ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Spanish colonial artists wove the sacred with the earthly, tapping deeply into the divine.
Peyton Wright Gallery’s 21st annual “The Art of Devotion” spans both continents and centuries as artists paired European aesthetics with imagery gleaned across the hemispheres. The works reflect a time of cultural and social conflict, the clash of perspectives forging cultures and merging into a distinctive artistic expression.
This year’s exhibition brings together colonial era works from Mexico, Central and South America, Europe and New Mexico. Guatemalan native artists produced a “Black Christ.” A naive Peruvian devotee created a 10-panel series on the life of the South American “Santa Rosa de Lima.” An artist from the famed Cuzco School painted a wounded “San Sebastian” bound to a tree against a tangle of local foliage.
Gallery owner John Schaefer Wright launched the annual show with about a dozen works and a few hundred visitors 21 years ago. Today the annual event draws art lovers in the thousands, many of them from Albuquerque. The current exhibition comprises hundreds of works.
“San Sebastian” stands as one of the stars of the show, Schaefer said. The confluence of two genres drove Cuzco’s dominance as the first artistic center in the New World: the artistic traditions of Europe with the desire of native and mestizo artists to express their own vision.
“The gestural elements of the paining anatomical position as well as the palette suggest strongly a European-trained master,” Schaefer said of the circa 1625 work.
The composition reveals stylistic evidence of both the detail of the Baroque and the elongated proportions of the Mannerist painters, he added.
“It may be one of the most hauntingly lovely Cuzco paintings we’ve had in the past 40 years,” Schaefer said.
The unknown artist placed the saint with his arms bound, his skin pierced by arrows, naked but for a draped loin cloth. A diminutive angel removes an arrow from his side. A tree sprouting local leaves looms behind the figures.
“You could easily mistake it for Spanish were it not for the foliage,” Schaefer said.
Sebastian was a Roman soldier who converted to Christianity, angering the emperor, who ordered him to be tied to a post and slain by arrows. He miraculously survived, after which the emperor ordered him stoned him to death.
The startling “Black Christ,” ca. 1750, shows a depth of color paired with pathos.
Before the coming of the conquistadors, the town of Esquipulas, located near Guatemala’s borders with El Salvador and the Honduras, was inhabited with about 300 people, mostly Mayans. The missionaries aggressively converted them to Catholicism. Near the beginning of the 16th century, the native people began asking for a crucifix to display their devotion and veneration.
An artist named Quirio Catahyo approached the church about their request and signed a contract. As word of mouth escalated, more and more pilgrims were drawn to the site. Devout worshippers burned candles and incense inside the hut, including an herbal incense that produced a heavy smoke with resin. The smoke and resin accumulated until the image turned as dark as the people, hence the name “El Cristo Negro.”
Others believe the artist deliberately darkened the skin to incorporate the Mayans into the Gospels. The painting shows the figure draped in an embroidered loincloth on a grape vine. A carved cross with the Virgen de la Dolorosa is to his left and the Apostle John stands to his right as the Christ Child sits at the base.
“The colors are rich and pure without being bright,” Schaefer said, “which suggests the mid-century date.”
A suite of 10 paintings illustrating the life and death of Santa Rosa de Lima (ca. 1675) crowns the exhibition with a naive reverence.
Born in Lima in 1586, Santa Rosa was the first canonized saint in the New World.
According to legend, she was named Isabel but became known as Rosa because a servant claimed to have seen her face transform into a blooming rose. As a young girl, she modeled her spiritual life on St. Catherine, who fasted three times a week and performed severe penances in secret. Told she was beautiful, Santa Rosa cut her hair and smeared pepper across her face to repel suitors. She helped the sick and the elderly and became known for her fine needlework. She became a recluse, leaving her room only to attend church.
Santa Rosa wanted to become a nun, but her father forbade it. Instead, she enrolled in the Third Order of St. Dominic while living at home. At 20, she adopted the habit of a tertiary. She donned a heavy crown of silver with small spikes on the inside to emulate the Crown of Thorns. She lived for 11 years with intervals of ecstasy, dying in 1617 at age 31. Pope Clement IX declared her a saint in 1667. According to the church, numerous miracles followed her death.
The paintings show not only the life of Santa Rosa, but the life in Peru in the late 1600s, in a storybook sequence. Roses flank her face at her birth; blood trickles down her back in secretive penance, her soul ascends into heaven in a beam of golden light at her deathbed.
Schaefer believes the 10 paintings may have been completed for a convent.
“It’s possible that they were painted to commemorate her canonization,” he said. “Certainly, the works were done with someone of modest talent, but a depth and absolute love for the subject,” he continued. “One has the sense that the person knew her on one level or another. I’m not aware of any other suite like this in existence.”