Description of the work
From the 17th century onwards, in particular, it was customary for images of Christ to be escorted by sculptures of this type, the purpose of which was to summarise in the attributes displayed a true summary of the Passion, to which they also served as an explanatory reference and iconological endorsement. However, it was not until the 18th century that their presence became widespread, and they became particularly linked to the iconography of the Nazarene carrying the cross and holding up the ends of his cincture with a gesture of compunction.
Juan Alberto Pérez Rojas continues this tradition in the 21st century, taking into account that the consideration of the Passion angels as processional pieces not only responds to persuasive and decorative interests, but also has a triumphal meaning. Michelangelo was already aware of this issue when he included them in the Last Judgement he painted between 1535-1541 for the Sistine Chapel. In Baroque sculpture - especially by Francisco Dionisio de Ribas, Francisco Antonio Gijón and Pedro Roldán - and also in the work of modern-day followers such as Pérez Rojas, the Passion angels appear with mournful gestures that contrast with the delicacy of their gestures and their robust, childlike anatomies.
From a literary point of view, the iconography of these works conforms to the emblematic code outlined by such a prestigious author as the Pseudo-Dionysius Aeropagite, whose treatise De Coelesti Hierarchia was for centuries the undisputed point of reference for any artistic approach - whether pictorial or sculptural - to the angelic theme.
The mystical literature contributed to justify the inclusion, relationship and presence of the angels in the themes of the Passion, being especially decisive the thought of Juan de Cartagena, María Jesús de Ágreda, Drexelius, Mastrilli and others for whom the Blood of Christ was shed not only to redeem men and women, but also the angels. In fact, the overflowing imagination of these writers records in their writings the intervention of the angels in all the scenes of Christ, going so far as to affirm that they wept disconsolately when they witnessed some scenes of the Passion, such as the Flagellation, the Way of Calvary or the Crucifixion.
Contemplated in union with the Nazarene of the Towers, they evoke before all the Improperia or Arma Christi; that is, the instruments by which, in a gradual manner, Christ had certified and conquered human Redemption. In the 13th century, theologians fixed the number of these attributes at six: crown of thorns, pillar and scourge, nails, sponge, lance and, above all, the cross. In the 15th century, this categorisation became more complicated and various Italian and Flemish artists added new ones to their works, such as the jug and basin of Pilate's lavatory, the seamless tunic, the cloth of Veronica, the dice of the drawing of the garments, the hand of the slap, the cock of the denials of Saint Peter and the tongs, hammers and scales of the Descent from the Cross.
From the stylistic point of view, Pérez Rojas follows the tendency of other young sculptors towards an eclecticism which, beyond the rigid classifications around the well-known 'circles' or 'schools', considers the whole Andalusian processional sculptural tradition of the Modern and Contemporary Ages as a continuum; that is, as a common whole from which the creations of the Third Millennium are being nourished.
This 'globalising' attitude means that Pérez Rojas carries out a selective process that brings together references from Seville, Granada and Malaga in a simultaneous way which, under his subjective prism and in his attempts to illuminate a personal poetics, is substantiated in the pieces referred to in a homogeneous and plural way, at the same time.
The pair of child angels, with intelligently contrasting gestures, attitudes and plastic values, seek an almost absolute asymmetry in order to avoid any repetition or monotony. Raised on clouds, one of them wipes his tears on the cloth and withdraws into himself, absorbed in his pain, while the other theatrically expresses his grief by raising his eyes and stretching out his hands in an imploring gesture. These two ways of externalising grief correspond, respectively, to differences in the treatment of the forms, simplifying the hair into wet, flattened locks in the first and spreading it out slightly in the second, in order to reinforce the introverted/extroverted character of the two gestures. The draperies support this approach, curling whimsically around the angel drying the weeping and expanding in more baroque flights around her pendant. The clean, clear flesh tones are emphasised and contrasted by the striped, dotted and bouquet designs of acanthus leaves which, with exceptional delicacy and preciousness, describe sinuous gold brocades in combination with sky-blue and green tones outlined in red on indigo and purple backgrounds.
Taking as his starting point the works of the Sevillian Baroque - those of the Ribas and Roldán families and their followers in particular - Pérez Rojas endowed his creations with a robust modelling, learned from his master Miñarro. This volumetric power, typical of his academic training and direct study of the carving processes of past centuries and those closer to us, has repercussions in the fleshiness that informs the nudes, which are resolved with rounded forms, incisive naturalistic description in the planes and little concession to anecdote. The treatment of body morphology is combined with characterological studies and historicist touches of the Andalusian Baroque. This premise urges him to draw subtle links in the mournful angel with the intimism of Eastern Andalusian lineage generalised by the followers of the Mora and Asensio de la Cerda families, representatives of the psychological study of pain reconducted by means of aesthetic sublimation.
Nor is the evocation of the imploring dramatism introduced in Andalusia in the 18th century by the academicians Cristóbal Ramos and, above all, Fernando Ortiz, to whose graphics the pronounced ciliary frown of the imploring angel is intended to refer.
Both figures develop an enveloping scheme, from which a play of rhythms is established between the body movement and the fall of the stewed fabrics, which also has repercussions on the chromatic, plastic and sculptural effects. Thus, while the face of the mourning angel is half-hidden by the mournful gesture of one of his hands, his companion's other hand reaches out, asking for the spectator's compassion and involvement in the scene, inviting him to identify with, share and sympathise, in short, with the suffering of the Nazarene. The soft volumes of the clouds support the figures, while at the same time endowing them with a certain weightlessness that attenuates the strength of the sculptural treatment developed by the artist.
Juan Antonio Sánchez López is Professor and Doctor of Art History at the University of Málaga.