Ask ‘What are they for?’ of objects in a design museum and you get good answers. Cups are to drink from, hats are to wear. In an art gallery, where the relevance of the use such objects may once have had is diminished, the question ‘What is it for?’ seems obtuse. The function of works of art is, on the whole, to be splendidly themselves. Yet ask the question of the 17th-century Spanish religious paintings and polychrome sculptures that are on show until 24 January at the National Gallery under the title The Sacred Made Real, and you’ll find that it is appropriate. The power of these pieces, many of them wonderful works of art, cannot be separated from the job they were made to do.

Gregorio Fernández, ‘Dead Christ’ (1625-30)

Gregorio Fernández, ‘Dead Christ’ (1625-30)

The specification that the artists worked to (it reads like a modern mission statement) is set out in a 1563 decree of the Council of Trent concerning images of veneration. It sets limits: the stories should be true; the works should be decorous and lifelike. It also makes it clear what religious images should do in the world: inspire devotion and emulation. Saints – John of the Cross and Teresa of Avila – had used them as stimulants to spirituality.

In Alonso Cano’s The Vision of Saint Bernard of Clairvaux, for example, the saint kneels before a painted statue of the Virgin and Child. She directs a thin stream of milk from her breast into his open mouth. This vision was usually depicted less literally, but here it takes on the character of a miracle. Cano was a sculptor as well as a painter and this, the catalogue suggests, may be why he chose to celebrate the power of sculpture to induce visions. It is, by our standards an awkward rather than a decorous subject. But the story was true, or believed to be so, and truth trumped decorousness.

The conflict between aesthetics and truth arises most agonisingly in sculptures of Christ scourged and crucified. There are versions of those subjects so embedded in our visual culture that the suffering they illustrate hardly registers. Perhaps it was the need to emphasise facts that had, even in the 17th century, lost some of their power to engage the imagination that encouraged the extreme realism of the polychrome sculptures of Christ in the exhibition.

Gregorio Fernández’s Dead Christ has a shoulder and knees raw from carrying the cross, crusted with dark scabs. Blood trickles from the pierced feet, hands and chest, and down over the face. The eyelids droop, the mouth is slackly open, the flesh pale, the eyes unseeing. Verisimilitude penetrates the veil of style. Fernández demands that you attend to what is shown: the aesthetic component is powerful but incidental. Had Juan Martínez Montañés’s polychrome Christ on the Cross been made in white marble the sculpture might have been more beautiful, but would have been a further step away from reality and a less sure aid to a penitent following Ignatius Loyola’s instruction that meditations on personal sins should conclude with a dialogue between the sinner and the crucified Christ.

The Dead Christ and pieces like it were often made in series, to standards governed by guilds that divided carvers and carpenters from gilders and painters. While some artists were qualified in more than one discipline, many of the most eloquent pieces here are joint efforts. The Tridentine demand for lifelike art was fulfilled by paying unwavering attention to detail. Paint imitated the texture of skin and emphasised the contours of muscles. The things a make-up artist does for an actor were done for sculptures: eyelids were made to look red from weeping, eye shadow was applied, eyebrows were pencilled in. The pieces where the sculptor has used glass for eyes, ivory for teeth, horn for finger and toenails, and real hair for eyelashes have too much in common with shop-window dummies to seem quite like sculpture to eyes accustomed to sculpture in bronze, marble and unpainted wood. Pedro de Mena’s Saint Francis Standing in Ecstasy is made of wood, glass, cord and human hair. Standing less than a metre tall it brings to mind modern coloured sculptures like Ron Mueck’s, which are even more lifelike and also use scale for effect. Works like these persuade you that to treat these polychrome sculptures simply as works of art is to lose sight of what they were for. Look at photographs in the catalogue of 17th-century sculptures of Christ being carried in candle-lit Holy Week processions and you realise that the Sainsbury Wing installation, however dark the room and strong the spotlights, cannot raise the emotional climate to the point where objects made to inspire veneration take on their full force.

It is easier to pretend that a figure that stands calmly and does not twist or turn is real. The young Velázquez’s Immaculate Conception looks modestly down, as does Montañés’s very similar sculpture, which was polychromed by Pacheco, Velázquez’s father-in-law. The figures’ expressions are calm, as are those of Montañés’s sculptures of Francis Borgia and Ignatius Loyola. Their poses are lifelike – their stability reinforces the illusion of a real presence.

The last room is given over to one painting, Zurbarán’s Saint Serapion. Although Serapion, who suffered a particularly nasty martyrdom in Scotland at the hands of English pirates, is shown strung up by his hands, his eyes closed and his head falling to one side, there is no blood – only pathos in the slumped body. The force of the picture comes from the way this is expressed in the folds of his white habit, which seems to have been carved out of the surrounding shadow by the strong side lighting Zurbarán used elsewhere to give solidity to objects in still lifes. The way sculpture and painting worked towards the same effect is one of the themes of the exhibition. In Zurbarán’s paintings of Saint Francis, and in his Christ on the Cross from Chicago the relation it is plain.

Velázquez’s portrait of the sculptor Montañés is not a religious picture, but its sobriety, its decorous, life-like presence has much in common with Montañés’s statues of the saints Francis Borgia and Ignatius Loyola. The church’s specifications for images of veneration endorsed an art of decorous truth which, in the hands of Velázquez, his contemporaries and those who came after, is still a thing of wonder.

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