ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Spanish colonial art spans continents and centuries. These artists paired European aesthetics with imagery gleaned from across the hemispheres.
They wove the sacred with the earthly, tapping deeply into the divine.
Open at Santa Fe’s Peyton Wright Gallery, the 27th Annual “The Art of Devotion” exhibition showcases colonial artwork from the former Spanish and Portuguese colonies —— present-day Bolivia, Peru, Argentina, Mexico, Ecuador, Chile, Venezuela, Brazil, Guatemala and the Philippines. It also features a rare collection of bultos, cristos and retablos by New Mexican santeros.
From about 1520 to 1820, European monks sailed to the New World to evangelize the natives. They brought thousands of liturgical prints to help convey the lives of the Catholic saints.
Two paintings from Cusco, Peru ——”The Archangel Uriel” and “The Virgin of Valvanera” —— stand out as exhibition stars. The Cusco School was one of the first artistic centers in the Americas to systematically teach European painting techniques.
Dating to around 1675, “The Archangel Uriel” is an oil-on-canvas depicting the angel who guarded the Garden of Eden, preventing Adam and Eve from returning after the fall, gallery owner John Wright Schaefer said.
Uriel was the archangel of fire, illumination and light.
“The Virgin of Valvanera,” circa 1750, shows an illuminated Mary with a tree behind her. The leafy symbol refers to the legend of a repentant thief visited by an angel who told him to go to Valvanera and search for an oak with a fountain. He discovered an image of the Mother of God carved by St. Luke. The statue was likely stashed there during the eighth century Muslim invasion of Spain.
“It was hidden in a hollow of the oak tree,” Wright Schaefer said. An angel carrying the Eucharist and San Jose bookend Mary’s figure. Peruvian paintings often feature colorful birds perched on the branches.
“The Virgin Mary Presenting a Miraculous Portrait of St. Dominic to a Dominican Friar” records the appearance of the portrait in Soriano Calabro, Italy, in the 1500s. The event was popular with Spanish Baroque artists. The Virgin Mary, crowned as the queen of heaven, holds the portrait, accompanied by St. Catherine of Alexandria and Mary Magdalene.
The popular veneration of San Cristobal (St. Christopher) that stemmed from medieval origins in the Old World quickly reappeared in the Spanish colonies of Latin America. From the 16th century onward, artists commonly placed the saint near church doors.
In “San Cristobal con Cristo Niño,” the radiant Christ child holds the globus cruciger (an ornamental orb with a cross representing Christ’s dominion over the world) in his left hand. His right hand forms a blessing gesture as he rides on the saint’s shoulder. Cristobal holds a palm frond staff while a guiding star shines through its leaves. Birds and cherubs surround the figures in an ornamental frame painted to look like wood.
The exhibition also features several rare, small works painted on copper. The metal was somewhat precious during the 17th and 18th centuries and usually found only in masters’ studios, Wright Schaefer said. Artists liked copper’s smooth “hand;” it could be gessoed, and the paint flowed freely across its surface.
“It was a more elegant, fluid painting experience, and it transported well,” he said.
Embellished in lace and brocade, the Mexican “Portrait of a Noble Woman,” circa 1700, shows a woman of stature, complete with coat of arms and a fan neatly folded in her left hand.
The anonymous artist shows evidence of training, Wright Schaefer said.
“It was either a boudoir or a memento painting,” he added. “I can count on one hand the number of portraits I’ve seen on copper. This is refined and elegant.”
Leonardo da Vinci, El Greco and Rembrandt all painted on copper. Its explosive growth as a practice dates to the discovery of the dazzling visual effects that could be achieved. Copper is plentiful in both Mexico and Peru.