Accessibility statement

Period Band B
Curatorial Rating: unrated

The Power of the Real in Seventeenth-Century Spanish Painting and Sculpture

Tutor: Cordula Van Wyhe


The semblance of art and reality was a recurring concern for seventeenth-century artists and theorists. Consequently, art historians have long tried to grapple with, what has been variously termed, the “life-like effect”, “photographic quality”, “verisimilitude”, “illusionism” and “optical trickery” of seventeenth-century painting and sculpture.

This module will take Spanish sculpture and painting as a case study to explore the wider conceptual and methodological challenges of the power of the real. Seventeenth-century Spain is often referred to as “Golden Age Spain”. Despite grave challenges to Spain’s power in the international arena of politics and commerce, the literary and visual arts and architecture flourished to an unprecedented degree. The artistic trends which dominated image-making in Seville at the turn of the seventeenth century are generally considered the bedrock of what scholars have termed, “the art of immediacy”, or “naturalism” in Spain. For example, Spanish sculptors such as Pedro de Mena, Juan de Mesa and Juan Martínez Montañés achieved new life-like effects in their polychrome sculptures, while painters such as Francisco Zurbarán and Diego Velázquez, who both had strong links to Seville, produced several canonical pieces whose hallmark is their power of illusion.

“Realism” is always a relative term, because its meaning is informed by the practices of a specific culture. This module will engage with the important methodological problems that surround the privileged explanatory category of “realism” for seventeenth-century painting and sculpture in Spain. We will investigate the wide variety of pictorial, thematic and conceptual strategies in close relation to contemporary texts and modern, scholarly theoretical writings.


By the end of the module, students should have acquired:

  • familiarity with major artists and artistic genres in seventeenth-century Spain
  • an appreciation of the historical relativity of the “real” in early modern Spanish society.
  • knowledge of a range of methodological approaches that have been applied to the ‘veristic appeal’ of seventeenth-century painting and sculpture and an ability to critique those methodologies


Preliminary Reading

  • Bray, X. (et. al.), The Sacred Made Real. Spanish Painting and Sculpture 1600-1700, ex. cat. National Gallery, London 2009.
  • Alcolea, S., Zurbarán, Barcelona 2008.
  • Webster, Susan Verdi, Art and Ritual in Golden-Age Spain, Princeton, 1998.
  • García Sanz, Ana, El Niño Jesú en el Monasterio de las Descalzas Reales, Madrid, 2010.
  • Colón Mendoza, I., The Cristo yacentes of Gregorio Fernández, Farham, 2015.
  • Tiffany, Tanya, Diego Velázquez’s early paintings and the culture of seventeenth-century Seville, Pennsylvania, 2012.

17th century Spanish polychrome sculpture of the dead Christ, detail

Module code: HOA00053I