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NM History Museum unveils rare colonial paintings of Mary

SANTA FE – Before the santeros created endless iterations of Mary, New World artists produced a stream of religious art snaking its way up the Camino Real.

Mary intoxicated the nucleus of Spanish colonial spiritual beliefs for more than three centuries in a hybrid of culture, geography and religion.

“The Virgin of the Immaculate Conception” by Melchor Pérez Holguín of Potosi, Bolivia, dates from the first quarter of the 18th century. (Courtesy of Blair Clark)

“The Virgin of the Immaculate Conception” by Melchor Pérez Holguín of Potosi, Bolivia, dates from the first quarter of the 18th century. (Courtesy of Blair Clark)

New World paintings placed Mary in landscapes populated by local plants, animals and people native to South America and Mexico. The artists rooted these works in European painting traditions through prints, synthesizing the old with the new.

Opening at the New Mexico History Museum today, “Painting the Divine: Images of Mary in the New World” gathers about 35 rare 17th-18th-century colonial paintings collected and donated by Charles W. Collier, a cultural attaché to Bolivia, and his wife Nina Perera Collier.

The collection has never been exhibited in either the Palace of the Governors or the New Mexico History Museum. The unique images reveal religion unifying colonists separated by sweeping geographical distances.

Driven by the ecclesiastical tsunami of 1960s-era urban renewal, mission churches throughout the Americas underwent drastic renovations, often casting off centuries-old artwork.

At the time, museums, galleries and art historians paid little attention to this work, considered the stepchild of European superiority. Those that survived often did so beneath cakes of soot, grime and the spatterings of candle wax.

Fearing the loss of the work they loved, as well as historical and cultural touchstones, the Colliers began buying the pieces that eventually anchored the spine of the International Institute of Iberian Colonial Art, based at their Los Luceros estate in northern New Mexico. The institute donated 70 paintings and three sculptures to the New Mexico History Museum in 2005.

“Our Lady of the Rosary” is an oil on canvas done by an unidentified artist in Mexico in the 18th century. (Courtesy of Blair Clark)

“Our Lady of the Rosary” is an oil on canvas done by an unidentified artist in Mexico in the 18th century. (Courtesy of Blair Clark)

Both church and secular artwork depicted the events of Mary’s life: her immaculate conception, the nativity and the flight into Egypt. Paintings and sculpture functioned as both devotional objects and missionary teaching tools.

“Painting the Divine” features works from Spain’s three colonial capitals: Cuzco, Peru, Mexico City and Santa Fe. European paintings crossed the ocean to Mexico, where another school of religious art developed. Those paintings traveled to Peru and eventually New Mexico, where local artists recreated them to adorn both mission churches and the private homes of the wealthy.

Once here, they inspired local artists lacking canvas and oils to use the materials available in their own environment. These developed into an entirely new category of artists – the santeros, whose work thrives throughout the Southwest today. Restlessly opportunistic, they represented an early form of multiculturalism.

“Our Lady of the Lote Tree,” 1716, by Melchor Peréz Holguín (Bolivia) hails from a Spanish story about a farmer plowing his field in 1366. His oxen team stopped at a lote tree (similar to the cyprus) and knelt before it. The farmer pulled the animals up, but they kneeled once more. He discovered a tiny figure of the Virgin Mary beneath the tree. He took it home; by morning it had disappeared.

He returned to the tree to find it again. Town council members thought he was mad, but followed him into the fields. The image reappeared, surrounded by angels. The men decided to build a hermitage and the sculpted image became the patron saint of the town of Castellón de la Plana.

Holguín’s painted version shows the Virgin dressed in rich fabrics festooned with pearls, jewels and gold against a background of nearly psychedelic red. The backdrop could represent either wood grain or the sheen and shadows of velvet, exhibition curator Josef Díaz said.

“This is one of our stars,” he said.

The work is a so-called “sculpture painting” done after the original three-dimensional piece, a practice originating in Spain. The painting was likely commissioned by someone with family roots in Castellón de la Plana, Díaz said. Holguín was considered the master painter of his time, suggesting the emigrant had flourished in Bolivia’s signature silver mines, he added.

The Peruvian “Rest on the Flight into Egypt,” c. mid-1700s, (unidentified artist) was largely based on an engraving used several times by Cuzco artists. The enchanted forest gives way to mountains and a pink-tinged sky. An artist “completed” the composition by adding a second Holy Family to the middle distance, likely at the behest of the patron, Díaz said.

The style and figure types are different enough to be the hand of a second artist. The two “peacocks” in the center most likely represent oscillating turkeys, Díaz added. The trees hold parrots and stylized grapes, oranges and figs.

The 18th-century “Our Lady of the Rosary” (unidentified artist, Mexico) is another “statue painting” likely painted from a wooden sculpture. Dressed in elaborate robes of brocade, silk or embroidered textiles, it traces the evolution of commerce through China silks brought in by Manila galleons.

Some of the textiles include lace from Flanders and fine silks from the Philippines. The artist embellished this version with ropes of pearls and gold. The Christ child holds a glass globe symbolizing the world.

“Our Lady of the Apocalypse” dates from the 18th century. It was painted in Mexico by an unknown artist. (Courtesy of Blair Clark)

“Our Lady of the Apocalypse” dates from the 18th century. It was painted in Mexico by an unknown artist. (Courtesy of Blair Clark)

Viewers can practically feel the velvety caress of Mary’s robe in the 18th-century “Our Lady of the Apocalypse” (unidentified artists, possibly Mexico). The figure unveils a pair of eagle’s wings to whisk her to heaven.

The artist inscribed an enormous seven-headed dragon with each of the seven deadly sins. John the Evangelist, author of the Book of Revelation, sits at the lower right with a scroll of words reading “And there appeared a great wonder in heaven.”

Faith drove these artists to create these paintings, Díaz said. Although many struggled to survive in a foreign land, they added a glimpse of the New World in the form of Native people, mountains and landscapes incorporating a European enchantment of the baroque style. Yet the canvases explode with decorative detail originating on this side of the ocean.

The museum conserved 12 of the paintings. A video created by New Mexico Highlands University students shows Denver-based art conservator Cynthia Lawrence cleaning, repairing and stabilizing the canvases. Loans of paintings from St. Anthony’s Catholic Church in Pecos and Our Lady of Belen Catholic Church round out the exhibition.

Díaz paired these works with invigorating modern interpretations by New Mexico artists such as Ray Martin Abeyta, Arthur López, Charlie Carrillo, Ramón José López and others.

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