RELIGIOUS art can be as bloody as an R-rated slasher movie.
Those with memories of a Roman Catholic childhood need only recall the holy card images of blood gushing from the sacred heart of Jesus. Even those Christians who are less bloody literal in their artistic representations still meditate upon severe images in which the suffering and crucifixion of Jesus Christ are essential for our salvation.
For a bracing reminder of this salvation-through-suffering theology, have a somber look at the exhibit opening Sunday at the Walters Art Gallery: "Images of Penance, Images of Mercy: Santos and Ceremonies of the Hispanic Southwest (1860-1910)." Organized by the Taylor Museum for Southwestern Studies of the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center in Colorado, the show offers example after example of a people who took their religion very seriously.
The "Santos" referred to above are religious folk sculptures and paintings done in Colorado and New Mexico from the late 18th through the early 20th centuries. The exhibited Santos from the late 19th century are associated with a penitential lay organization, The Brotherhood of Our Father Jesus Nazarene, that preserved folkloric customs even as the official church was leaving them behind. For that matter, this organization still exists.
Essentially a crucifixion cult that used the statues and paintings in Holy Week re-enactments of Christ's suffering and death (while throwing in some self-flagellation for good measure), this brotherhood's rituals amounted to a medieval holdover. If Hispanic Catholic countries in general retained such practices as the Mexican Day of the Dead long after they were abandoned by more "enlightened" European neighbors, this brotherhood in New Mexico was even more isolated and determined in its old-fashioned habits.
The most extreme statement of the brotherhood's death-fixation a "Death in Her Cart," carved out of cottonwood by Nasario Lopez. The cart serves as vehicle for a toothy-grinned skeletal figure with a shock of white hair at the back of its skull. Oh, yes, it's also holding a bow and arrow pointed your way.
One humbling message conveyed by this cart is that capital D death will claim even those vain enough to think they can outwit it. However, such carts usually rode in processions beneath banners proclaiming slogans like "Death, Where Is Thy Victory?," so another message of such a ghoulish sculpture is that our earthly death is reason to celebrate our passage (hopefully) to heaven.
The death cart, the many other sculptures and the wood panel paintings are given an effectively somber installation at the Walters. Although the exhibition catalog gets bogged down in the footnotes of religious history and fails to discuss issues of aesthetics and craftsmanship, the Walters' installation lets these sacred images speak powerfully for themselves.
That they speak with such austere conviction isn't just a matter of show-off blood and guts. It's also that these sculptures were treated by their makers as if they were living presences. The expressively simple carving was done so that clothing could be draped over them. Likewise, the sharp features of their faces BTC were receptive to the paint that functioned as expressionistic makeup.
The images of Jesus Nazarene carved from cottonwood, for instance, represent a standing Christ wearing a crown of thorns in the hours prior to the actual crucifixion. One such sculpture gives his face a severe angularity that is further accentuated by a pointed black beard. Another Jesus Nazarene, this one approximately life size, has his hands bound with rope and turned outward to show us the bloody palms. Not only that, but the crown of thorns atop Christ's head encircles real hair.
Sculpted images of the crucified Christ may initially strike you as crudely carved, but if so, reconsider your response in terms of the reductive power of these sculptures. The figure's rigidly stiff arms are nailed to the unyielding cross, as are the legs that seem elongated from their suffering. Indeed, the arms and legs seem as thin as the cross itself.
Because images of Christ were made to represent each stage of his passion, there is even a "Christ in Holy Sepulchre" sculpted by Juan Miguel Herrera in which the figure's articulated arms, legs, neck and jaw enabled it to move in pain. Even the mouth could be opened to express Christ's shouts in his final hours and the open-mouthed silence after his death.
Christ's mourning mother also figures prominently in the Santos tradition, as in stark images of "Our Lady of Sorrows" painted on wood panels. These pictures of Mary are as flat and as lacking in pictorial depth as the icons found in early Christianity.
A curious postscript to this backward-looking exhibit is that there has been a revival of interest in Santero art-making in our own era. Some exhibited recently made examples at first seem brightly painted as if to catch the tourist eye, but the fact of the matter is that many of the older, more austere Santos were also quite bright when first painted a century ago.
If you're really interested in this show, you'll want to know that the Archdiocese of Baltimore is celebrating a special Hispanic mass on Sunday at 5:30 p.m. at the Basilica of the Assumption. A procession afterward includes a crucifix, an image of the Virgin Mary, and a mariachi band marching to a reception at the Walters.
"Images of Penance, Images of Mercy: Santos and Ceremonies of the Hispanic Southwest (1860-1910)" opens Sunday at the Walters Art Gallery, 600 N. Charles St. The show continues through Oct. 20. Call 547-9000.