Indianapolis Museum of Art

A large portion of the dilemma facing the contemporary visual arts is that, too often, their conversation is limited -- art for artists' sake. This makes Sacred Spain: Art and Belief in the Spanish World particularly provocative. Here is an exhibition of works produced primarily during the 17th century in Spain and the colonies of the New World that asks us to think beyond modern aesthetic or historical preconceptions about what art is. That's because these works were produced to be spiritual icons in a culture where religion was embedded in all aspects of the culture. These artists were not only creating images for the edification and meditation of a large, in some cases illiterate, public, they were creating works for a God they believed in or, at least, feared. As IMA curator Ronda Kasl points out in this thoughtfully assembled exhibit's clearly written catalogue notes, these practitioners were dealing with one of art's most primal challenges: To make the invisible visible. Imagine trying to find a visual language capable of making the Immaculate Conception appear credible. And one can only ponder what having an image of unspeakable suffering like the Crucifixion at its center has meant (or done) to what we call Western Civilization. But then reverence is not immune to goofiness. In "The Lactation of Saint Bernard," the Virgin literally aims her breast for a squirt at the saint's ever humble lips. The exhibit consists of over 70 works, including paintings, polychrome sculptures, metalwork and books. It's admirably concise; a kind of flare illuminating, however briefly, a world where art didn't just talk to itself, but sang a hymn to its culture's senses. Sacred Spain is free of charge and on view through Jan. 3, 2010.

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