Colonial Catholicism

Centuries-old paintings created to convert native South Americans come to the TMA

In 1537, just five years after Pizarro landed in Peru, the pope ruled that the Indians his conquistadors were busily subjugating and slaughtering were human beings. And with this insight came a new imperative: The Spaniards had a duty to convert them.

"Indians are truly men," Pope Paul III wrote, "and they are not only capable of understanding the Catholic faith, but ... they desire exceedingly to receive it."

Arrogant as these ideas are to contemporary sensibilities, they at least gave the Indians certain legal rights. (The pope went on to say the Indians are "by no means to be deprived of their liberty or their possessions ... nor should they be in any way enslaved.") And they help account for an astonishing flowering of art in the New World during the colonial period.

A lavish new show at the Tucson Museum of Art, The Virgin, Saints and Angels: South American Paintings 1600-1825 From the Thoma Collection, gives a tiny sampling of the reams of religious canvases that were painted in the Viceroyalty of Peru, the name given early on to the whole of colonial Spanish South America. The dazzling saints and terrifying devils in these pictures were created in part to lure Indians away from their pagan ways and to bolster their new Christian spiritual life afterwards. The conquistadors also needed familiar religious art for themselves, to fill the thousands of churches, monasteries and convents they and their descendants would construct.

Gleaned from a private collection, the traveling show is handsomely installed at the museum, against walls painted in reds and blues, and gives Tucsonans a rare look at Latin art that is other than Mexican. It offers up some 55 paintings, every last one of them gleaming in jewel tones and gold filigree.

One whole room is devoted to the cult of the Virgin Mary, in paintings tracing her life from birth to Ascension into heaven. "Birth of the Virgin Mary," from 18th-century Cuzco (most of the artists are unknown), is a cozy scene set in a nicely appointed Peruvian bedroom, with Mary's mother, Anne, having a bowl of soup in bed and little Mary getting her first bath. In "The Child Mary Spinning," also painted in 18th-century Cuzco, she's a small girl in noble silks learning to wield the spindle.

"The Holy Kinship," from Quito, circa 1800, offers up a charming extended-family portrait, with Mary circled by her son, her husband, her parents, her baby first-cousin-once-removed John the Baptist and John's parents. Such paintings helped endear Mary to ordinary folks, who were taught to consider her their advocate before God, and did their bit to promote Marian devotion, which became as prevalent in South America as in Mexico.

More often, though, Mary is portrayed as the triumphant crowned queen of heaven. In "Our Lady of Cayma," 1771-1782, she presides in majestic regalia, baby Jesus in her arms, in front of the white colonial church at Cayma in Peru, with the mission's priests humbly kneeling around her. In "The Virgin Mary Vanquishing the Devil," from late 1600s Cuzco, she turns warrior queen, valiantly thrusting a long spear into the mouth of the devil himself, with the help of a tiny baby Jesus. Her warlike demeanor helped celebrate not only the Church Militant but the Church Triumphant.

Another favorite Church Militant saint was Santiago, the New Testament apostle known as St. James in English. Back in Old Spain, Santiago had miraculously appeared on a ninth-century battlefield to lead the faltering Spaniards to victory over the Moors. This conquest story quickly became popular in the New World, translated into street plays performed by masked merrymakers and into oils on canvas, in paintings like "Santiago at the Battle of Clavijo," exhibited here.

Painted in Cuzco in 1653, this elaborate military work has the white saint and his sidekick, the white King Ramiro I, galloping on white horses through a horde of cowering brown soldiers. Its message is clear: God is on our side.

Independent curator Suzanne Stratton-Pruitt explains in a scholarly catalog essay that the earliest paintings in the Viceroyalty of Peru were shipped over from the mother country. European religious prints got even wider circulation. But soon, European painters, from Spanish Flanders, Spain and even Italy, also turned up, attracted by the adventure and the ready work. They brought with them their Catholic iconography, and these now nearly forgotten symbols require a little detective work to decode: The flowering rod goes with St. Joseph; a crown of thorns and stigmata signal St. Catherine of Siena; a straw hat on Mary means she's returning home after the flight to Egypt.

But these European stylistic elements were absorbed and quickly transformed by local artists, becoming something distinctively Latin American. The new artists were Creoles (the children of the Spaniards born in America), mestizos (mixed race) and indígenas (native Indians). Interestingly, Stratton-Pruitt reports that "soon schools were organized to teach Andean artists, who were already skilled artisans, especially in weaving and the working of precious metals."

The hybrid art these Americans created mirrored their hybrid new religion; historians endlessly debate how much--or how little--the native peoples actually embraced the new religion imposed on them. Some of their alterations were skin-deep, as Old World scenes metamorphosed into the local landscape. "The Return From Egypt," from 18th-century Cuzco, is a beautifully colored painting that memorializes the Holy Family's journey home after the death of the menacing Herod. But this is hardly a Middle Eastern desert. Peaked mountains in the distance suggest the Andes; angels scatter exotic hot-country flowers everywhere; and tropical birds--including a parrot--roost in the trees.

But "Noah's Ark" delves into the theological--and possibly political. Painted in late 18th-century Quito, this delightful painting pictures all the usual animal pairs: the camels, the horses, the sheep. But there's also a New World turkey and an armadillo heading toward an ark that's lodged below a snowcapped peak. Noah and his wife, both white, are directing the proceedings, but among those heading toward the gangplank is an indigenous family.

These brown-skinned folks are dressed in native garb. One woman wears a loose white cotton blouse and long blue skirt; the men are in cotton knee-length shorts and shirts. They may be working, burdened down with heavy loads they're carrying for their masters, but they have no intention of being left behind in the Great Flood. They're asserting their right to get on the ark--and to take their place in the Kingdom of Heaven, which Pope Paul III may well have approved. But they're also laying their claim to the here and now, to a piece of the Earth that's all their own, Spanish conquistadors or no.

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