Masterpieces: Mature audiences only

Two men fight to the death with clubs. A father eats his sons.

A prominent Catholic cleric drinks breast milk from the Virgin Mary.


Miraculous or ewwww?

I was taken aback by this painting by 17th-century Spanish artist Alonso Cano when it confronted me at the Prado Museum in Madrid recently. And I thought my relationship to Catholicism was complicated.

 No, these aren’t images from some sleazy violence-and-erotic-lactation rag dreamed up by Hustler publisher Larry Flynt. They’re all on display at one of the most important art museums in Europe. I became aware of them during a recent vacation in Spain, a journey that included a frankly overwhelming day at the famed Prado museum in Madrid.

Amid the surfeit of Goyas and El Grecos was the aforementioned work by Alonso Cano that left me feeling conflicted. I’m not particularly religious but, as a confirmed (though fallen-away) Catholic, my first instinct was to believe I was staring in the face of sacrilege. (Another of Cano’s paintings, “The Dead Christ Supported by an Angel” left me similarly vexed. Was Cano implying that Christ’s Resurrection was aided by angels? That would certainly border on blasphemy, I think.)

However, once I returned to the hotel, I did some checking and found out that, if nothing else, the Baroque Era master was at least faithful to the Bernard of Clairvaux story.

At any rate, I was all fired up to jump back into the blog with some snark. But, upon further reflection, I came to believe this odd encounter with Cano’s work says more about the magic power of art, seen up close and in person, to move the viewer than it says about the viewer’s interpretation. That is, a painting I reflexively dismissed as ridiculous and awful (though skillfully rendered), somehow compelled me to look into the origin of the work itself, its subject and the life of the artist.

The piece still makes me a little uncomfortable — queasy, even — but I find it impossible to dismiss. And isn’t that the hallmark of great art?

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