Seventy-five

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Christ embracing Saint Bernard of Clairvaux

c1624-7 by Francisco Ribalta
Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid

I saw Christ embracing Saint Bernard of Clairvaux at the National Gallery, as part of the Sacred Made Real exhibition. Beautifully exhibited, its temporary home was as shadowy as the painting itself; one crept about the dimly lit rooms, as the basement of the Sainsbury Wing was turned into a cavernous darkness hiding the realist figures of Spanish faith. The rooms reflected the nature of the paintings, which feed on darkness for their depictions; figures emerge out of black, blindingly white in contrast and crisply three-dimensional, all shadows and light. Such realism depends highly on texture, on material form, usually articulated through fabric or skin: the folds of cloaks or skirts; the muscle and flesh of the body of Christ. In Christ embracing… such texture is emphasised with the white of both flesh and fabric and the symmetry of their composition – a man swaddled in heavy, abundant cloaking opposite the nakedness of none. This symmetry is then reflected in facial expression; Saint Bernard looks up as Christ looks down. Both of their eyes closed, their faces are sublimely calm, and the effect is one of mutual peace, an equilibrium, as they possess the centre of the painting with their powerful and decidedly joint presence. The palette of black and white is subtly dramatic; there is no colour to distract from the subjects as they are expressed only according to the contrast of light and dark, powerfully captivating.

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