Juan Martínez Montañés was born in 1568 in Alcalá la Real in Seville, Spain. However, it was in Granada where Montañés received his artistic training under Pablo de Rojas around from 1579 through 1582 (Kubler 148). Montañés traveled to Seville shortly before 1588 as a master. At the time of his return, Seville had become an important center of Late Gothic sculpture. Throughout the 16th century, the number of wood and stone carvers rose sharply. These sculptors not only hailed from Andalucía, but from overseas colonies as well. It is reorted that in Seville Montañés studied “the antique statues owned by the Dukes of Alcalá, from the sculpture of Torrigiani, Vásquez, Jerónimo Hernández, and Gaspar Núñez Delgado. Throughout his lifetime, Montañés was not only of paramount influence on the Andalusian sculptors of his century, but affected painters active in Seville between 1600 and 1625. Pacheco, Zurbaran, Velásquez, and Cano learned from Montañés and admired him for the sculptural strength, the palpable inner life, and the iconic novelties of his art” (Kubler 148). Montañés may be considered parallel to Gregorio Fernández in Valladolid through their use of naturalism and subject matter. By examining his sculptures Cristo de la Clemencia and The Penitent St. Jerome one may see how Montañés marked the transition from sculpture rendered in the mannerist style to more Baroque pieces. Also, we will view Fernández’s works The Dead Christ & Pieta. Both sculptors after accomplishing the transition from Mannerism to Baroque, worked successfully in the Early and High Baroque style, however, Montañés’ pieces, when compared alongside those of Gregorio Fernández, exhibit a greater sense of balance and dignity. As his artistic career progressed, Montañés’ realism increased, but he still maintained a “formal and spiritual equilibrium” (Kubler 148). Montañés is regarded as Spain’s greatest sculptor, called the “Dios de la Madera” or “God of Wood Carving” by his contemporaries. “His predilection for the antique monuments and Renaissance monuments in Seville did not lead him to an eclectic and mannered imitation. He held on to some characteristics of the classical because it suited his native sense of measure, reserve, and harmony. It did not impair his close contact with nature or his independent study of reality” (Weisbach 31).
Cristo de la Clemencia is one of Montañés’ most noted early works. It was created between 1603 and 1606 for the Seville Cathedral and commissioned by the archdeacon of Carmona commissioned the piece. The detailed contract drawn up for the work specified that “The Crucified shall be represented still living, before he breathes out the last sigh, the head inclined to the right side as if he was turning to a man, who is praying at the foot of the cross and as if he wished to speak to this man and to remind him that what he suffers is done for the sake of him who is praying there; eyes and face shall show strong expression and the eyes shall be wide open. It is expressly stated that the Crucified must be fastened to the cross not as usual with three, but with four nails, and with crossed feet” (Weisbach 32). Montañés' depiction was innovative because he is one of the first in Spain to portray the Savior alive and one of the first to show tour nails instead of three. However, Montañés specified in the contract that he wished to create a “beautiful crucifix that would not be sent abroad but would stay in Spain” (Harris 199). The crucified Christ was a popular theme in Spanish Baroque sculpture. Scholars assume this was so due to the important role of the crucified savior in the visions of the mystics (Weisbach 32). The precise theological requirements imposed on religious works of this theme did not allow artists to exhibit very much originality, but we see Montañés depicting a balance between the naturalistic and more classicizing image of Christ. He portrayed the surface of the body as anatomically correct with the bones and muscles realistically jutting out from underneath Christ’s skin as well as the detailed portrayal of his feet and veins. However, the influence of the classical models is obvious to the viewer. The proportions of Christ’s body are perfect. Christ’s idealized beauty is not marked by “contortions and convulsions, which were stressed by the naturalists to intensify the suffering and death agony” (Weisbach 33). However, Montañés does convey Christ’s agony through over-painting covering the classically formed body with streaks of blood. Therefore, Montañés successfully illustrates to the viewer a classical and idealized Christ covered with blood-a symbolic contradiction evoking feelings of pain and agony. The smooth, idealized skin of Christ is harshly contrasted with the deeply carved folds of his loincloth. There is also a certain sense of delicacy and dignity with Christ’s rendering. There is no visualization of Christ straining to hold himself up on the cross. He appears to be floating effortlessly above the ground. The lack of tension his body exhibits accentuates his serene and tender gaze down towards the viewer. The entire work conveys Christ in a moment of “profound sadness, his open mouth seems about to utter the words of forgiveness” (WGA 1). It is with this work that one may see Montañés’ “divided between classical idealism and the naturalistic movement” (Weisbach 32).
His sculpture of The Penitent St Jerome provides a more naturalistic side Montañés’ sculpture. The sculpture forms part of the high altar of the church of San Isidoro del Campo in the small town of Santiponce near Seville. The kneeling saint is seen in profile against a low-relief background. The sculpture is surrounded by statues of the two St Johns and four large reliefs (Kubler 149). “The artist’s aim has been to give visible form to the ascetic ideal. In the religious preoccupations of Spain this ideal was of particular importance and it played a prominent role in art” (Weisbach 33). The sculpture depicts the elderly saint kneeling on hard rock and “performing his penance by beating his breast with a stone. The lean, emaciated body, disfigured by swellings, hollows and wrinkles, bears the traces of his mortification” (Weisbach 33). The rough texture of his beard mimics his frayed, decrepit appearance. Behind St. Jerome are a detailed carved tree and a large lion. However, St Jerome’s expressive face and the sense of movement and piousness conveyed through the work would have stirred up spiritual emotions within the viewer. Some scholars state that the “statue was intended to be carried in processions, which may explain the exaggeration of the muscles and veins. Also, the fact the piece was sculpted in the round and could be viewed from all sides which supports the theory that the work was part of a religious procession. The saint’s expression is a manifestation of an intense “internal struggle” and “mortification rather than external penitence, symbolized by the stone” (Kubler 150). It is with Saint Jerome that Montañés’ utilizes a more naturalistic style in order to successfully express a message of intense devoutness.
Unlike the Renaissance and Mannerist artists, Spanish sculptors did not travel to other countries to receive their artistic training. “Influences from abroad reached them second hand” (Weisbach 144). After the first decade of the 17th century, one notices a steep decline in portrait sculpture replaced by a rise in polychrome wood sculpture, usually carved in the round for altars. Their function was “to move the faithful to prayerful devotion” (Weisbach 144). Scholars describe the 17th century as “an age of eloquence. Many great sermons discourse on the state of mind of the believer when praying before the representation of such a personage. These sermons set the mood which the artist imparted the image” (Weisbach 144). Gregorio Fernández exemplified this sculptural trend. He first gained distinction in Valladolid where he studied with F. del Rincon-a follower of Juni. Juni’s affection for naturalism, surface treatment, and subject matter (Pieta and Dolorosa) were clearly influential to Fernández’s development.