THE sculptor Juan Martínez Montañés was born in 1568 and died in Seville in the plague of 1649. His artistry not only marks the shift from the Renaissance to the Baroque in Spain, but also moulded the spirituality of the post-Tridentine Church.
Forty-four of his sculptures have been brought together from the churches and convents of Andalucía for this exceptional winter show in the city where he lived and died. Several of the works will be familiar to London audiences from the 2009/10 exhibition “The Sacred Made Real” (Arts, 23 October 2009).
They demonstrate a startling realism not only in their carving, but also in the subtle polychrome with which artists such as Francisco Pacheco (who was Velázquez’s tutor and subsequent father-in-law) and Baltasar Quintero enlivened the cedarwood.
Here we see a sculptor, a generation after the spiritual reawakening that came with the writings of St Teresa of Ávila (d.1582) and of St John of the Cross (d.1591), offering a vision of a glorious Church.
In 1616, Francisco Varela (1580/85-1645) portrayed Montañés (City Hall, Seville). He is sculpting a clay modello for a statue of St Jerome, which he holds in the soft embrace of a cloth in his left hand. Although the portrait is in part a trope for the dispute between Sculpture and Painting, it gives us an insight into the method that the sculptor employed as he is poised to make an incision in the soft clay maquette.
It also commemorates a remarkable work that the artist had completed a couple of years earlier for the central niche in the main altarpiece of the monastery of San Isidoro del Campo at Santiponce, which is shown alongside the painted terracotta statue that inspired it. This is by Pietro Torrigiano, the Tuscan sculptor who worked for Henry VII in London and then ended up in Seville, where he died in 1528.
MBASFrancisco Varela (1580/85-1645), Portrait of the Sculptor Juan Martínez Montañés, 1616, oil on canvas. City Hall, Seville, on permanent loan to the Focus Abengoa Foundation, Seville
The tension in the old man’s back and the brave longing with which he regards the crucifix that he holds as he prepares to beat himself with a stone are directly copied from the 1525 piece. All that Montañés has done is to switch round the legs on which the biblical translator kneels in the wilderness.
A new-found confidence in faith in the period after the death of King Philip II (1598), when Spanish interests were coming to dominate the papal court in Rome, set Spain at the heart of Christian witness: hence the powerfully lifelike statues of Francis Borgia and Ignatius of Loyola.
Convents and churches erected retablos that are often three or four registers in height, making it difficult to see the detail on the individual carvings. It is the triumph of this exhibition to bring such extraordinary workmanship and artistry into close-up.
For the altarpiece of St John the Baptist in the convent of San Leandro (1620-22), Montañés carved a clean-shaven Baptist kneeling in deep relief. Behind him, rather like a backdrop in a theatre, Quintero has painted a distant view of contemporary Seville and the River Guadalquivir.
MBASJuan Martínez Montañés, St Ignatius of Loyola, 1610, polychromed carved wood and cloth stiffened with glue; polychromy by Francisco Pacheco; from the Church of La Anunciaciun, University of Seville
For the higher scene of the baptism itself, the Baptist, now bearded, stands over Jesus, who remains dry-shod on a rock in the water. His own back is bent over, following the shape of the enveloping palm tree behind him. In close detail, we get to see the adze marks left along the side of the unframed wood panel.
The stand-alone figures of the parents of the Baptist and of the Saviour from the same altarpiece are beautifully nuanced, Elizabeth and Zechariah betraying something of their age in their wearied faces, in comparison with the softer skin tones of the Virgin and St Joseph. The textured details of their garments are richly gilded.
The last two rooms of this exhibition concentrate on the mystery of the immaculate conception and the event of Calvary with five statues of the Virgin in glory, ranging from his first figure (of 1606-08) for El Poderoso, Seville, to a final version that is popularly known as “The Little Blind One”. The unadorned simple beauty of the downward-gazing Virgin became a prototype for the way in which the mystery was depicted.
Earlier, in contrast, the likes of Roque de Balduque (d.1561), in a carving, and the Brussels artist Pedro de Campaña, in a painting of 1540, represented the Virgin Immaculate standing on a crescent moon and carrying the infant Jesus (both works can be seen in the permanent collection); but by the 1600s the emphasis had shifted solely to Mary.
The final room explores Montañés’s life-size statuary of Christ on the Cross. The unbearable poignancy of the Christ of Clemency, originally commissioned in 1603 by a canon for his private chapel and now on permanent loan to the cathedral, raises the sculptor’s skill and Pacheco’s painting to almost unbearable levels.
“Montañés, maestro de maestros” is at the Museo de Bellas Artes de Sevilla (Museum of Fine Arts of Seville), Plaza del Museo, Seville 41001, Spain, until 13 March. www.museosdeandalucia.es/web/museodebellasartesdesevilla