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A Cultural Convergence

Asiel Timor Dei (Arcángel Arcabucero)
Asiel Timor Dei (Arcángel Arcabucero)
Before 1728
Artist/maker unknown (Bolivian)
Oil on canvas with decorative gilding
Museo Nacional de Arte, La Paz, Bolivia
Columbus’s voyage in 1492 initiated a vast network that would join the trade routes between Asia, Europe, and Africa to the complex systems of trade already in place throughout the Americas. The result was a true globalization of people, goods, and the ideas that introduced the “modern world.”

Indigenous skills such as feather-painting and weaving continued, while European artists traveled to the Americas to both ply their own trade and train native craftsmen. For all the violence of conquest and domination of the New World, many native artists survived the transition, adapting their traditions and techniques to those of European masters. These indigenous forms and methods not only survived with remarkably sophisticated evolutions, but were also transformed into nimble innovations to meet new requirements and purposes.

Colonial societies in Latin America developed with a fluidity and an energy quite different from those of the North American colonies of the English, Dutch, and French. Initially, members of Spanish and Portuguese aristocracy were imported to rule native peoples, but thereafter a generic evolution of remarkable diversity quickly took over. Loosely defined as mestizaje, this mingling of race and social status became arguably the major defining character of much of Latin American life.

Century By Century

The 16th Century

The remarkable swiftness with which the new European regimes established themselves in the Americas in the sixteenth century carried with it huge demands for artistic creations, especially with the founding of massive religious institutions. Hundreds of artists, many of whom were highly accomplished and gifted, emigrated from Iberia, as well as Italy and Flanders.

Before long, native and imported forms merged to create original and independent ideas, and what had begun as a purely European visual style and narrative took on a fresh look.

The 17th Century

In the seventeenth century, artists born on American soil began to dominate, and, as their local patrons established ideas of their own desires and requirements, the artists became progressively more distant from the Old World.

Out of this emerged painters, sculptors, and craftsmen of international stature, and artists such as Melchor Pérez Holguín in the Viceroyalty of Peru and Cristóbal de Villalpando in Mexico, among others, were sought after and supported on a grand level.

The 18th Century

By the eighteenth century, many urban centers in the Americas had reached a level of sophistication and wealth that, in many ways, was substantially ahead of the economic and social well-being of the Iberian Peninsula and much of Europe.

Spain depended particularly on the mining resources in Mexico and at Potosí in the Viceroyalty of Peru, while Portugal relied heavily on the discovery of gold in Brazil that made King John V the richest man in the world. The natural wealth of Latin America had become the foundation of the world economy.

The “Creoles”—a class of newly empowered bourgeoisie in the European sense but with more social mobility—came into their own as patrons and supporters of the arts, often of a newly secular type (furnishings, luxury goods, portraits, and ephemeral decorations) and manner. As in the English colonies in North America, this new middle-class affluence would eventually lead to anti-European resolutions and desires for self-rule. The evidence of this “enlightened” culture reverberated throughout all of Latin America.

Religious Imagery

The movement of missionaries was a major factor in the dissemination of art throughout Latin America. Every church that was built, from magnificent urban cathedral to modest country chapel, required ritual objects such as silver chalices, candlesticks, and censers. Elaborately wrought altarpieces, gilded and embellished with devotional paintings and sculptures, were also created. A Latin American taste for intense drama and the sometimes particularly vivid and jarring elements of religious narrative provoked many of the works of art in this exhibition.

The Virgin Mary

The Virgin Mary and the Rich Mountain of Potosí
The Virgin Mary and the Rich Mountain of Potosí
Artist/maker unknown (Bolivian)
Oil on canvas
Museo de la Casa Nacional de Moneda, Fundación Cultural BCB, Potosí, Bolivia
The Virgin Mary was venerated throughout Catholic Europe from early Christian times, and devotion to her has continued unabated in Latin America. In colonial art, she often appears in narrative paintings about her life and about the life and Passion (final days) of her son, Jesus Christ. However, she is also shown in paintings and sculptures as intercessor and co-redemptress; that is, as an avenue through which prayers might more efficaciously reach God, and as playing an active role in the promised redemption of the souls of the faithful.

Paintings of the Virgin Mary sometimes represent Catholic dogma, showing her as the Virgin of the Immaculate Conception (conceived without original sin), but many are actually paintings of statues. Special devotions to the Blessed Virgin are often bound to a specific place. For instance, Spaniards in the Americas wanted paintings of revered sculptures at Valvanera or in the Cathedral of Toledo back home. In the Americas, new devotions arose such as the Virgin of Guadalupe in Mexico and the Virgin of Copacabana in South America, and paintings of those cult images became desired around the globe. The depictions of these special sculptures often show the Virgin Mary—even if the wood sculpture itself is actually fully complete, polychromed, and gilded—as “dressed statues,” wearing elaborate dresses and jewels provided by her devotees.