Bringing the figure to life

Alonso Berruguete, Apostle or Saint, c. 1520s, polychrome and gilded walnut, 103 x 37 cm (The Metropolitan Museum of Art), part of Smarthistory’s Expanded Renaissance Initiative


Alonso Berruguete was one of the most important artists of renaissance Spain, excelling at painting and sculpture among other things. Today he is well-known for his sculptures, which testify to his remarkable ability to carve marble, alabaster, or wood. This sculpture is polychromed (painted) wood.

As a young artist he traveled to Italy in 1504, where he came into contact with Michelangelo and engaged with his art while in Rome. He spent most of his time in Florence, painting in the mannerist style (Mannerism is a late renaissance style). After his return to Spain in 1518, he was made the king’s court artist, but primarily turned to sculpture for the remainder of his life. He and his workshop made elaborate retablos (altarpieces), which often took up the entirety of the apse of a church and required carpenters, gilders, painters, and sculptors to create such towering and impressive religious artworks.

While we do not know exactly who is depicted in this sculpture of the saint at The Metropolitan Museum of art, it offers a powerful example of Berruguete’s mannerist tendencies, his skill at carving in wood, and his work on religious retablos. It is most likely a sculpture that once rested on the corner of a retablo, indicated by the uncarved and unpainted back.

Berruguete’s life as an artist also reminds us of the mobility of artists in the sixteenth century. They moved around — to train, to study, and to find work. Today we tend to associate artists with a specific region or modern-day nation, but in the sixteenth century (and earlier) artists were often on the move.

Terms and key ideas

  • Renaissance Spanish art
  • Polychromed wooden sculpture
  • Artists on the move
  • Mannerist sculpture


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Additional resources:
This sculpture at The Met

Learn more about the expanding the renaissance initiative

Learn more about making a Spanish polychrome sculpture

Read more about the medieval and renaissance altarpiece

Read more about mannerism

See one of Berruguete’s paintings at the Uffizi Gallery in Florence

Watch a video made by the National Gallery of Art about Berruguete

Read about the process of creating one of Berruguete’s retablos

C. D. Dickerson III, Mark P. McDonald, eds., Alonso Berruguete: First Sculptor of Renaissance Spain, exh. cat. (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2019)

For the classroom

Take notes while watching the video, using the Berruguete Active Video Note-Taking

Discussion questions

  1. Compare Berruguete’s sculpture with Juan Martínez Montañés and Francisco Pacheco’s Christ of Clemency. What does this comparison tell us about polychromed wood sculpture in Spain?
  2. Compare Berruguete’s sculpture with Giambologna’s Abduction of a Sabine Woman. How are they both mannerist? In what ways do they differ?
  3. Consider the role of Berruguete’s sculpture as a cultural artifact. Without being able to identify the specific identification of the sculpted figure, what other methods can we use to understand the sculpture’s role in renaissance Spain? Is something lost by not being able to identify the specific individual?

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Smarthistory images for teaching and learning:

[flickr_tags user_id=”82032880@N00″ tags=”berrugueteap,”]

More Smarthistory images…

[0:00] [music]

Dr. Steven Zucker: [0:06] We’re upstairs in the Spanish Court in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, looking at this exceptional sculpture.

[0:12] Before we even go into what we’re looking at, it’s important to understand that we’re not seeing this the way that it would originally have been meant to be seen. We’re seeing it on a pedestal by itself, but originally this would have been part of a large altar.

Dr. Lauren Kilroy-Ewbank: [0:25] There would have been a number of other polychromed and gilded sculptures in addition to painting. This would have been in conversation with a lot of other objects.

Dr. Zucker: [0:33] One of the tragedies of this sculpture having been separated from its original altarpiece is that we’ve lost the identity of this figure.

Dr. Kilroy-Ewbank: [0:40] This is either an apostle or a saint by the very famous 16th-century sculptor Alonso Berruguete, who comes from Spain, who was trained by his also very famous father, Pedro Berruguete. Alonso Berruguete clearly made this for an altarpiece, and we know that because it’s sculpted on three sides in the round, but then the back is left unsculpted.

Dr. Zucker: [1:02] Art historians have hypothesized that this was probably a corner piece, so you would be able to move around and see all sides except the very back.

Dr. Kilroy-Ewbank: [1:12] Berruguete has used a few techniques to get us to really look at this from those three sides. The saint or apostle here is twisted in a certain way where you really want to get as close as you can to it, to walk around the different sides to get a full sense of what this sculpture looks like.

Dr. Zucker: [1:29] That’s because it is so expressive. You don’t need to look only at the face or the hands to understand the emotion of this figure. Every inch of this sculpture, its movement expresses anguish. There’s such a sense of animation in this figure.

[1:44] Clearly the artist had a very sophisticated understanding of anatomy, and that understanding allowed him to manipulate the figure. It reminds me of the work of Michelangelo.

[1:54] I think what’s a little unnerving when I look at this is that at first it seems so naturalistic, but the more time you spend with it, you see the way in which the artist has purposefully distorted the human body to achieve emotional effect.

[2:07] Look, for instance, at the face. Actually, the very shape of the skull seems to gently arc the way that the body below it arcs. This is further accentuated by the way that wind seems to whip the beard around his chin and the way that the hair on the right falls longer than the hair on his left. It is as if the skull itself arcs in rhyme with the arc of the body.

[2:29] When you look closely, you realize that the artist understands human anatomy, but has pushed beyond the more static naturalism of the Renaissance to create an object that we would classify as Mannerist.

Dr. Kilroy-Ewbank: [2:42] If we just look at the textiles covering the figure’s body, we really get a sense of that here. We have these swooping arcs created by things like his arm, that’s outstretched and holding some object. We don’t know what the object is.

[2:54] Then another arc that’s created by the turn of his left arm that’s holding a book, and then another arc that’s created by one of the garments that he wears, but they all still hang relatively naturally, except we also have these Mannerist tendencies.

[3:08] We have the elongated angular face. We have the elongated fingers. The apostle or the saint actually looks like he’s being blown by wind. We get this impression of movement and yet the garments he’s wearing aren’t moving with this gust of wind.

Dr. Zucker: [3:22] Imagine if he stood up straight and his body wasn’t creating this beautiful arc. Look at the length of the body and imagine how many heads tall he is, this far exceeds the height of the actual anatomy of the human body.

Dr. Kilroy-Ewbank: [3:36] Something that’s really important to note about this particular sculpture is that it is painted wood, or polychromed and gilded wood, which is not necessarily what we think about when we’re thinking of Renaissance sculpture.

[3:48] However, painted or polychromed wood was actually very common in the Renaissance, not only in Spain but it is something that you do find a lot of in Renaissance Spain.

Dr. Zucker: [3:58] Although this has been done so masterfully [that] it looks as if it was carved from a single block of wood, that was not actually how this was done. This is made from individual pieces that are fit together in ingenious ways in order to mask those seams. For example, the right forearm is not part of the same piece of wood as the shoulders.

Dr. Kilroy-Ewbank: [4:16] Carving in wood did allow you to do things that you couldn’t do, say, carving in marble or creating something like a bronze sculpture. Wood was usually a more supple material to work with, meaning that you could cut more naturalistically, at a faster speed if you so desired. It’s also incredibly light, meaning that it’s not as heavy as something like bronze or marble.

Dr. Zucker: [4:38] And it takes color beautifully. You can get a sense of the almost magical quality of wood carving if you look especially at his toes, which are, in a sense, hyper-real.

Dr. Kilroy-Ewbank: [4:47] You can almost see each individual bone in the toes. We can see veins snaking up the feet. There really is this hyper-realistic quality to them.

Dr. Zucker: [4:57] Look at the decisions that the sculptor has made, recessing those feet far behind the drape which cantilevers over, protecting and creating a real sense of depth and volume. You get a sense of the body below that heavy drapery.

Dr. Kilroy-Ewbank: [5:10] When you’re standing up close to this sculpture, you can also see the different ways that the painter has tried to enliven this sculpture. We see the naturalistic painting of the flesh tones, and then we have different colors of paint used for the textiles, including some that are gilded, or the addition of gilding. This relates back to the very collaborative process that would have been used to create this type of sculpture.

Dr. Zucker: [5:36] It’s important to remember that the painting of the wooden sculpture was seen as a separate skill that would have been given over to somebody who had a high degree of expertise in that specific area.

Dr. Kilroy-Ewbank: [5:46] Typically with Spanish polychrome sculpture, you had the sculptor, who was actually the one carving from the wood. Then once he or she completed that, would give it over to another artist, who would do the painting.

[5:57] You had different types of painters. You had those who specialized in the encarnación, or the flesh tones, and then you had those painters who would do the gilding or painting of the textiles. So you had sometimes a great many artists who would work on a single figure like this one to produce what we’re seeing here.

Dr. Zucker: [6:15] Let’s just take a moment to remember that the term “encarnación” is related to the English word “incarnation,” that is, to give life. The painting of the flesh tones literally brought these objects to life.

Dr. Kilroy-Ewbank: [6:25] We have a wooden sculpture that has been painted with a wide variety of colors to make this look more naturalistic, to make this look more alive.

Dr. Zucker: [6:34] While there is some Italian sculpture in wood, certainly — Donatello’s “Mary Magdalene” comes to mind — wood is a much more common material for sculpture in Spain.

Dr. Kilroy-Ewbank: [6:44] Berruguete was one of the most important artists of 16th century Spain. He was not only a sculptor but he was also a painter and an architect, and earlier in his career he actually travels to Italy and he supposedly studies with Michelangelo.

[6:58] Whether or not he actually works directly with Michelangelo is maybe more contested, but we know that he was actively looking at sculptures made by Michelangelo, as well as studying Greco-Roman sculpture like the “Laocoön” that had been observed by Michelangelo when it was being pulled up from the ground.

Dr. Zucker: [7:14] He wasn’t in Italy just for a short time. He lived there for an extended period.

Dr. Kilroy-Ewbank: [7:19] When Berruguete actually returns to Spain, he will be made the official court painter to Charles V, the Holy Roman Emperor and the king of Spain, which is in some ways ironic, because as soon as he’s made the court painter, Charles V basically leaves for his military campaigns and the artist turns to sculpture for the remainder of his career.

Dr. Zucker: [7:37] In a sense, having ascended to the single most important artistic position in Spain, one of the most powerful countries in the world at that time, the artist is able to set his own course and gives up painting.

Dr. Kilroy-Ewbank: [7:49] Berruguete is but one of many examples of artists who were itinerant, who were moving around, in the Renaissance.

Dr. Zucker: [7:55] This will have significant impact, because Spain at this time was becoming a major colonial power. This Mannerist style will have resonance in the Americas.

[8:05] [music]

Cite this page as: Dr. Lauren Kilroy-Ewbank and Dr. Steven Zucker, "Bringing the figure to life," in Smarthistory, April 23, 2020, accessed July 19, 2024,