SANTA FE – Spanish colonial artists wove the sacred with the earthly, tapping deeply into the divine.
Peyton Wright Gallery’s “22nd Annual Art of Devotion” exhibition spans continents, oceans and centuries as artists paired European aesthetics with imagery from across hemispheres.
This year’s show gathers colonial-era works from the 17th to 19th century from Mexico, Central and South America. It features a rare 18th-century painting of “The Vision of Saint Eustace” from Puebla, Mexico, and the “Slaughter of the Innocents,” c. 1725, from Mexico City.
For the Spanish colonists, devotion was a part of daily life. The devout never cloistered artwork in churches, but kept it in private homes and chapels.
From about 1520 to 1820, European monastics sailed to the New World to evangelize the natives. They brought thousands of liturgical prints to help communicate the lives of the Catholic saints.
Local artists learned to reproduce European styles and motifs as they incorporated their own materials, methods and subjects. The results grew into an artistic hybrid that remains unique in history.
Gallery owner John Schaefer Wright launched the annual show with about a dozen works and a few hundred visitors 21 years ago. Today the event draws art lovers by the thousands, many of them from Albuquerque.
“The Vision of Saint Eustace” is perhaps the star of the show because of its rarity, Schaefer Wright said. The painting was recently sold to the Art Museum of South Texas in Corpus Christi.
Eustace was a Roman general named Placidus who served the emperor Trajan. While hunting a stag in Tivoli near Rome, Placidus envisioned a crucifix lodged between a stag’s antlers. He converted to Christianity immediately, was baptized and changed his name to Eustace, “well stable.”
Poor Eustace must have felt like Job. A series of calamities tested his faith. He lost his wealth, his servants died of a plague, a ship’s captain kidnapped his wife. A wolf stole his two sons. He lamented but remained faithful.
After God restored his life and reunited him with his family, the emperor Hadrian condemned Eustace, his wife and sons to be roasted to death inside a bronze statue of a bull in the year 118. He became known as the patron saint of hunters and firefighters and of anyone facing adversity.
An anonymous artist painted the stag behind a kneeling Eustace, complete with entangled crucifix, his hunting dogs and a spear at his feet. Images of Eustace are rare in Spanish colonial art, Schaefer-Wright said. The flat brushstrokes, realistic detail and luminous landscape show the influence of Flemish engravings.
“The Slaughter of the Innocents” refers to the Biblical story of infanticide by Herod the Great, the Roman-appointed king of the Jews. According to the Gospel of Matthew, Herod ordered the execution of all young male children in the vicinity of Bethlehem to avoid the loss of his throne to the newborn baby Jesus.
“This probably would have been a Mexican interpretation of the story,” Schaefer Wright said.
The anonymous artist produced a lush biblical landscape spilling over with grieving parents cradling dying or dead children. The Holy Family stands to the center right before a grotto.
“Our Lady of Carmel Saving Souls in Purgatory,” c. 1775, is attributed to Jose de Paez (1727-1790). The artist painted it in oils on copper.
“It’s very uncommon,” Schaefer Wright said. “Only the Old Masters painted on copper. Zinc and copper were both flexible metals.” The copper gave the pigments stability, he added.
“Patio del Palacio del Virrey del Peru en Lima,” c. 18th century, is an oil on linen and an unusual example of a nonliturgical colonial piece. The work of an anonymous painter from the Cuzco School, it came from a private Spanish collector.
The Peruvian Government Palace was built by Francisco Pizarro in 1535; he was the governor of New Castile. When the viceroyalty of Peru was established, the palace became his home. The image likely dates to the time of Viceroy Amat. The painting shows the palace courtyard with a carriage carrying a woman. Researchers speculate she could be Maria Michaela Villegas y Hurtado de Mendoza, a famous Peruvian actress and lover of the viceroy. Its anonymous artist was most likely a Peruvian native.
“Many of the New World paintings came back to the Old World,” Schaefer Wright said. “It’s obviously by someone with not much training, but that’s part of its charm.”