Discovering La Roldana
Isn’t it great when disappearing down a rabbit-hole on Twitter takes you somewhere unsuspected and exciting? That’s what happened last week when I stumbled across the Public Statues and Sculpture Association’s (PSSA) current lecture series on female sculptors, with one on Luisa Roldán (1652-1706), court sculptor during the golden age of Spanish Baroque, only two days away.
Roldán sculpted larger than life wooden representations of religious figures, which would then be painted and finished in exquisite and often gory detail (the two disciplines, sculpting and polychroming, were separate and had their own guilds). These figures were destined for dramatic groups to be carried on floats in lavish Easter Week processions in Seville and other towns and cities around Spain.
The National Gallery had an exhibition a few years ago, The Sacred Made Real, examining how these sculptures had influenced contemporaneous Spanish painting. Brilliantly executed, the sculptures were both horrifying and entrancing, as their contorted limbs, rivulets of blood and open wounds sought to make vivid the suffering of saints and martyrs, to reinforce pity and devotion in the beholder. The work of many sculptors was on display – but not Roldán’s.
The lecture was a revelation – who would have thought that a woman in what I took to be a fairly repressive society could run her own studio and become a court sculptor to King Charles II of Spain, in Madrid? For the princely sum of £3.50 I had well over the advertised hour of Dr Catherine Hall van den Elsen’s enthusiasm and expertise, distilled from a long career in pursuit not only of Roldán’s output, but also her personal history and artistic development, illustrated with some superb photos of the sculptures.
Roldán learnt her trade in her father’s workshop – Pedro Roldán was a renowned sculptor in his own right – alongside her brothers and sisters. Her brother Tomás, a highly skilled polychromist, painted some of her figures, as did her husband (and marketing manager) Luis Los Arcos.
Dr Hall-van den Elsen’s sleuthing also has turned up contracts for various commissions, receipts for the purchase of materials and, more disturbingly, letters begging the king to pay for the work she has done. Roldán’s supposedly illustrious years as a court sculptor were dogged with poverty and hunger.
But what of the sculptures themselves? The range of work is remarkable. Alongside the larger-than-life wood sculptures, she also made small, intimate groups in terracotta, suitable for private devotions. Although her wooden figures share some very distinctive features – arched eyebrows, finely chiselled flowing hair and what Hall-van den Elsen has called ‘the interplay of gaze and gesture’ – they vary considerably in their impact on the viewer. The poignant serenity of Our Lady of Solitude, with the glass tears rolling down her cheeks, evokes entirely different emotions from the suspended violence of St Michael conquering a demon.
The sense of movement in the sculptures is extraordinary. St Michael’s gloriously sandaled foot vigorously crushing the demon beneath him, and the figure of the demon himself is breathtaking: somehow his extreme youth and shaven head are startlingly modern. You could see him on any street today, were it not for his vicious horns and the nasty little tail sprouting from his coccyx – a detail that made one art critic declare that this sculpture could not have been done by a woman, because no woman could produce anything so repellent!
I will certainly be going back for more. Still to come in the series are lectures on Vinnie Ream (who sculpted Abraham Lincoln), women sculptors at the Slade, and Eleanor Coade’s artificial stone manufactory in Lambeth, among others, and a second series is planned for the autumn. Click here to book for forthcoming lectures in the series, and if you join the PSSA* it’s all free. One day soon, you may even be able to go and see The Virgin and Child with St Diego of Alcalá, a small terracotta group held by the Victoria & Albert Museum.
*You can also find on their website recordings from their fascinating webinar, held in November 2020, on ‘Toppling Statues’.