BY BRITTANY ERWIN
It was a bustling scene. Excited crowds of people had gathered along the processional route in the city center, which had been elaborately decorated for the occasion. Dressed in their finest wares, a group of civic officials and the religious elite solemnly proceeded along a designated route, with an audience so large that people spilled out of their homes to watch from the balconies. Amidst the excitement and air of festivity that permeated the space, these elite figures communicated a powerful message of status and authority. Their fine clothing and privileged positions in the hierarchical arrangement of the procession demanded attention from the observing masses, but all eyes were on her.
Dripping in gilded fabrics and adornments, the Virgin of Mercy was the uncontested focus of the occasion. Carefully positioned on horseback and shaded under a luxurious deep-red canopy, the statue of the Virgin regally presided over the town that had gathered to honor her in the Andes around 1730. To today’s viewer, this painting, titled Our Lady of Mercy, Called “The Pilgrim of Quito” (Figure 1), appears as a glittering testament to the luxury of Catholic worship in past eras.
While artworks like this one encapsulate the pageantry essential to Christian life in the Spanish Empire, they reveal far more about the Spanish world than just holy-day ceremony. From February 21 to 23, 2018, distinguished scholars from multiple disciplines gathered at the eleventh annual Lozano Long Conference. They discussed the ways in which studies of material objects can open doors of understanding to many aspects of past and present Latin American societies. Their works and conversations paved the way for the continued examination of the lives of objects and their roles in both creating and mediating the worlds of the Spanish Empire.
Such pageantry in Catholic worship was a well-established feature of life in the Spanish world. Centuries of Reconquest wars with the Muslim populations living on the Iberian Peninsula had cemented the bond between Spanish conceptions of national identity, Christianity, and civilization. The Christian triumph over infidels, whether Muslims or the indigenous populations of the new world, held important cultural weight, as is evident in its repeated allusions in artistic works.
In a scene dominated by this theatrical vision of heroic Christian figures, the Triumph of the Immaculate Conception (Figure 2) paints a vivid picture. Armed with wooden crosses and the word of God, the Christian protagonists lead a forceful army of the righteous over the trampled bodies of nonbelievers. Their horse-drawn carriage, which escorts the earthly heads of church under the supervision of the holy figures watching from the heavens above, embodies the physical triumph of the Christian worldview. Its impact resides within the palpable materiality of this momentous act.
Material objects play an important role in the portrayal of the Triumph. The Christian warriors’ personal regalia denoting their hierarchical standing, juxtaposed with the misery of the defeated populations, dominates the foreground. Against this busy scene, the abstract spiritual realm seems distant. With its similarly material theatricality, Defense of the Eucharist by Philip V of Spain (Figure 3) illustrates the resonance of that history in the early eighteenth century. In this caricature-like depiction of Moorish defeat at the hands of elegantly clad Christian noblemen, the victors present the eucharist as the gilded treasure of the Christian faith.
While this politico-religious history seeped into the artistic production of the Spanish Americas, so too did more mundane themes. Even works created with explicitly religious motivations help shed light on lived realities. In Our Lady of Bethlehem with a Donor (Figure 4), the Virgin’s intense stare creates an imposing image. Her attire, dominated by the luxurious shade of red reserved for holy objects and weighed down with precious metals, strengthens her presence, especially as an object of reverence. The unnamed donor at left sports a lace-trimmed shirt, but it is no rival for the luxury of the Virgin. She stands firm, positioned on an intricately decorated pedestal adorned with symmetrical arrangements of local flowers, glass dishes, and even a small fountain. Paintings like this one reveal the necessarily material nature of mediating between the earthly realm and the spiritual one. Cloth, metal, wooden, and glass materials common to everyday life give meaning to this depiction of devotion to the Virgin. The artworks facilitated Christian devotion by allowing Spanish American societies to imagine the divine.
The colonial imaginary relied on artistic renderings of the sacred, which placed holy figures in a material world that made sense to the viewer. In The Death of Saint Joseph (Figure 5), Joseph, the earthly father of Christ and a central figure in Christian devotion, lies on his deathbed surrounded by angels and the Virgin Mary. The solemnity of the occasion contrasts with the remarkably mundane scene at the foot of his bed. In this depiction of the final moments of Saint Joseph’s life on earth, scenes of daily life predominate. The Virgin Mary had prepared medicine with a mortar and pestle and then served it in ceramic dishes. These solemn activities occur in an intimate bedroom setting against the backdrop of a small orchestra of angel musicians. Taken together, these features create a sense of realism in the painting. There is a comingling of objects used in everyday life and the sublime religious authority embodied by Mary, Joseph, and the angels. As a result, the earthly and the divine appear together, giving real-world meaning to this episode of the Christian narrative.
The spiritual-material juxtaposition was an important guiding force for the continuous interaction of these realms in Spanish American life. Often, religious objects moved around with their worshippers in the form of ceremonial statues or printed devotional materials. At other times, the devotees came to the object. Pilgrimages had a powerful impact on the rhythms of daily life. Pilgrims intermixed miles of travel with ritualized prayers, which culminated in the procession to the object after arrival at the pilgrimage site. Our Lady of Cocharcas (Figure 6) encapsulates this interaction of life and religion.
In the painting, an intricately adorned Virgin presides over the scene in her dress of gold-embroidered and red botanical designs, garnished with substantial strands of pearls. Balanced arrangements of flowers and wave-like carvings embellish the baldachin on which she stands. As an embodiment of the power and opulence of the Christian faith, she dominates. However, the activity of the painting happens apart from her stoic figure. Clergymen and other religious figures, identifiable by their dark, formal clothing, assist many of the locals in prayer, while various others eat, hunt, and laugh together. Amidst this scene, devotion to the Virgin remains the central focus. Her presence had inspired both the solemn journey to the church housing her image, and all the mundane interactions that occurred along the way.
Artistic production during the colonial period communicated with viewers through the very material objects that gave meaning to their daily lives. The everyday social interactions, commodity exchanges, and consumption patterns of Spanish American societies also fundamentally figured into contemporary conceptions of the spiritual realm. Understanding the significance of the many objects that feature in these artworks helps modern interpreters glimpse the complexities, overlaps, and relationships that they embodied in contemporary colonial life.
Brittany Erwin is a PhD student in the Department of History at The University of Texas at Austin. Her research focuses on the regularized processes that the Spanish monarchy used to foster reciprocity with its subjects and manage its empire in the Americas during the late-colonial period, including public ceremonies.
The 2018 Lozano Long Conference, “Create, Consume, Collect: The Lives of Colonial Latin American Artifacts,” was co-sponsored by LLILAS Benson Latin American Studies and Collections and the Blanton Museum of Art, and organized by Susan Deans-Smith, associate professor in the Department of History, and Rosario I. Granados, Carl & Marilynn Thoma associate curator of Spanish Colonial Art at the Blanton.