A study of marble and wood - How artists in the past have overcome the monochromatic natures of their medium
From Stone Age cavemen, who did not have the knowledge to produce many pigments, to Renaissance patrons, who may not have had enough money to acquire the most glamorous pigments, to rather more recent contemporary artists, who made stylistic choices of a monochrome canvas, we can find in our past an ebb and flow of the use of colour in art. Rather than with painting, where the colours themselves form the work, with sculpture the problems are augmented by the restriction of the base material itself being the work, therefore meaning applying colour over the piece. In a select few Greek sculptures, surface colouration is still visible to the naked eye, particularly in the kore and The Blond Boy visible in the Acropolis Museum in Athens, where the robe ties and the hair have remnants of colour (hence the latter’s title). However, Renaissance sculptors did not replicate the objects that were made in Ancient Greece but that which they saw in sixteenth century Rome, after most colouration had disappeared and they were stripped back to the original off-white stone or Pentelic marble. This explains the recoil to a more naturalistic, simplistic depiction of art, where white ‘evoked associations with the artistic achievement of the ancient world’. the Ecstasy of Saint Teresa, commissioned by Cardinal Federico Cornaro in 1645 for his family chapel in Santa Maria della Vittoria in Rome, showcases Gian Lorenzo Bernini’s artistic ability. The creation of a theatrical surrounding, of decorative gilded wood and interplays of light and architecture, and an emotionally and visually brilliant white marble scene. Juan Martinez Montañes and an unknown polychromer, just forty years earlier in their 1603 sculpture of Christ on the Cross provide similarities to the Ecstasy in the use of external materials to enhance the experience obtained by the viewer, and also valid juxtaposition with an elongated, polychromed wooden structure.
Bernini’s magnificent sculpture of The Ecstasy of Saint Teresa depicts the saint herself in the anticipatory state before she is pierced by an arrow of an angel. Saint Teresa was a vivacious and materialistic child, who became depressed after entering the convent and realising her deprivation from freedom. It was not until her forties, when she had a vivid religious experience, when ‘a rapture came over [her]…[and she] heard these words, “Now I want you to speak not with men but with angels”’, that she became truly devout. After that, she experienced many more experiences, some of which include levitation, as she describes in her auto-biography. In the most significant of all described, in Chapter 29, an angel appeared before her and ‘plunged [‘the great golden spear’] into [her] heart several times so that it penetrated to [her] entrails’. The moment Bernini depicts is the one preceding this, with the angel peeling back Teresa’s robes, uncovering her breast and preparing to thrust the spear into her. Bernini followed the text by utilising wood, covered by a base of gesso and then gilded over with gold leaf (in depicting the radiant spear that is imbued with life). The angel’s fond gaze is directed onto Teresa, conveying God’s love and care, and with its line of sight paralleling the line of the spear, foreshadows the next few dramatic moments.
The heavenly rays of light beaming down from above pair with the sharp apex of the spear to direct the viewer’s gaze to the saint, who is saturated both by energy and helplessness — ‘utterly consumed by the great love of God’ — as she awaits penetration. Her head is flung backwards, gaze directed upwards to the oculus emitting heavenly light as her body convulses in a delirious state of indiscipline. The bountiful drapery that cover her cause her naked face, hands and feet to catch attention, both of the latter hanging limply to her side. This barefoot depiction of St Teresa is common as it is symbolic of her foundation of the Discalced (‘without shoes’) Carmelite Order, a branch of nuns fully dedicated to poverty of which she is a part of. Her excessively folding attire, made by Bernini with decisive undercutting deep into the marble block, contrasts the verticality of Teresa’s elegant, smooth hands. Bernini would have produced this glossy finish using rasps and scrapers, followed by progressively finer grit abrasives. Even the rock upon which the saint has lain is of a different texture, being abrasive and rusticated as the block would have appeared after the initial chiselling stages had been completed. Here, both compositional and technical contrasts highlight Teresa’s flailing nature, and the smooth is separated from the abrasive distinguishing the divine from the earthly in an intellectually stimulating manner.
Bernini depicts Teresa’s face in a flattering manner, showing perfect symmetry and following Classical ideals for proportion, as Bernini would have seen in Venus de Milo, amongst other godly and, therefore, ideal, antique sculptures. Teresa’s nose is slanted at the right angle and lips of the sublime fullness, with her parted lips drawing emphasis to her mouth. The expression gives an auditory element to Bernini’s work as the viewer, and the spectators carved into theatre boxes on either side, can almost hear the ‘several moans’ she utters. Her eyes appear shut, with smooth eyelids glistening as they absorb the light of the scene. The lack of engagement with the viewer epitomises the ethereality that embodies her, and conveys the vital meaning that Cardinal Cornaro wanted this scene to carry — that viewing miracles God performs should cultivate piety and inspire the faithful to imitate the saints’ examples. Since the Council of Trent, that was the focus of the Catholic Church, and the presence of God is not forgotten here in the crucifix atop the polychrome marble aedicule housing the scene, and the simplicity of the heavenly white marble and the yellow tint of the oculus that allows the gilded rays to radiate light.
Wittkower makes very clear that it would have been ‘abhorrent to Bernini to use colour on marble sculpture, or compose a figure of differently coloured marbles’, highlighting his general reliance on monochrome figures, with external additions to intertwine colours and effects. Juan Martinez Montañes and an unknown polychromer, in the 1603 sculpture of Christ on the Cross, commissioned for the Convent of Santo Angel in Seville, use arguably more obvious methods to evade the monochromatic nature of their medium. Sculpted in cypress wood, which was in plentiful supply in Spain, it was then polychromed over, as was the style in Spain at the time. The extreme Catholicism of the monarchy created a society that was very devout, with Catholicism unifying the country. Images were hugely important in order to cultivate devotion, and Teresa of Avila herself in her Libro de la Vida recounted her preparation for prayer through looking at religious painting or sculpture. It was St John of the Cross, who worked closely with her in Avila to found the Discalced Carmelites, who strongly promoted polychrome sculpture, and his influence in Spain meant that his word was taken in and adopted.
This work depicts Christ, with head bowed, as he endures his last moments of life. Commissioned by patron Mateo Vázquez de Leca, Archdeacon of Carmona, a town near to Seville, as expiation for his sins. A detailed contract, dated 5 April 1603, survives. It stated that Christ must be represented as "alive, just before dying, with his head leaning towards the right and looking at a faithful believer kneeling at his feet…”, all of which can be seen in Montañes’ work. Jesus’ eyes are open and angled downwards with dark purposeful circles imitating pupils and irises, intensely gazing down at the viewer, two metres below. As Wittkower states when speaking of Bernini, ‘the eye alone has a design in it that exists only in terms of colour and not of shape: the iris and the pupil.’ The explanation here of the fundamentality of colour in the eye rings true in Christ on the Cross where so much vigour and emotion is expressed through the gaze, and also highlights Montañes quest to elevate his status as an artist, through successfully depicting complex qualities of art in a realistic and poignant manner. His eyelids are depicted as smooth semi-circles, which through their bulging volume show life, but in their anatomical positioning, drooping ever more shut, emulate the fine cusp between life and death upon which Christ rests.
Red rivulets of coagulated blood run down the visage of the Redeemer, ending in small rounded droplets that gleam with life, as does the torso of Christ. The blood starts the visual transition from life to death, which we follow down Christ’s body to his feet, painted by the polychromer in a blueish hue, alluding to their lifelessness. These material qualities would never be seen in plain cypress, showing the essential quality of the paint and translucent glaze that tops it. Montañes evidently carved the figure with the grain of the wood running along Christ’s body, as every detail on the torso appears fluid, and the splintering quality can be alluded to in the strained and stringy muscles of Christ’s arms, angled upwards. Rifflers, files with cutting points and specially curved ends, would have been used to further smooth the surface of the wood and give it the polished look it possesses underneath the paint. The viewer’s gaze is transferred to the crown of thorns that rests upon his head and causes his pain. The crown bulges unnaturally from his form in horizontal, circular braids, juxtaposing the obvious verticality of the work, and therefore making it appear alien, as it should be as one of the instruments of torture. The polychromer has painted Christ’s hair in a brown pigment, running in curls down to his shoulders, and so imitating the typical depiction of Christ in Spain, which from observation, takes its form from the general Hispanic appearance.
In Montañes bold depiction of Christ on the Cross, we see a stringent focus on the emulation of real life. Paralleling this, Francisco de Zurbaran, working around twenty years after Montañes, focuses on the emulation of sculpture in his painting of Christ on the Cross for the Dominican Friary of San Pablo el Real in Seville. Just as Montañes is believed to have been inspired by a model of Michelangelo’s, Zurbaran may have gained inspiration from Montañes’ polychromed wooden sculpture for the Santo Angel Convent, due to the striking similarities between the two, for example the use of four nails, taken from Revelations of Saint Bridget, rather than just three. The wider debate of the prevalent Paragone, which was brought to light in Spain by Juan de Jauregui in his seventeenth century treatise, shows the awareness of painters to sculptors and their debate over which was the better art form. If sculptors were depicting hyper-realistic figures and gritty, didactic stories, then so too must painters, as Zurbaran must have picked up. There is a clear realisation in seventeenth century Spain at this point of the phenomenally realistic and wide-stretching potential of wood, one that was mirrored in Northern Europe at a similar time. The wider implementation of this medium in Spain, however, seemed to have a much more indenting quality on society, and its use on ‘pasos' (floats) for the Holy Week parades was celebrated across the country. The lamp lit processions and the costumed parade-goers supporting the float would give off the impression of the story advancing, as though the townspeople standing on the street are actually witnessing the religious events unfolding. They may even have seen Montañes and Zurbaran’s works, parading through the streets of Seville during Holy Week.
As Bernard Irving states in his 1980 book Bernini and the Unity of Visual Arts, Gianlorenzo Bernini ‘was the first to attempt to unify architecture with sculpture and painting in such a way as to make of them all a beautiful whole [un bel composto]; and that he achieved this by occasionally departing from the rules without actually violating them.’ The Ecstasy of St Teresa sees this Gesamtkunstwerk in action, with a moulding of different monochromatic mediums, along with the interweaving of the auditory and visual senses to make a striking and vibrant piece. The name coined for Montañes — ‘Dios de la Madera’, or God of Wood — does not surpass him, particularly not in his Christ on the Cross. The monochromatic nature of wood does not stop Montañes, nor many other Spanish artists of the time, and whether it was the choice of medium that came first, or the want for lifelike works to use in the passionate parades, the two meshed cohesively to form artwork endearing and didactic to Spain. Zurbaran’s painting, whilst confoundingly touching, cannot utilise the senses in the way that sculpture can, nor can it bring in other mediums, on a simple level due to its two dimensional nature. Juan Martinez Montañes and Bernini manage to come together despite their differing countries and scope of influence, in allowing light and the senses to have control on their works and using the tools to sculpt in their respective mediums things that can truly only be achieved in sculpture.
First year Art Historian at Cambridge University and intern at Private Art Education.