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Art review: Bishop’s Palace, Málaga

28 June 2019

Katy Hounsell-Robert sees polychromatic sculptures in Málaga

palacio episcopal, malaga

St Francis by Pedro de Mena, on display in the Palacio Episcopal, Malaga

St Francis by Pedro de Mena, on display in the Palacio Episcopal, Malaga

WHILE Málaga is well known as a landing city in southern Spain for visitors who will be travelling on to exotic places, it is also a centre for art, both paintings and sculpture. Picasso was born there, and is now commemorated with his own museum. Many exhibitions in the city, however, celebrate the Andalusian Baroque period, which included El Greco and Velasquez. The Bishop’s Palace (Palacio Episcopal), along the road to the Picasso Museum, boasts its own art centre, beautifully designed with marble floor and a fountain in its courtyard, and every year holds new exhibitions of classical and new religious art. Currently it has a large exhibition of the acclaimed 17th-century sculptor Pedro de Mena y Medrano, who, though born in Granada in 1628, lived and worked for the last three decades of his life in Málaga.

After nearly 800 years of Moorish occupation and geometric non-figurative Islamic art, the Catholic sovereigns Isabella and Ferdinand united the different Spanish kingdoms and ousted the Nasrid rulers, taking over their capital, Granada. Isabella instigated the Inquisition, but also actively encouraged old and new churches and cathedrals to celebrate the faith in painting and sculpture. The northern cities that had resisted the occupation vigorously continued to follow the Flemish art style, but Andalusia became a fertile ground for a new type of rather daring religious art in bringing Jesus, Mary, and the saints to life in three dimensions.

In the Bishop’s Palace, there are more than 40 polychromed wooden statues, some restored especially for this occasion. The most famous have their own room or separate space. The life-size busts Ecce Homo and Our Lady of Sorrows, traditionally coupled together, demonstrate how Mena makes his figures express suffering both mentally and physically. Using real teeth, glass eyes, and real hair for eyelashes, beard, and scalp, he reproduces a bruise on Christ’s left cheek, dried scars from the lashing, and fresh blood from new wounds trickling down irregularly forming a clot at the base of the neck. His face expresses deep sorrow and physical pain, while his mother, a mature Mary with convincing tears of resin running down her face, holds out her hands to him, sharing his ordeal.

St Francis of Assisi (on loan from Toledo Cathedral) shows an ageing and gaunt face marked by years of poverty and dedication, and yet sublime. He holds a quill pen in one hand and a holy book in another, while a bird perches on his left shoulder. For a poor friar, his habit is realistically made up of different patches of material, giving the appearance of being put on him, which is actually true because to economise on expensive wood, life-size gowned figures had a basic structure of two wooden boxes, and the face mask, limbs, and clothes were made separately and glued or nailed on.

The popular Holy Week processions of penitents parading slowly barefoot through the streets may have inspired Mena when he carved Mary Magdalene as a penitent (on loan from the Prado, Madrid). She wears a simple hessian shift and gazes steadfastly at a small cross carried in her left hand. Her hair hangs loose and dishevelled, her feet are bare, and one can really feel her terrible distress.

The infant Jesus, a convincing baby with one or other parent, is not neglected, and, while he seems to lie cheerfully while his mother prays over him, before changing his nappy, he plays with Joseph’s hand as he holds him up, but his attention seems to be on something else near by.

The exhibition continues in the nearby cathedral, where Mena was responsible for most of the carvings round the altar in cedar wood of the Holy Family and saints, each one having individual characteristics and expression. It has been specially lit for this occasion and one can visit every day until 10 p.m.

The exhibition runs until 14 July.


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