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Alonso Berruguete: First Sculptor of Renaissance Spain

Accompanying images can be viewed starting on page 5 of the January 2020 issue pdf

By Joseph R. Phelan*

This has been the season for Renaissance art with exhibitions of works by three sculptors rarely, if ever, visiting our shores. “Alonso Berruguete: First Sculptor of Renaissance Spain” (through February 17, 2020) joined the now closed “Verrocchio: Painter and Sculptor of Renaissance Florence” — both at the National Gallery of Art — and Bertoldo di Giovanni the Renaissance of Sculpture in Medici Florence at the Frick in New York.

While Berruguete (ca.1488-1561) may be unknown in North America, he is revered as an icon in his native Spain. Born in the small town of Parades de Nava in the region of Castile, he would end up as the most celebrated and richest artist in Renaissance Spain. His works include paintings, drawings, and most importantly, altarpieces — or retablos, multistory combinations of architecture, painting and sculpture of painted and gilded wood.

Berruguete emerges as a transformational artist who brought the breakthroughs of the High Renaissance to Spain. His distinctive approach is on display in Ecce Homo (Behold the Man) (ca.1525). Christ is presented, bound and tortured, on the way to his crucifixion. Instead of following the Spanish tradition which would have shown the body covered with horrible bruises and blood, the artist establishes our sympathy through the figure’s exhausted body language that conveys Christ’s extreme vulnerability. Viewing this unsettling piece we stand in place of the jeering crowds that once mocked him.

By stepping back into the art world of his youth we can follow his extraordinary development. His father, Pedro, was a distinguished painter influenced by the Netherlandish artists who were fashionable in Spain. Pedro’s exquisite painting Virgin and a Child Enthroned (ca.1500) shows the influence of the great Netherlandish artist Rogier Van Der Weyden. There is a wonderful life-sized painted wooden sculpture of the Miracle of the Palm Tree on the Flight into Egypt (ca.1490-1510) inspired by a Martin Schongauer print (ca.1470-75). Alonso would have absorbed these paintings and sculptures as he was growing up and apprenticing in his father’s workshop.

As a teenager, he may have looked at Van der Weyden and Schongauer as great artists but too closely identified with the past — however glorious for his taste. In 1504, a year after his father’s death, he made a life-altering decision to travel to Italy, home of the most exciting trends in modern art of the time. For a decade there, first in Rome and then in Florence, he came under the gravitational force of Michelangelo. Alonso studied the older artist’s cartoon for the now lost Battle of Casina (1504), a repository of twisting nude male figures that he would use to vitalize sculpture throughout his career. He also studied the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. The newly discovered (in 1506) ancient statue of the Laocoön with its twisting tormented bodies had so much to do with Michelangelo’s own breakthroughs also engaged Alonso’s attention. He even entered a contest, judged by Raphael, to make a copy.

Perhaps the single most significant idea that Alonso discovered in Florence was the importance of drawing, disegno, as the basis of art. This meant carefully working out a composition from beginning to end in a series of increasingly more complex drawings. This would be important for Alonso when he became the master of large retablo projects back in Spain which required a workshop of assistants to complete. Through drawing he could show these assistants exactly what they needed to produce.

During the period when he worked in Florence, a new style, called maneria, or the stylish style, was also on the rise. The goal was to surpass nature making it both more beautiful and elegant. One of his rare paintings, Salome (ca.1514-‘17), from the Uffizi shows, in that weird style of many mannerist works, the biblical temptress elegantly holding the platter with John the Baptist’s head. Alonso was never going to rest satisfied with being a follower. He wanted to combine the best of what he had learned from Michelangelo, antiquity, and trendy artists with his deep roots in Spanish traditions.

Alonso moved back to Spain in 1518 as a well-seasoned master and was soon appointed as court painter to the great king, Charles I. Yet the artist would soon become a master of painted sculpture. The greatest of such works and the basis of most of the sculptural pieces in the exhibition was his retablo in Valladolid where Charles made his court. This gigantic ensemble was taken apart in the 19th century and moved to a Spanish museum. Even the individual elements are so large that they are difficult to transport. The exhibition offers both a loose reconstruction of part of this retablo in the first room as well as a choice selection of other pieces from it.

One of the standout pieces in the second room is the Sacrifice of Isaac (ca. 1526-‘33) which captures the moment when father Abraham is about to carry out God’s terrible command. Abraham obeys yelling to heaven as Isaac screams. This stunning sculpture with its tormented figures seems inspired by the writhing figures in the Laocoön on n and one of Michelangelo’s ignudi on the Sistine ceiling.

By juxtaposing the sculptural figures of the Infant Jesus, Mary and Joseph in the Adoration of the Magi (ca.1519) with Mary and John below the crucifixion in Calvary (ca.1526-‘33), the curators have pulled off a stunning coup de theatre showing the beginning and the end of Christ’s mortal life. On your way out of the exhibition, one of Berruguete last works, an alabaster relief of the Entombment of Christ (ca. 1540s or 1550s), is as dramatic a portrayal of grief as anything he produced.

There is a short film at the end of exhibition, also available online, which presents some of the masterpieces which are too large to leave Spain. The sumptuous catalog presents many full color reproductions of many works not in the show due to their great size. Along with the accessible scholarship, we learn from the excellent catalog that Jonathan Brown, the dean of historians of Spanish art urged this project on many museums but it was the National Gallery alone that chose to undertake it.

Praise to curator C.D. Dickerson, III, head of sculpture at the gallery, and Mark McDonald, curator of prints and drawings at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, along with Manuel Arias Martinez, head of collections and deputy director of the Museo Nacional de Escultura, Valladolid, for pulling off this splendid show.

* Joseph R. Phelan, a Washington based author and teacher is The InTowner’s museums exhibitions senior reviewer. He has taught at the Catholic University of America and the University of Maryland University College and was the founding editor of, the fine art search engine.

Copyright © 2020 InTowner Publishing Corp. & Joseph R. Phelan. All rights reserved. Reproduction in whole or in part without permission is prohibited, except as provided by 17 U.S.C. §107 (“fair use”).