, Plaza del Obispo, Málaga, until 20 November. It is open from 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. except Mondays. Entry €4.