Venetian Red Notebook: The Virgin of the Andes

by Christine Cariati

Virgin of the Assumption, attributed to the Callao school, c. 1750
Oil and gilding on canvas
Collection of Elizabeth K. Fonseca

In 18th-century viceregal Bolivia and Peru there was a melding of cultures that produced many beautiful paintings, textiles and decorative objects. After the Spanish conquest of the Inca Empire in 1532, the indigenous people were forced to recognize the King of Spain as their ruler and to accept the teachings of Christianity. The Spanish attempted to root out and destroy the Pre-Columbian gods and idols of the indigenous people of the region, but the artists of Cuzco created a new and powerful synthesis of pre-Hispanic and Christian iconography. The art of the Colonial Andes, rooted in brutal conquest and the product of the convergence of two distinct cultures, nevertheless produced a treasure of vital, energetic and beautiful paintings that possess a deep visual and spiritual resonance.

Altar frontal, detail, Chapel of the Holy Family, Cathedral of Cuzco, c. 1745

Original Sin, tapestry, 17th century
Private collection

Pre-Columbian craftsmen, using innovative and masterful techniques, had produced a wealth of beautiful objects forged from precious metals and they also made intricate woven textiles. Both of these artistic traditions flourished in new and diverse forms in the colonial era.

The Virgin of the Mountain, Bolivia, 18th century
Oil on canvas

The Virgin of the Mountain, above, is an interesting example of the merging of Pre-Columbian and Christian iconography. During this period, the Virgin Mary was often represented as the Pachamama, or Earth Mother. Here she is portrayed as part of the Cerro de Potosi, also known as the Cerro Rico (Rich Mountain) because it is the richest source of silver in the Western Hemisphere. The Augustinian friar Alonso Ramos Gavilán, in one of his theological meditations, wrote that Christ “is a rock without feet, taken from the divine mountain that is Mary.” It is fitting that the Virgin is painted as this mountain, since the indigenous people worshipped the Cerro de Potosi as a queen. In the painting, historical figures intermingle with Christian iconography and pre-Hispanic gods.

Virgin of the Rosary of Guápulo, Cuzco, c.1680
Oil on canvas, Metropolitan Museum of Art

Another pyramid shaped Madonna, linking the Pachamama with the Virgin Mary. This genre of painting were portraits of the carved, three-dimensional poly-chromed wood statues that were in every church. These statues were revered, bedecked with jewels and intricate garments and believed to have miraculous powers which were transferred to the painted images.

Painting of a Statue of the Virgin of Candlemas
Cuzco school, early to mid-18th century
Oil on canvas, Private collection

The Virgin of Candlemas is celebrated on the feasts of Christ’s Presentation in the Temple and the Purification of the Virgin. A blessing is offered for the candles that represent Christ as a “light for revelation to the Gentiles.” The donors depicted at the bottom sides of the painting are dressed in a combination of indigenous and Spanish clothing and the Inca crown, the mascaypacha, is laid at the feet of the Virgin Mary on a silver plate.

The Virgin of the Rosary of Pomata, Cuzco c. 1700-30
Oil on canvas, Museo Pedro de Osma, Lima, Peru

The Virgin of the Rosary of Pomata was one of the most popular of the Andean Madonnas and many copies of the original painting were commissioned. This painting, likely from the Cuzco school, is beautifully painted with stunning detail. The feathers and plumes on the Virgin’s crown and on the helmets of the angels are an example of how the symbolic use of feathers, a common element in the Christian art of the Baroque and the indigenous art of Cuzco, were synthesized in paintings of that era.

Niño Jesús de Huanca, 18th century
Oil on canvas, present location unknown

Wider Connections:
The Colonial Andes: Tapestries and Silverwork, 1530-1830
The Virgin of the Andes: Art and Ritual in Colonial Cuzco
Art of Colonial Latin America

9 Responses to “Venetian Red Notebook: The Virgin of the Andes”

  1. Peggy Flores Says:

    Christine, thank you for this insight to the “Virgin of the Andes.” With so much to extract on the subject, the images and facts laid out here leave you with a lasting impression of the subject matter. It’s fascinating to see which cultures worldwide, adopted the Virgin as synonymous with Mother Earth. Was also wondering if you meant the “Callao” school, as opposed to “Colloa”. Look forward to Venetian Red, 2010.

    • Christine Cariati Says:

      Peggy, Thank you for your comment. I wanted to give some background but also leave room for those stunning images to speak for themselves. Anything you have to add to further that end will be much appreciated. And yes, I did mean to write Callao, one of those 3am typos, thanks for catching it.
      We’re excited about exploring more topics of interest in 2010, we appreciate your readership and input.

  2. How fascinating! I knew that the Virgin of Guadalupe was linked to pre-Colombian religions traditions but I hadn’t thought about the art of Peru. I find the fusion of the cultures quite beautiful. Alas the Spanish were not kinder and gentler rulers, the Virgin represented here is a much kinder and gentler image that that of any of the Aztec goddesses. I am sorry to say that I don’t know much about female goddesses from South America but the synthesis presented here is lovely.

  3. Astonishing images and I am certain that they come from more astonishing architecture. Best wishes for the new year ahead.

  4. There’s a very nice post up here about the Virgin of Guadalupe – another goddess figure that harkens back to pre-Colombian times:

  5. Carol Damian Says:

    Hello – interesting – I am the author of THE VIRGIN OF THE ANDES – a much more complete study for those who wish to reference this subject further. Carol Damian

  6. ¡Interesantísimo y de hermoso diseño! Muchas gracias Andrea

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