The Sacred Made Real: Spanish Painting and Sculpture 1600-1700, National Gallery, London

Sacred images pull more punches in two dimensions than in three, as an exhibition both absorbing and repellent powerfully shows

At the heart of the National Gallery's new show, The Sacred Made Real, lies a question intended to vex: why do we find 17th-century Spanish religious painting so easy to look at, 17th-century Spanish religious sculpture so hard? Why does Zurbaran's canvas of St Francis Standing in Ecstasy strike us as sublime, Pedro de Mena's wooden effigy of the same subject as cheesy?

To answer that, we need to bear various things in mind. First, the work in this show is Spanish, not Italian. When the excavation of ancient Rome began in the 15th century, dug-up findings were scrubbed clean. The resultant monochrome objects were, in their whiteness, red herrings. Much classical sculpture had actually been painted, its colours lost in the ground. Nonetheless, the Italian Renaissance went away believing that Classical painting had been coloured and Classical sculpture white, and that the twain had never met. Michelangelo, a classicist and a colourist, is thought to have made just one painted sculpture in his long career, and that when he was 17.

Spain, though, had little of this history, and thus less of a bias towards sculptural whiteness. As a result, one of the curious things about the painted wooden figures in The Sacred Made Real is how old-fashioned they seem to our Italian-trained eyes. Gregorio Fernandez's Ecce Homo may have all the twist and turn of the Baroque, but it still, in 1621, looks Gothic.

There is another problem, which is that we see the sculptures in The Sacred Made Real from a distance of 400 years, and from an Anglican, if not godless, country. The Counter-Reformation, begun at the Council of Trent in 1545, fought Protestant intellectualism by becoming ever more bodily. The Council reaffirmed tangible things – the transubstantiation of wine into blood, saints' relics, pilgrimages, the sacraments. At the same time, the Church turned mystical. Among the greatest of the new mystics was a trio of Spaniards, Saints Ignatius Loyola, Teresa of Avila and John of the Cross.

It is the last of these whose presence is most clearly felt in the National Gallery show. "Darkness is preparation for light," wrote the poet-saint, a one-time apprentice wood carver. More than anywhere else, this emphatically Spanish embrace of the dark, of the equation between physical pain and spiritual gain, found its voice in three dimensions – in these sacred effigies made to be knelt down before in churches, carried in procession through ringing streets. Protestantism, bleak but inexplicably successful, stressed the intellectual link between man and God. Counter-Reformation Spain demanded a fleshly riposte, and she got it from the likes of Mena and Juan Martinez Montañes.

What is the difference between Zurbaran's St Francis and Mena's? In terms of fitness for purpose, the second is arguably the greater work. Questions might be all very well for Protestants, but Catholics wanted answers and Mena gives them, in three dimensions and with little glass eyes. Zurbaran, by contrast, requires a leap of the imagination, most immediately to grasp that the patently two-dimensional thing we see before us is a three-dimensional figure. Unlike Mena's, Zurbaran's saint won't meet our eye, his gaze being lifted to heaven. For him, as for we who stand before him, looking is matter of faith.

Something else you'll notice about the painted St Francis is Zurbaran's clear attempt to show his subject's robes as monolithic and carved, which is to say as sculptural. The overlap between painting and painted sculpture in 17th-century Spain was certainly there: Diego Velazquez, the greatest artist of the age, was taught wood-painting by his father-in-law, Francisco Pacheco. But the sculpturalism of Zurbaran's canvases can be taken in two ways – as an attempt to harness the gravitas of painted wood or, contrariwise, to deny it: to advertise, quietly but inarguably, the superiority of two-dimensional paint over three.

Stand in front of Juan Martinez Montañes's life-size effigies of Saints Ignatius Loyola and Francis Borgia and you may well end up feeling that Zurbaran had a point. Borgia, Superior of the Jesuits, was beatified the year his image was made, in 1624; his face was probably coloured in by Velazquez's father-in-law. The work is undoubtedly finely made, even if not finely painted. (Pacheco, in another life, churned out turgid religious canvases.) The trouble is that it is so true to life – crystal tears trickle down the saint's sallow cheek – that it is clearly not alive: for all its grandeur, it is just a muñeco, a doll. And yet Montañes's work has probably inspired more belief in its time than Zurbaran's, and belief, after all, was the point.

To 24 Jan (020-7747 2885)

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Arts and Entertainment
Place Blanche, Paris, 1961, shot by Christer Strömholm
photographyHow the famous camera transformed photography for ever
Arts and Entertainment
The ‘Westmacott Athlete’
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tv Some of the characters appear to have clear real-life counterparts
Brooks is among a dozen show-business professionals ever to have achieved Egot status
Arts and Entertainment
A cut above: Sean Penn is outclassed by Mark Rylance in The Gunman
film review
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
James Franco and Zachary Quinto in I Am Michael

Film review Michael Glatze biopic isn't about a self-hating gay man gone straight

Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the movie 'Get Hard'
tvWill Ferrell’s new film Get Hard receives its first reviews
Arts and Entertainment
Left to right: David Cameron (Mark Dexter), Nick Clegg (Bertie Carvel) and Gordon Brown (Ian Grieve)
tvReview: Ian Grieve gets another chance to play Gordon Brown... this is the kinder version
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman in the first look picture from next year's Sherlock special

Arts and Entertainment
Because it wouldn’t be Glastonbury without people kicking off about the headline acts, a petition has already been launched to stop Kanye West performing on the Saturday night

Arts and Entertainment
Molly Risker, Helen Monks, Caden-Ellis Wall, Rebekah Staton, Erin Freeman, Philip Jackson and Alexa Davies in ‘Raised by Wolves’

TV review
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
James May, Jeremy Clarkson and Richard Hammond in the Top Gear Patagonia Special

Arts and Entertainment
Game of Thrones will run for ten years if HBO gets its way but showrunners have mentioned ending it after seven

Game of Thrones
Arts and Entertainment
Mans Zelmerlow will perform 'Heroes' for Sweden at the Eurovision Song Contest 2015

Arts and Entertainment
Elizabeth (Heida Reed) and Ross Poldark (Aiden Turner) in the BBC's remake of their 1975 original Poldark

Poldark review
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

    Promises, promises

    But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
    The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

    The death of a Gaza fisherman

    He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat
    Saudi Arabia's airstrikes in Yemen are fuelling the Gulf's fire

    Saudi airstrikes are fuelling the Gulf's fire

    Arab intervention in Yemen risks entrenching Sunni-Shia divide and handing a victory to Isis, says Patrick Cockburn
    Zayn Malik's departure from One Direction shows the perils of fame in the age of social media

    The only direction Zayn could go

    We wince at the anguish of One Direction's fans, but Malik's departure shows the perils of fame in the age of social media
    Young Magician of the Year 2015: Meet the schoolgirl from Newcastle who has her heart set on being the competition's first female winner

    Spells like teen spirit

    A 16-year-old from Newcastle has set her heart on being the first female to win Young Magician of the Year. Jonathan Owen meets her
    Jonathan Anderson: If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

    If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

    British designer Jonathan Anderson is putting his stamp on venerable house Loewe
    Number plates scheme could provide a licence to offend in the land of the free

    Licence to offend in the land of the free

    Cash-strapped states have hit on a way of making money out of drivers that may be in collision with the First Amendment, says Rupert Cornwell
    From farm to fork: Meet the Cornish fishermen, vegetable-growers and butchers causing a stir in London's top restaurants

    From farm to fork in Cornwall

    One man is bringing together Cornwall's most accomplished growers, fishermen and butchers with London's best chefs to put the finest, freshest produce on the plates of some of the country’s best restaurants
    Robert Parker interview: The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes

    Robert Parker interview

    The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes
    Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

    Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

    We exaggerate regional traits and turn them into jokes - and those on the receiving end are in on it too, says DJ Taylor
    How to make your own Easter egg: Willie Harcourt-Cooze shares his chocolate recipes

    How to make your own Easter egg

    Willie Harcourt-Cooze talks about his love affair with 'cacao' - and creates an Easter egg especially for The Independent on Sunday
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef declares barbecue season open with his twist on a tradtional Easter Sunday lamb lunch

    Bill Granger's twist on Easter Sunday lunch

    Next weekend, our chef plans to return to his Aussie roots by firing up the barbecue
    Joe Marler: 'It's the way I think the game should be played'

    Joe Marler: 'It's the way I think the game should be played'

    The England prop relives the highs and lows of last Saturday's remarkable afternoon of Six Nations rugby
    Cricket World Cup 2015: Has the success of the tournament spelt the end for Test matches?

    Cricket World Cup 2015

    Has the success of the tournament spelt the end for Test matches?
    The Last Word: Justin Gatlin knows the price of everything, the value of nothing

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    Justin Gatlin knows the price of everything, the value of nothing