Who knew painted wood could look so real? But then, this was exactly the point. At the time this sculpture was made, artists aimed for the greatest possible lifelikeness. Most depicted Christ, his mother, and the Saints and were keen to show their suffering in the most realistic fashion. The viewer was to be convinced that the suffering for humanity of Christ, his mother, and the Saints was real.
A recent addition to the collection at the Birmingham Museum of Art, this sculpture depicts Saint Margaret of Cortona, who lived a troubled life in the late 1200s (1247-1297). At the age of 17 she ran away with a wealthy young man and became his mistress for many years. When her lover was murdered, she turned to Christ and dedicated her life to caring for the sick and poor. She founded a hospital and a Christian brotherhood to run it.
The sculpture shows Saint Margaret holding and looking at a figure of Christ nailed to the cross. Her emotional pain (look at her face!) while she is looking at Christ suggests she is contemplating his suffering for humanity’s salvation. Her deeply emotional response is conveyed by the raised eyebrows, lowered eyelids, the slightly opened mouth, and bowed head.
Spanish artists were particularly good at creating this astonishing realism and often used a number of tricks: resin tears, bone for tooth and fingernails, glass for the eyeballs, real hair for eyelashes. This sculpture and others like it were meant for contemplation and aimed to evoke an empathic reaction, and with their heightened realism, these works were particularly good at it.
Learn more about this sculpture during this month’s ArtBreak on Tuesday, September 20 at 11:30AM.