The Prado is presenting a survey of the artistic culture of Latin America which reached Spain in the Early Modern age

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The Prado is presenting a survey of the artistic culture of Latin America which reached Spain in the Early Modern age
Image of the exhibition galleries. Photo © Museo Nacional del Prado.

MADRID.- According to Javier Solana, President of the Royal Board of Trustees of the Museo Nacional del Prado: “This is a landmark exhibition for the Museo del Prado given its aim of analysing an entire artistic culture, in this case that of Early Modern Latin America, as an indissoluble part of Spain’s national historical narrative.”

The exhibition is curated by Rafael López Guzmán, senior professor at the Universidad de Granada, with the assistance of Jaime Cuadriello and Pablo F. Amador, members of the Instituto de Investigaciones Estéticas of the UNAM in Mexico City, and with the support of Fundación AXA. A notable effort has been made to include works that were dispersed across all of Spain’s regions, many of them now loaned from the churches and religious houses which they originally entered centuries ago. There has also been an impressive restoration campaign encompassing 26 works: paintings, sculptures and examples of the decorative arts. According to Miguel Falomir, Director of the Museo Nacional del Prado: “An exhibition of this kind can only happen through a major collective effort. I would therefore like to thank all those who have made it possible, particularly the large number of lenders. I would like to express my special thanks to Fundación AXA, which has once again reaffirmed its commitment by sponsoring an exhibition which, for the Museum, means much more than that.”

Return Journey. Art of the Americas in Spain includes 107 works, of which 95 are now housed in cultural institutions, religious spaces and collections across Spain (25 provinces), plus 3 international lenders. These are objects of enormous interest for their technical and aesthetic merits, symbolic content and social functions and they are interpreted in the exhibition in all their complexity rather than as mere isolated curiosities, with a particular focus on the reasons for their arrival from Latin America (Mexico, Peru, Ecuador, Bolivia, Guatemala, Colombia and Cuba) in the Early Modern age. For Josep Alfonso, Director General of Fundación AXA, this is a praiseworthy initiative in which “once again and as with previous cutting-edge cultural initiatives, Fundación AXA is collaborating in order help to ensure that the project becomes a reality.”

The exhibition is presented as four principal sections with the first gallery articulated in symbolic terms around the concept of “the plaza”, a fundamental element in Latin American city planning. This provides the context for the first two, interconnected sections, entitled “Geography, conquest and society” and “Images and cults, away and back”, as it was in the plaza that the design of the city, its most important buildings, its peoples, markets and church all came together, embodying the complex process of cultural evangelising and hybridisation.

In the second gallery the articulating concept is the idea of the conventual atrium: places of religious and educational interaction in Latin America. It provides the perfect context for a dialogue between the itinerant objects that made up domestic and ecclesiastical treasures, displayed in the section “Art crossings”, and those characteristic of indigenous identity, presented with the heading “Legacy of the New World”, the latter focusing on the material nature of the objects through the new subjects and techniques that arrive from both Europe and Asia.

The tornaviaje or return journey that lends its name to this exhibition is the common thread that guides visitors through this survey of the cultural contributions from the New World that found their way into Spain and, by extension, into Europe. The main purpose of the show is to draw attention to the large number of artworks from the Americas that are housed in Spanish cultural institutions, religious spaces, and collections. These pieces, which arrived in different historical periods, have become part of Spain’s current heritage, even when it is not always possible to identify the reasons for their presence.

The show provides an insight into the culture of the American viceroyalties, taking into account the symbolic and iconographic meanings of the pieces as well as the values attributed to them by the societies that received them.

Spanish America is considered here as a cultural area without legal-political boundaries as far as creation is concerned, though distinctions are drawn with respect to the original interpretation of the works. Instead of fragmenting cultural history, the exhibition sets out to help understand and analyse it by focusing on the details of each piece – sometimes providing abundant textual information – and its role in the process of building art history.

Geography, Conquest, and Society

Learning about and occupying America was a slow process involving dramatic episodes of conquest. It gave rise to a hybrid culture that brought the nature and rich resources of the new territories and their native peoples into contact with conquistadors and settlers from Spain, slaves, and a small Asian population. Together they shaped a new model of culture and appreciation that is visible in documents, paintings, and objects executed in different techniques and with diverse artistic and symbolic qualities.

These concepts are illustrated through geography, representations of towns and cities, spaces of interaction such as squares and marketplaces, and people of varying status – some anonymous and others identified – whose portraits tell us of their place in society.

Territory and Conquest

Old maps of the American territories provide an introduction to the reasons behind the conquest – which were none other than to catechise the native peoples and make use of the resources of the land. The works on display illustrate early religiosity and the exploitation of natural wealth. A paradigmatic case is the extraction of silver in major mining centres like Potosí.

The pursuit of these aims triggered clashes that forced the natives to modify their models of coexistence. The stories deriving from these events were turned into accounts that justified the conflicts and came to be depicted and endowed with symbolic meanings, as can be seen in the magnificent Portrait of Moctezuma. Also worthy of note are the differences between the various indigenous cultures, who gradually became part of the new viceregal structure – in some cases through privileges and agreements.

Peoples of the Americas

In each territory the natives coexisted alongside migrants from other parts of the world, giving shape to a hybrid society that tended to be expressed through representations of ethnic groups with their characteristic traits and activities alongside portraits of prominent people in the posts they held. The presence of these works in Spain stemmed from the desire to show what the New World was like or to make new statuses attained there known to Spanish society.

Portraits of high-ranking politicians and clergy as well as of nobles and family groups provide a glimpse of that society. In addition, casta paintings depict the possible racial combinations, while the magnificent picture The Three Mulattos of Esmeraldas reflects the agreement reached by the Audiencia of Quito and the communities living in the coastal area of modern-day Ecuador, where indigenous inhabitants had mixed with Africans fleeing from slavery.

Market and City

American territory was appropriated by designing cities that made it possible to bring the population under control in religious as well as political and economic aspects. Squares and markets were the places where exchanges took place, but also where the various social groups interacted. This subsection shows pictures of cities together with others of people who took their wares to the marketplaces, where the local produce is proudly displayed.

Attempts were also made at gaining a comprehensive understanding of the nature, geography, flora and fauna, and peoples of the Americas. In the case of Peru, these concerns are summed up thoroughly in Picture of the Natural, Civil, and Geographical History of the Kingdom of Peru, a sort of eighteenth-century cabinet of scientific curiosities.

Images and Cults, Away and Back

In the second half of the seventeenth century ‘fine paintings’ (as they are listed in inventories) began to be sent from America to religious communities and stately homes in Spain. They were fond gifts or devotional propaganda, but also objects of artistic worth in their own right.

These canvases ended up in particular in northern Spain and Andalusia, the places of origin of hundreds of emigrants who had made fortunes, or been ennobled, on the other side of the Atlantic. The pictures came mostly from Lima and Mexico. In fact, the workshops of Mexico City exported almost a quarter of their output, supplying a trade route that went from Central America and the Caribbean to the Canary Islands and mainland Spain. The workshops of Quito and Cuzco likewise catered to consumers throughout the provinces of the southern cone.

The variety of formats and genres of these canvases that travelled back and forth attests to the technical development achieved by American painting as well as its diversity and specificity.

A Devotional Atlas between the Old and New Worlds

Sacred images made up a ‘zodiac’ or planetary atlas in each Christian kingdom. The respective Marian shrines were thus regarded as ‘houses’ that punctuated the passage of time and established a common space for the monarchy’s various dominions. It is therefore no coincidence that American cults, represented by verae effigies or faithful copies of devotional images, which connected families on both sides of the ocean, should have enjoyed a special place in Spanish altarpieces and sacristies.

The cults that arrived from Spain were captured by painters of the New World and some of these pictures were even sent back among the possessions of returnees and exhibited in their places of origin, as a form of tribute. The return flow back to the Iberian Peninsula imbued these devotional images with new symbolic meanings and points to a widespread religiosity and a shared visual language that was not, however, lacking in originality and local flavour.

Allegories of the Immaculate Conception

Defence of the mystery of Mary’s Immaculate Conception, a legacy of the former Crown of Aragón, was almost a matter of state for the Habsburg monarchy and a vehicle of expression and communication for the local and corporative identities of the Americas.

The allegorical works on view show that, unsurprisingly, as a result of this royal promotion, defence of the cause was taken up by the families of the viceroys of Peru and New Spain – the Count of Lemos and the Duke of Alburquerque, respectively. Variant iconographies include the series of harquebusier angels, bearers of the attributes of Marian virtues.

Allegories of the Eucharist

The dogma of the transubstantiation of the Eucharist was also defended by the Spanish monarchy, as can be seen in paintings where the king himself, under siege from Protestants and Turks, is shown holding the Eucharistic monstrance. Each territory’s devotions also played a part in this commitment. A significant example is the painting of the co-patrons of Navarre, Saint Fermin and Saint Francis Xavier, on either side of a monstrance that stands in iconographically for the kingdom’s coat of arms.

Native Apelles

American painters were aware of their technical quality and mastery of alternative themes and iconographies. In consequence, they proudly asserted the nobility of their art and its place of production and, of course, their status in society, and although the viceregal authorities always acknowledged painting to be a liberal art, they did not establish an academic system until the eighteenth century.

The list of great American artists begins with the first painters who emigrated to the New World in the second half of the sixteenth century, such as Angelino Medoro. The influence of the Spanish Golden Age – and its connections with Flanders and Italy – is found in native artists, such as Cristóbal de Villalpando, José de Ibarra, Miguel Cabrera, and Juan Patricio Morlete, who were highly regarded by emigrant patrons. They exported their refined paintings, which enjoyed a favourable reception and became sought after outside New Spain.

The Portable Paintbrush

Copper plates fetched high market prices on account of the material itself and the hours of work that went into making them suitable as painting supports. Drawing on a Flemish tradition that was well known in America, artists employed painstaking brushwork with a polished finish to turn them into exquisite objects. In addition, they could be transported more easily and safely than canvases, which needed to be rolled up, and became ideal gifts for collecting.

Large plates were particularly appreciated as precious objects, such as the two on view here, which are linked to nostalgia for the extinct Society of Jesus. The value of these paintings could also be enhanced by fitting them with a wrought silver frame, like that of the Virgin of Guadalupe which hangs in pride of place above the archbishop’s seat in the chapter house of Santiago de Compostela cathedral.

Art Crossings

The galleons that sailed back from the Americas carried in their holds numerous objects bound for a variety of places ranging from noble residences to middle-class homes, and from great cathedrals and Marian shrines to the humblest of rural parish churches.

The Indianos, Spanish emigrants who returned rich from the New World, provide the missing link between the distant lands from which these objects originated and the melting pot of Spanish towns and cities where they are now preserved. Homes and chapels became filled with exotic furniture and sumptuous objects that met two main purposes: to showcase the wonders of the American continent and to attest to their patrons’ accomplishments.

Indiano Effects

The selection of furniture on display here illustrates the hybridisation that took place between the three cultures that converged in the Americas: Western European, Native American, and Asian.

The hybrid origin of these pieces and their nature as objects designed to be utilised is evidenced by certain distinguishing features, which are illustrated in the paintings shown alongside them, where textiles and jewellery denote a specific social status and geographical area. Similarly, pieces like the large Tonalá ware jar and the lacquered furniture clearly show the influence of Oriental models that found their way into America and were subsequently combined with pre-Hispanic manufacturing techniques and classical iconographies.

Silver from the Indies: Piety and Social Statement

The abundant shipments of silver that crossed the Atlantic during the viceregal period were not limited to ingots and coins but also included wrought silver objects whose artistic and cultural values make them much more interesting. Used in secular and ecclesiastical environments, these objects of various types – some of them novel – were adapted to American customs and activities. A good example is the mancerina, designed for drinking chocolate.

These pieces were commissioned by prominent people as a means of drawing attention in their places of origin to the social prestige they had attained overseas and of promoting their favoured devotional practices. An example is the impressive canvas of the Virgin of Guadalupe sent by José de Aguilar to the prioress of the convent of the Corpus Christi in Granada. It was shipped together with a large group of wrought silver items and many crates of chocolate and vanilla, which were sold to fund the construction of the religious house.

Legacy of the New World

This section complements the previous perspectives by exploring the material dimension of the artworks on show here. The pieces on display were selected on the basis of their materials and techniques and express a variety of intentions. As well as highlighting the distinguishing features of Spanish-American artworks, the section offers additional interpretations for a more plural art history.

The idea is to show how these distinctive traits reflect the lingering presence of the pre-Hispanic past and its adaptation and development; the influence of the long viceregal period with its own realities and particular geographical and artistic features; and how these artworks were received on this side of the Atlantic. To do so the pieces have been divided into two subsections, guided by the words written in the eighteenth century by Fray Matías de Escobar in Americana Thebaida, where he stated that the local art ‘displayed Spanish forms dressed in American clothing’.

Spanish Forms...

The works on show could be mistaken for Spanish or European pieces on account of their aesthetic appearance, their ‘Spanish forms’; however, a thorough analysis and study of their materiality (the materials and techniques used to craft them) reveals their American origin and prompts subtle reflections. These objects speak of an initial coexistence, an adaptation of a pre-existing culture to one that was imposed. Viewed in conjunction, without losing sight of their respective meanings, both realities offer myriad explanations of the new Hispanic world.

Materials such as the soft pith of the legendary corn stalk began to give shape to new examples of Christian figurative art, essential images in evangelisation efforts. In addition, sumptuous materials and their much-praised creation processes – feather art, for instance – came to be appreciated from new perspectives that tend to receive little attention, such as the importance of their reflections or sparkles, unique properties that, once again, are characteristic of American art.

...American Clothing

In these works the material dimension is not just visible but is an evident and proud reflection of their American identity. Some, such as the enconchados (panel paintings with mother-of-pearl inlay), illustrate how the artists of New Spain assimilated and developed Asian techniques. Others, such as the exotic and highly praised feather art, display their pre-Hispanic roots; their iconographies were reformulated after the conquest and over time they evolved technically, though without losing their essence.

This section also includes pieces where the materiality of the objects is associated with specific places or artists. Recalling today’s ‘appellations of origin’, there are many documentary references to the diversity and specialisation of particular production centres and artists. Others lead us to reconsider the idea that the artist sought to create a unique work. And further possible readings relate to the symbolic significance and effects of the material dimension.

The Virgin and her Crocodile, the ‘Material Shift’

An image of the Virgin of Sorrows commissioned in 1741 by merchant Marcos de Torres in Mexico City and a stuffed crocodile that formerly hung in her chapel on the island of Tenerife are an illustrative example of the new interpretations we wish to offer visitors of the idea of the return journey, which go beyond the artistic sphere and explore the cultural legacy of the New World. The crocodile recalls the perils of the new lands but also the success of the man who defeated it with the Virgin’s intercession, and over time it came to be regarded as an allegory of America and even a protector of Mary. As the illustration from Maccio’s Emblems points out, ‘the evil one scares the evil one’. And there are additional interpretations of her chapel as a unique New World stronghold.

The Large Processional Cross: Spanish-American Opulence, Cuban Materiality

This large processional cross was sent in 1756 by the Canary-born dean of Havana cathedral, Nicolás Estévez Borges, to the Franciscan friary founded by ancestors of his in his village of birth. Not only is it an evident example of the same ‘sincere devotion and desire for vainglory’ that led to the arrival of many of the works on view, but its material dimension provides several complementary readings. It is notable for its weight (forty-seven kilograms) and origin – it was executed by an Aragonese silversmith who emigrated to the island – as well as for the particular type of filigree combining openwork with decoration based on several intertwined wires, a technique that distinguishes it from other American products.

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