Spanish colonial art and architecture

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Spanish colonial art and architecture, fl. 16th–early 19th cent., the artistic production of Spain's colonies in the New World. These works followed the historical development of styles previously established in Spain, but developed original features in different regions. The main centers were in Peru and Mexico, where there were skilled native artisans and relatively strong political organization. The style, with its unique mix of Spanish and indigenous elements, flourished until the last quarter of the 18th cent. when a current of neoclassicism invaded Latin America along with the official academies, and the great days of Spanish colonial architecture were over.

Colonial Architecture in Central America

The earliest buildings, constructed of impermanent materials, have disappeared, but by the end of the 16th cent. durable monumental architecture had been achieved. Most of the buildings of this time, including the cathedrals, were built for military purposes and were consequently massive and plain. This was a period of transition from Spanish Gothic to Spanish Renaissance, with many buildings reminiscent of the plateresque style, with contrasting bare walls and ornamental doorways, and others of the austerity of the Escorial.

Although elaborate and intricate ornamentation was often employed, particularly in later times, a strong strain of simple, solid construction ran through the colonial period, as exemplified in the Spanish missions of California and the 18th-century Jesuit missions of Paraguay. The earliest cathedral in the New World, in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic (1512–41), has a plateresque portal on the west facade. In 16th-century Mexico the great builders were the Augustinian, Franciscan, and Dominican monastic orders. They introduced the open chapel, as in the monastery of San Francisco Tlalmanalco, which was built with only three walls in order to speed construction and to accommodate more people. The cathedrals of Puebla, Mérida, and Guadalajara were also begun in this period.

During most of the 17th and 18th cent. the baroque style held sway, and in the 18th cent. the sumptuous Churrigueresque ornamentation (see under Churriguera) of Spain was exported to the colonies. In addition to employing the large forms and curving lines of the traditional European baroque, Spanish colonial buildings maintained the contrast between decorated and plain surfaces of the earlier period. A more conservative trend was manifested in Colombia, where churches and public buildings were simple and severe.

Baroque features, combined with the inventiveness of native artisans, reached a climax in the cathedral in Mexico City. It has been called ultrabaroque because of its strong light-and-shade patterns, richly carved columns and entablatures, and violent alternations of curves and angles. In the late 1960s much of the cathedral was damaged by fire and had to undergo restoration. In the Puebla region glazed tiles were sometimes placed on the whole facade of a building, as in the Church of San Francisco Acatepec. Central American buildings were generally provincial versions of the Mexican, but in Guatemala structures were lower and of heavier proportions as a protection against earthquakes.

Colonial Art in Central America

Colonial artists, many of them indigenous people, devoted themselves principally to the depiction of religious subjects from the New Testament. Native sculptors, notably in Mexico, Guatemala, and Peru, but also in the Jesuit missions of Paraguay, developed a powerful folk art; polychromed wood, terra-cotta, and bas-relief work in the walls and columns of churches were widely used media. A favorite subject of sculptures was the agony of Jesus; these figures, often given native features, are characterized by extraordinary pathos. In painting, the conceptions were frequently original and charged with remarkable intensity and piety. By 1600 numerous European artists had emigrated to the New World and contributed their talents, but the indigenous people, who had excelled at wall painting, books, and mosaics before the conquest, were chiefly responsible for giving colonial art its unique flavor. (For the history of painting and sculpture in Middle America, see Mexican art and architecture).

Colonial Arts in the Andes

In the Andean region Flemish and Italian influences are evident in the great painting centers of Bogotá and Quito, but Cuzco was the main center of pictorial productivity, and here the contribution of the native artist was of paramount importance. Native strains were also noticeable in the design of broadsides and aleluyas of the 18th and 19th cent. This art form, often called folk lithography, was common in Mexico and Venezuela and was often political in nature.

Andean Architecture

In the architecture of the Andean region, as in Mexico, there was richness and inventiveness, but with some significant variations. One of the most important 16th-century buildings was the Church of San Francisco in Quito, Ecuador, in which Spanish and Italian styles were blended. In Peru architects preferred heavier and more massive forms. Huge curving forms projected over doors and windows in many buildings of Lima. Columns in Mexico were freely carved with great fantasy; in Peru they were heavy and often spiral. Peruvian wall surfaces were divided into a series of large compartments rather than covered with shallow carving, as were those of Mexico.

The Church of San Agustín (1720), with a statue in the central niche dominating the whole facade, illustrates a distinctive type developed in Lima. In S Peru and in Bolivia native influence in ornamentation, in both technique and representation, pervaded the basic European architectural forms. On the facade of the Church of San Lorenzo (1728–44) in Potosí, richly decorated native figures function as caryatids or spiral columns.


See G. Kubler and M. Soría, Art and Architecture in Spain and Portugal and Their American Dominions (1959); B. Smith, Spain: A History in Art (1971); M. Grizzard, Spanish Colonial Art and Architecture of Mexico and the U.S. Southwest (1986).

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