One of the most important shows of European religious art to be mounted in the United States in living memory, "A Time for Hope" is a gift of love from 11 Roman Catholic archdioceses in the autonomous region of Castille-Leon in northern Spain. It has been designed to tell the life of Christ by means of sculpture, painting, books, and precious religious objects from the 10th to the 18th centuries.
"It is 'a time for hope' because in the midst of our tribulations or when the dark night hangs over the history of man, a faint ray of light shows the way through the darkness, in inspiring hope in the hearts of man," according to a statement of purpose issued by the archdiocesan Ages of Mankind Foundation, organizer of the show. "It is Jesus Christ who has made history a time of hope."
The foundation claims it offered the show to the Roman Catholic archdiocese of New York but none of its sanctuaries was free enough from daily religious activities to accommodate it. So the protestant Episcopal Diocese of New York was approached, and room was found for the show in its unfinished cathedral on Manhattan's Morningside Heights, the largest Gothic cathedral in the world.
St. John's cavernous apse area behind the high altar has been taken over for the exhibit. It makes an ideal setting for art created for churches, monasteries, and convents even if some of the lighting corresponds to the "faint ray of light" mentioned in the foundation's statement. The lack of explanatory wall labels is the show's other major shortcoming.
Actually the gloom of the great church, broken only by light filtered through its celebrated stained glass windows, contributes greatly to the sense of timeless religious mystery that gives this show a special appeal. A visit to the exhibition during the cathedral organist's daily practice period can provide a serendipitous emotional experience no matter what the viewer's religion.
There are so many rare and beautiful works in this show that it is difficult to pick out the highlights. Castille-Leon claims to be the Spanish province richest in art, with holdings that constitute about 50 percent of the nation's artistic patrimony. Some of the art comes from Flanders, which was dominated by Spain in the 16th century, and one exhibit is from Germany -- a pristine 1455 edition of the Gutenberg Bible, the first European book printed by means of movable type.
A particularly fleshy depiction of the nearly nude, arrow-pierced St. Sebastian by El Greco, the greatest 16th century treasure of the Cathedral of Palencia, is a show-stopper, almost too sensual to be thought of as religious art. A lesser work, dated 1787, by Francisco Goya, "Death of St.. Francis" from a Valladolid convent, is interesting for the softness of its illumination from some supernal source above the deathbed.
None of the fabulous sculptural works on view tops the free-standing, life-size wooden sculpture of the tortured Christ titled "Ecce Homo," so beautifully polychromed that at a distance it seems to be a living person. The eyes, uplifted in a face of transcendent beauty, actually appear to be highlighted by tears. It is the masterpiece of Gregorio Fernandez Hacia, dated 1610, from the Valladolid Cathedral collection.
The earliest works of sculpture are almost primitive in their simplicity but direct in their emotional power even when doll-like in appearance. The serenity of some of these unsophisticated sculptures is best embodied in the painted oak-carved crucified Christ with downturned eyes, a 12th century devotional piece from the cathedral in Soria.
Early paintings show the influence of stylized Byzantine art on Romanesque Spanish painters, but a typically Spanish style comes into its own by the 15th century as can be seen in a remarkably naturalistic portrait of King David dressed in high "oriental" style by Pedro Berruguete, dated 1490, from a church in Palencia.
Later paintings show the highly dramatic influence of Flemish art, and a depiction of the deposition of Christ titled "Piedad," attributed to the great Flemish painter Adriaen Isenbrant, is on loan from a church in Burgos. A Spanish painting of this period, "Resurrected Christ between Two Angels," by Diego de la Cruz, simply revels in the realistic rendition of Christ's bloody wounds.
Not to be missed are several outstanding illuminated manuscripts of biblical texts and musical scores, original letters and diaries of St. Theresa of Avila and St. John of the Cross, a selection of magnificent Gothic-style processional crosses in silver, richly enameled caskets in the French style, and works in carved ivory, notably the breathtaking 17th century Baroque crucifixion on an elaborate base veneered in tortoise shell.
The exhibition will remain at the cathedral through Dec. 6. It is the ninth traveling exhibition of Spanish art organized by The Ages of Mankind Foundation since 1988, and the first to visit America. Some 6 million people have visited the exhibits so far in major Spanish and Belgian cities.