A guide to the Fitzwilliam’s latest acquisition: Pedro de Mena’s ‘Mater Dolorosa’

Grant Lewis 8 October 2014

Readers who visited the National Gallery’s acclaimed exhibition ‘The Sacred Made Real’ will, I hope, recall the excitement among museum-goers about objects from a Spanish Golden Age forgotten by traditional Anglophone narratives of the story of art. If Anglican sensibilities and an Italianate distaste for polychromy have played their part, their neglect is also a reflection of the fact that much seventeenth-century Spanish sculpture has, in contrast to the paintings of Zurbarán and Velázquez, remained beyond the boundaries of ‘art’, retaining both its religious function and setting, accessible to few but the devout and the equally devoted specialist.

The Fitzwilliam Museum’s successful acquisition of a Mater Dolorosa (Virgin of Sorrows) attributed to one of the era’s leading practitioners, the Andalusian Pedro de Mena y Medrano (1628-88) – who, remarkably, is otherwise totally unrepresented in British collections – is significant. A life-size bust is an addition that has the capability to change the tenor of a collection, particularly with a small holding of Iberian art like the Fitzwilliam’s – currently centred around two works by seventeenth-century Spain’s most ‘European’ painter, Bartolomé Esteban Murillo (1618-82) – highlighting the importance of religious practice in our understanding of Spanish visual culture in the wake of the Counter-Reformation. Within its broader function as an aid to devotion a sculpture such as Mena’s would have been used to excite spiritual emotion and even inspire emulation of the Virgin’s behaviour. For these purposes images had to appear as lifelike as possible; according to Velázquez’s teacher Francisco Pacheco (1564-1644) the colouring of the skin (or ‘encarnación’, literally ‘made flesh’) should reveal ‘the passion and concern of the soul with great vividness’. In this Mena admirably succeeds, not least through the subtle painting at the corners of the Virgin’s eyes, where the pathway's fallen tears redden the skin. The illusion is completed with teeth of ivory, glass tear-drops (which unusually remain intact), glass eyes and even eyelashes of real human hair, a detail even Pacheco deemed unnecessary.

Mena’s bust-length format, derived from reliquaries and Netherlandish diptychs, was extremely successful, and numerous examples survive in Spain, notably in the Royal Monastery of the Descalzas Reales in Madrid and the religious houses in Málaga and Valladolid. Despite his failed attempt to become court sculptor for Philip IV, Mena worked for the most lucrative clients of the age, including the only illegitimate son the king ever acknowledged, Don Juan de Austria (1629-79), whose inventory records a ‘Dolorida Madre’ by the sculptor. Although its early provenance is unknown, the Fitzwilliam Mater was almost certainly intended for a domestic setting, possibly for a bedroom or the principal reception room of a wealthy house, perhaps as a companion to a statue of Christ as the Man of Sorrows similar to the superb example by Mena in the Descalzas Reales.