Looking at a painting of a naked human body was a risky business and the punishment was severe. After death, your soul could burn in hell forever.
It’s difficult to imagine today, but in 16th and 17th century Spain, a stronghold of the Roman Catholic Church, it was a mortal sin to view a nude.
’Splendor, Myth, and Vision: Nudes from the Prado’
WHERE: The Clark Art Institute, 225 South St., Williamstown, Massachusetts
WHEN: Through Oct. 10. The Clark is open 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday
HOW MUCH: $20, free for children 18 and younger and students with ID
MORE INFO: clarkart.edu, 413-458-2303
Yet in royal palaces and homes of the nobility, the king and other high-ranking males in his circle could enjoy this forbidden pleasure in a “sala reservada,” a private room filled with sensuous paintings of women by artists like the Venetian Titian and the Flemish Peter Paul Rubens.
For the next four months, we have the rare opportunity to see a sampling of these once-immoral works in “Splendor, Myth, and Vision: Nudes from the Prado” in the Clark Center at the Clark Art Institute.
Traveling from the Museo Nacional de Prado in Madrid, one of the world’s great art museums, the show features 28 Old Master paintings, 24 of which have never been seen in the United States.
The exhibit, which was co-organized by the two museums and will be shown only at the Clark, is part of an exchange that began in 2010, when the Clark’s entire collection of Renoir paintings were shown in a highly popular exhibit in Madrid.
“This exhibition is one the Clark has been working on since 2009,” says Kathleen Morris, director of collections and exhibitions.
At a press conference early this month, Morris, Clark curator Lara Yeager-Crasselt and Miguel Falomir, the Prado’s deputy director for collections and research, ushered reporters through the exhibit and answered questions about the paradoxical private art rooms of Spain.
“This is really complicated,” Morris said. “We want the show to raise questions. Our societies are very different. But still today people see depictions of the human body as a charged subject.”
Created four centuries ago, these nudes do not depict ordinary men and women. They are nymphs, gods and goddesses, figures from the Bible and ancient history. The characters and stories were well known to the royal court of Spain.
From the Prado’s collection of Old Masters, one of the most important in the world, we see paintings from the Spanish monarchy’s collection by not only Titian and Rubens but Jacopo Tintoretto, Diego Velazquez and other Flemish and Spanish artists.
“Some are erotic, some are violent,” Morris says.
However, be advised that to 21st century eyes, these paintings are not disturbing and no more revealing than the Clark’s own “Nymphs and Satyr,” an erotic painting by Bouguereau and the largest in its collection.
The four main characters of “Nudes from the Prado” are Titian, Rubens and two Spanish kings.
In the first room, we are introduced to the monarchs: King Philip II, who reigned from 1556 to 1598, and Philip IV, his grandson, who was on the throne from 1621 to 1665.
These kings were the greatest art patrons of their time, says Yeager-Crasselt. “We are looking at this incredible passion. It co-existed with their role as Catholic kings.”
Their somber portraits, one by Titian, the other by Velazquez, flank a Rubens painting of Fortuna, who stands with the right side of her naked body exposed, one bare foot balanced unsteadily on a globe.
An allegorical figure, the goddess was part of Rubens’ mythological series inspired by Ovid’s “Metamorphoses,” which was popular reading at the time.
In a room beyond Fortuna, we see “Lady Revealing Her Breast” by Venetian painter Tintorello.
Thought to be depicting a courtesan, a high-level prostitute, the image is unusual because the woman looks coyly away from the viewer at the same time that her hand pushes her left breast provocatively out of her dress.
Deeper into the exhibit, one encounters the magnificent “Room of Rubens.”
“Rubens was absolutely fascinated with Titian,” says Morris, and the Prado is the world’s largest repository of Rubens.
“The Rape of Hippodamia,” about 6-by-9 feet, depicts a herd of centaurs (half-horse, half-human monsters) trying to abduct a bride at her wedding.
“It has enormous energy,” Morris says.
The king, knowing the story of this painting, would see the symbolism of “protecting his kingdom,” she says. “It’s on one side a mythical story or it can be read in this other way. Many have moral stories imbedded in them.”
By our standards, the nude women are threatened and victimized. Lascivious and often unattractive men peep at their pale flesh, kidnap them, touch them, scheme to attack them and leer at them while they sleep or bathe.
“Diana and a Nymph Surprised by a Satyr,” “Susannah and the Elders” and “Lot and His Daughters,” a Biblical incest story, are just a few of the scenes.
No live models
There were no live female models in the 1500s and 1600s, as it was immoral for a woman to pose nude before a male artist. Young males did the posing or artists used their imaginations and looked at ancient Greek and Roman sculptures.
Of the male nude, we see Hercules, whose strength conveys ideas of kingship and empire, and three very different images of Saint Sebastian, a heavenly intercessor for Catholics seeking protection from the plague.
As for the sala reservada, the art in the private rooms eventually made its way into the Prado.
After the reign of Philip IV, other rulers regarded the paintings as indecent or were not interested in collecting art.
“They actually wanted to have these paintings burned,” Morris says.
In yet another twist of fate, because the paintings were taboo, they remained tucked away.
If they had been exposed to the public, they certainly would have been destroyed.
“Religious leaders would have found them unacceptable,” she says.
Reach Gazette reporter Karen Bjornland at 395-3197, [email protected] or on Twitter @bjorngazette