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Pedro de Mena, Ecce Homo and Mater Dolorosa

Pedro de Mena, Ecce Homo and Mater Dolorosa, c.1674–85, partial-gilt polychrome wood, probably from Málaga, Spain, Ecce Homo: 62.9 x 45.1 x 46.7 cm, Mater Dolorosa: 63 x 58.7 x 38.1 cm (The Metropolitan Museum of Art) A conversation between Dr. Lauren Kilroy-Ewbank and Dr. Beth Harris. Created by Smarthistory.

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Video transcript

(bright piano music) - [First Curator] We're in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and we've just walked through a beautiful courtyard lined with white marble sculptures. - [Second Curator] We've turned the corner, and we are now looking at two sculptures, "The Man of Sorrows" paired with "The Virgin of Sorrows" by the Spanish sculptor, Pedro de Mena, who becomes well known for these types of sculptures that are paired together in this half length format. These sculptures are both made in polychromed wood. - [First Curator] And yet it's not something we think of in the Western tradition when we think of sculpture. It does call into question our assumption that sculpture should be white marble in order to be high art. - [Second Curator] Wooden sculpture or sculptures in materials like terracotta or alabaster were common across Europe in different places at different times. And in Spain, you have a very long tradition of wooden sculpture and eventually polychromed wooden sculpture. In a 17th century, we see big changes, whereas earlier sculpture had surface decoration, what's called estofado, this application of gold leaf to the surface, which we can still see some of on the red robe of Christ here. Artists begin to focus on even more naturalistic painting of say the flesh tones and various other parts of these sculptures. - [First Curator] With Christ, the marks that his body acquired when he was whipped and beaten before the crucifixion, the blood from the crown of thorns, his wounds, this real emphasis on his physical suffering is all the more palpable because this is painted. - [Second Curator] Pedro de Mena is adapting different types of images here. One of the types of images that he may have been familiar with would have been the Netherlandish painter Dirk Bouts, who was well known for painting paired "Virgin of Sorrows" and "The Man of Sorrows." It's also possible that Pedro de Mena was looking at other types of paintings and sculptures just within his own local tradition that looked very similar to these as well. Pedro de Mena would have fashioned the sculpture of Christ and Mary in wood, and then he would have covered it in jesso. Guild restrictions made it so that a sculptor would do the sculpting, but a painter had to do the painting. A painter would have made the sculpture come alive through a process of encarnacion, literally painting to make the sculpture look more lifelike. And that is exactly what we're seeing here. - [First Curator] There's an immediate empathy that happens because sculpture is something that's three dimensional. It takes up space the way that we do with our own bodies. - [Second Curator] Other additions to these sculptures make it even more lifelike. For instance, we see glass eyes and hair eyelashes have been added to both sculptures. In Christ's mouth are either ivory or wooden teeth. The crown of thorns looks sharp and threatening to us. Resin tears have been added to the Virgin Mary's face. - [First Curator] If we were to turn around and look at the sculptures in the galleries that we just came from, we would see figures that are white marble but also have a idealism to them. They're made a little too perfect to be real. My mind immediately goes to, for example, Michelangelo's "Pieta," which is also a devotional image. We see the wounds of Christ's body, but because of the white marble that was used in the Renaissance, we remain at a remove from that sculpture. But here that distance between us and the sculptures collapses. We are asked to become directly emotionally involved. - [Second Curator] There's such a long history not only in Europe and the ancient Mediterranean, but even across the globe of sculptures that have been painted. So with sculptures like "The Virgin of Sorrows" and "The Men of Sorrows" here, it's a poignant reminder that we have to pay attention to how these objects were intended to be used and who was supposed to see them. These were not intended to be sculptures purely for appreciation of them as art objects. These were devotional objects. These would've been paired together, perhaps on either side of an altarpiece in a private chapel, in a monastery, or in a convent. They would've been under a glass dome or the tream, but you still could get right up close to them as we are now, and you would be immediately confronted with the bruised and battered body of Christ and his sorrowful mother. - [First Curator] For someone who is looking to deepen their faith, to have an inspiration to prayer and meditation, these are incredibly powerful. - [Second Curator] Sculptures like this have largely been ignored in the canon of art history. It's only more recently that museums have actively started to collect these or remove them from storage and put them on display. Partially, that is because these can prompt some level of discomfort, whether it's because they seem hyper realistic, they call to mind what it might feel like to have one's body be tortured in this way. - [First Curator] It is a challenge to our visual culture and what we presume to be art. (bright piano music)