Gems of the Spanish Baroque in Bruges

The Sint-Janshospitaal Museum in Bruges is holding a landmark exhibition on the art of the Spanish Baroque. It's a unique opportunity to admire works by Pedro De Mena, Francisco De Zubaran and Bartholomé Esteban Murillo. Even before Easter the exhibition has attracted nearly ten thousand visitors. Flandersnews spoke with Sint-Janshospitaal chief curator Ruud Priem.

"The exhibition is staged in one of the ground floor halls of the Sint-Janshospitaal- or St John's Hospital Museum in Bruges, a setting that dates from the early 12th century, and was expanded in the13th and 14th centuries. In its day the hospital provided spiritual care and basic health care to the people of Bruges, but also to the many travellers and pilgrims, who passed through the city over the centuries. It offered charity to the poor, served as a food bank avant la lettre. During Pedro De Mena's day, it would also have been frequented by Spanish soldiers stationed in Bruges, following the bloody religious wars in these parts, so quite appropriate."

“In a nearby room you can admire the 14th-century Flemish sculpture in oak of Saint Cornelius. It's the oldest Bruges polychrome sculpture that still retains its original paint. It's an original example of a tradition that would eventually lead to the Spanish Baroque sculptures of De Mena. Works like De Mena's were often carried through city streets in procession during the Counter-reformation, to provide its inhabitants with year-round protection against disease, death, and life at war. So it's quite fitting that this tradition has now come to Bruges, a city world-renowned for its annual Holy Blood Procession.”

In all the exhibition includes twenty-two works, loans from other museums and from private collections. The largest number of works on which the exhibition is actually based come from one single private collector, with a heartfelt personal connection to Bruges, who now lives in the Grand-Duchy of Luxembourg. After the Sint-Janshospitaal the exhibition will move on to the MNHA, the National Museum of History and Art in Luxembourg City that is jointly staging this exhibition.

"We're lucky to be able to show six sculptures by Pedro De Mena, two paintings by Murillo and a further two by Zubaran as well as other works, twenty-two in all. In this way you can also see how sculptors and painters influenced each other. It was a two-way street!"

"This kind of art, Spanish paintings and sculptures from the Baroque, the period of the Counter-reformation is rarely seen outside Spain. Many of the works were commissioned for local churches and convents in Spain and never travelled abroad. A lot changed with a landmark exhibition in the National Gallery in London. Until then museums and collectors often shied away from this form of art, which was seen as a bit tacky, but in 2009 the National Gallery staged "The Sacred Made Real" and that opened minds!"

“The people of the age of the Spanish Baroque were very aware of the temporary nature of their existence. It was an age of great conflict and one in which disease lurked around practically every corner. For these people the faith of the Counter-reformation provided great support.”

The exhibition opens with two Immaculate Conceptions, a painting by Alonso Cano and a statue by his apprentice, Pedro De Mena, representing the same subject but in a three dimensional form.

Ruud Priem: "The Immaculate Conception is quite a statement. It's a key message of the Counter-reformation. Disputed by the Protestant Churches the Counter-reformation was keen to insist that it was possible! The start of the exhibition follows the chronology of the story of Christ. Next we move on to statues and paintings depicting the Christ Child and later the magnificent Ecce Homo and Mater Dolorosa by Pedro De Mena. Christ is depicted with a crown of thorns, the crown is made of wood from a real rose bush. The Virgin Mary sheds tears of sorrow made from resin. Everything was done to make these sculptures look as lifelike as possible. The eyes are made of glass, real hair is used for the eyelashes, while the teeth are made of ivory!"

“Today the figure of Pedro De Mena is often overshadowed by Murillo, Zubaran, Velasquez and Ribera, but in his day he was quite a gentleman, working in Malaga and Granada, at the head of a studio, and appointed by the Inquisition to ensure that fellow painters complied with the norms of the Roman Catholic Church!”

"In art Pedro De Mena was a real trendsetter in the 1670's, 1680's. He was one of the first Spanish sculptors to paint his own sculptures himself. Until this period sculptors would hand their work on to painters, who completed the job. The wood that often consists of various different parts that are then stuck together and sculpted, is then covered in a thin layer of gypsum and painted. At the end of the exhibition we screen an interesting video that shows how sculptors like De Mena produced their works."

"We've also been very keen to allow people to see the sculptures in their full glory. People can walk all the way around them and view them from all sides. This is how it should be. Remarkably, only one of the sculptures is shown covered by glass!”

Note in the presentation Pedro De Mena's Saint Francis of Assisi looks at Christ on the cross - it's a sculpture within a sculpture - while beyond we can see Alonso Cano's magnificent Dead Christ on the Cross. In a different direction, the sculpture of St Francis is mirrored in Antonio Arias's St Francis of Assisi and Brother Leon.

"For an exhibition on the work of the Dutch painter Emanuel de Witte in Alkmaar I enlisted the help of Studio OTW to create the setting and decide how the works would be presented. It was very successful and won both the 2017 international Jury Prize and People’s Choice FRAME Award in the category Exhibition of the Year. We were keen to repeat this presentational success in Bruges. Usually the works of the Spanish Baroque are presented in dark environment and lit by a concentrated flood of light. Here we have created walls which give light from within, on which the works are presented. One particularly large wall shows a projection of the sculptures on display, often details, providing movement and light that changes in quality, allowing different aspects of the works to come to the fore. We hope we've brought the art works to life even more, while the artists took great care in imbuing an awful lot of life in their works. The visual is underpinned by the musical. Visitors hear recordings of the music of the Spanish Baroque by the renowned Huelgas Ensemble. Has the success of Alkmaar been repeated? You had better come and judge for yourself!"

'De Mena, Murillo, Zurbarán. Masters of the Spanish Baroque' runs in the Sint-Janshospitaal, Mariastraat 38 in Bruges until 6 October 2019. Closed on Mondays. A catalogue in five languages is available for only 19,95 euros.