Venetian Red Notebook: The Virgin of the Andes
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.
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, 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.
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.
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 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.