Seville, capital of Andalusia, setting of my romantic trilogy: Indiscretion, Masquerade and Legacy. On the map for its rich historical and cultural sites, like the Alcázar palace complex and the Cathedral, and for one artistic field in particular: religious sculpture.
I first encountered the Sevillian school of sculpture in the Museum of Fine Arts of Seville, with this depiction of Saint Jerome (c. 1528):
Have you ever been in an art gallery, and it is like time stands still; you are so astonished and awed by a work that the world around recedes? That is how I felt before Saint Jerome Penitent. The terracotta sculpture, made by Italian sculptor Pietro Torrigiano, is astoundingly realistic and expressive.
Torrigiano was not, in fact, Spanish; he was Italian, of the Florentine school – and famously a rival of Michelangelo’s. After he broke the latter’s nose in a fight, Torrigiano wasn’t too welcome in Italy, so he decamped to Spain, where, in Seville, the style of sculpture being worked in the city inspired him.
The Sevillian school of sculpture, as it is known, dates back to the 13th century, and is focused on creating lifelike depictions of key figures in the Christian religion. In the 16th century, the Spanish mystic Saint John of the Cross declared that sculpture was a necessity: “to inspire reverence for the saints, to move the will, and to awaken devotion” (source: National Gallery). Thus beautiful sculptures were created for places like monasteries, cathedrals and tombs, and also for pasos, processional floats of Biblical scenes used in Seville’s Holy Week festival – which I have seen in person and can attest are absolutely beautiful.
What really sets the sculptures apart is how lifelike they are. The most important and influential sculptor of the school, Juan Martínez Montañés, popularised a technique called encarnación, which translates to incarnation – literally, bringing to life.
“Not everyone who can hew a block of wood is able to carve an image; nor is everyone who can carve it able to outline and polish it; nor is he that can polish it able to paint it…”
So said Saint John of the Cross. Indeed, it takes a great deal of skill – and work – to create one of these sculptures. Wood is the first-choice material, carved intricately and then covered with ‘gesso’, composed of animal glue, chalk and white pigment. The sculpture is then left to dry for up to half a year, before the encarnación can begin: painting, varnishing and sanding, often over and over to achieve the desired effect.
Here is Juan Martínez Montañés’ depiction of Saint John the Baptist. It was created in the early 17th century, but the encarnación really has stood the test of time.
[Source: Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York]