Spanish Colonial Painting

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Spanish Colonial Painting


Hide Paintings. Although New Mexican mission churches were eminently simple in design and decoration, most churches were decorated with paintings and sculptures. In addition to wall frescoes, fragments of which have been detected by archeologists, most churches were adorned with animal-hide paintings, a syncretic Indo-Christian art form unique to New Mexico. Scholars have identified close to sixty extant colonial New Mexican hide paintings. These paintings, executed by Native Americans under the direction of Franciscan missionaries, employed natural pigments on tanned buffalo, elk, and deer skins. They combined Christian iconography with Native American form and technique. These portable paintings, which rolled up easily to transport, played a central role in missionary activities. Friars used them to instruct native catechumens and to adorn the simple churches. Recent research indicates that Spanish settlers also purchased hide paintings. Although the earliest extant hide paintings date from the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, the use of hide paintings in New Mexico can be documented in the early seventeenth century. Presumably, earlier examples were destroyed during the Pueblo Revolt of 1680.

Syncretic Origins. The hide paintings demonstrate a syncretic mix of indigenous and European styles and forms. Painting on animal skin appears to have both European and indigenous roots. During the Middle Ages, European manuscript illuminators painted on vellum, or animal hide. Native Americans throughout North America had an established tradition of buffalo hide painting. Indeed the natural pigments used on colonial hides were the same as those employed in Native American art. On the other hand, the subject matterthe Passion of Christ, the life of the Virgin Mary, and saintswas certainly European in origin. Indeed, artists often used European prints as inspiration for the compositions.

Christian Imagery. Indo-Christian hide paintings most frequently depicted the Virgin Mary, the crucifixion of Christ, and various saints. The Crucifixion of Christ is the central image of Christianity. It depicts the source of human salvation, the sacrifice of Christs life for the sins of humanity. Thus it is not surprising that the subject appears frequently in conversion art. The scene of the Crucifixion by an anonymous late-seventeenth- or early-eighteenth-century painter is typical. Christ on the cross is flanked by his mother, Mary, and St. John the Evangelist. Below, Mary Magdalene, the reformed prostitute and follower of Christ, outwardly expresses her grief as she clutches the crosss base. A small angel appears at Christs side, catching the saviours blood in a chalice. The composition seems loosely based on a 1616 print designed by the Flemish Baroque artist Peter Paul Rubens. Prints of the scene could be found in New Mexican colonial books and specifically in the Roman missal.

The Virgin Mary. The most frequent subject matter of extant New Mexican hides is that of the Virgin Mary, the mother of Christ. She is the major intercessor of Catholicism. Most commonly she appears as the Mexican Virgin of Guadalupe. This Virgin, also called La Guadalupana, appeared to a native convert to Catholicism, Juan Diego, on the hill of Tepeyac outside Mexico City on 8 December 1531. She instructed Juan Diego to inform the archbishop to build a church in her honor. Juan Diego dutifully complied and reported this request to the high-ranking archbishop, who refused to believe that Mary would appear to such a lowly person. To prove the veracity of the vision, the Virgin gave Juan Diego two signs: she filled his tilma, or clock, with Castillian roses and left imprinted on the garment her image. This is the image venerated in the Basilica of the Virgin of Guadalupe outside Mexico City today. New Mexican hide paintings closely copy the iconography of the original Mexican painting. Mary is rendered as a Mexican Madonna, with long, straight black hair and dark skin. Despite her indigenous aspects, however, her iconography derives from the Bible and from European artistic sources. The major literary source for her depiction is the Book of Revelation (12:11), which describes St. John the Evangelists vision of the apocalyptic woman clothed with the sun, with the moon at her feet, and stars crowning her head. Thus the Virgin of Guadalupe appears with the crescent moon at her feet, an ancient symbol of chastity, while the sun surrounds her in a hallow of light. Although today the Virgin of Guadalupe is recognized as the patron of indigenous peoples in the Americas, mestizos, and Chicanos in the United States, in the colonial period she was an emblem of creole Spanish pride. Her major following during the colonial period was among the Spanish settlers. As a result it is not surprising that her image appeared frequently in colonial New Mexico.

Images of Saints. The two most frequently represented saints in New Mexican hide paintings, and indeed in later New Mexican santero art of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, were St. Joseph and St. Anthony of Padua. St. Anthony was a friar saint famous for his preaching whose cult was promoted by the Franciscans. He was also the patron of women facing fertility problems or searching for husbands. In hide painting he usually appears as a single devotional figure wearing the Franciscan tonsure and habit, holding the infant Christ child in his arms. St. Joseph, the earthly husband of the Virgin Mary and foster father of Jesus, appears in a similar guise in hide paintings, usually holding the Christ child by the hand. In this and similar images St. Joseph holds his main attribute, the flowered staff, an emblem of his chastity, and clutches the hand of his foster son, Jesus. While artists intended these images to present emblems of perfect fatherhood, they also underscored the source of Josephs conversion to Christianity from his natal Judaism: it was his daily, physical contact with Jesus. Missionaries advocated this intimate approach to Catholicism to Native Americans. In fact, Joseph played an especially important role in the conversion of the indigenous populations of the Americas. Hernando Cortés brought Josephs image to Mexico in 1519. In 1555 Joseph became both patron of the Americas and of the conversion. Until 1746 he reigned as sole patron of the Spanish empire in the Americas, at which time the Church declared the Virgin of Guadalupe his copatroness. Evidence indicates that he was the most important saint throughout the Spanish Empire from the sixteenth to eighteenth centuries.


E. Elizabeth Boyd, Popular Arts of Spanish New Mexico (Santa Fe: Museum of New Mexico Press, 1974);

Bainbridge Bunting, Early Architecture in New Mexico (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1976);

Kelly Donahue-Wallace, Print Sources of New Mexican Colonial Hide Paintings, Anales del Instituto de Investigaciones Estéticas,68 (Spring 1996): 4664;

Mary Grizzard, Spanish Colonial Art and Architecture of Mexico and the U.S. Southwest (Lanham, Md.: University Press of America, 1986);

James Hall, Dictionary of Subjects and Symbols in Art (New York: Harper & Row, 1974);

Jeanette Favrot Peterson, The Virgin of Guadalupe: Symbol of Conquest or Liberation?, Art Journal, 51 (Winter 1992): 3947.

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Spanish Colonial Painting

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