Aw, Christ!

Only a couple more weeks left to see 300 years' of Spanish painting and artifacts in SAM's "Spain in the Age of Exploration." This show didn't exactly blow my socks off, but it does offer a fascinating narrative of Spain's cultural, political, and artistic rise and fall. A big part of that story, of course, is the role Christianity played in the Spanish empire, and you'll find some truly marvelous examples of religious art on display. Christianity, you say? Religion? Ew! Not exactly relevant to the famously religion-averse population of Seattle. But it's exactly because piety is so foreign that you should check out this exhibit. I have no idea what Jesus would do today, but I love the little painting "Christ Calming the Storm" by Juan de Flandes (above) that opens this show. Part of a series of small religious scenes painted for Queen Isabella, the work is successful because it's so human. The disciples, depicted with a Bruegel-like liveliness, all seem more than a little anxious about the seaworthiness of the boat (one is seen vomiting over the gunwales). But there's Jesus, insouciantly lounging in the rear (storm? what storm?) and filling the ship's sails with wind. Of course one can't look at this exhibit and not think of the suffering that Spain's missionary zeal and thirst for conquest caused among native populations across the world. Suffering and sacrifice are in abundance in the finest work of the show, a bronze crucifixion by the Baroque Italian sculptor Gianlorenzo Bernini (originally brought to Spain by Velázquez, it's now touring outside the country for the first time). It's an underappreciated masterpiece of grace and calm in the face of suffering. The lithe and voluptuous body of Christ seems both tense and perfectly at peace—and no matter how heathen you may be, there's real spiritual solace in this truly beautiful work of art. Seattle Art Museum, 100 University St., 206-654-3100. 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Tues.-Sun.; 10 a.m.-9 p.m. Thurs.

Exhibit runs through Sun. Jan. 2.

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