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Syncretism and Marian Representations
The mixing of indigenous, Iberian, and Asian elements in colonial Latin America
To induce religious conversion in the New World, the Church employed two techniques, that of repression and that of toleration (Hall, 82). Largely as a result of these methods, the indigenous populations and artists combined their pre-existing frameworks of worship and sanctity with the new ideas brought by the Iberian colonizers and missionaries (Hall, 83). This syncretism, the creation of something new through the fusion of two interacting cultures (Bailey, 89), is visible in various representations of the Virgin Mary produced throughout colonial Latin America. By incorporating indigenous mentions into their works, artists could continue to worship their own religion in the guise of Christian ones (Bailey, 90). Additionally, indigenous Andeans were originally discouraged from priesthood, so artistry provided a way for them to participate in the visualization of Christianity (Stanfield-Mazzi, 146). These pre-colonial references in art were subtle enough to avoid detection by authorities and are visible only to present-day scholars who understand the tradition of both the Iberian Peninsula and the Americas (Bailey, 93). Keeping this context in mind, syncretism is detectable in Marian artwork produced in colonial Latin America through physical qualities of the Virgin and the materials in which these representations are made.
During the 16th century, most of the objects that provided “richness and visual meaning” to Christianity were two-dimensional paintings and textiles (Stanfield-Mazzi, 58). It was with the addition of statues in the late 16th and early 17th centuries that Christianity truly began to take root, providing tangible tools for greater visualization and understanding of the religion in the region (Stanfield-Mazzi, 3). The statue of the Virgin of Copacabana sculpted by Francisco Tito Yupanqui and painted and gilded by Vargas in 1583 in Bolivia is a prime example of a three-dimensional object that aided the adoption of Christianity, created by indigenous artists utilizing Spanish techniques. The core of the statue is composed of wood which was not readily available during this time period in this region. The scarcity of this material demonstrates the value and effort put into this depiction of the Virgin. Her vestments are heavily gilded with gold, a technique called polychrome brought to the Americas by the Spanish early in the colonial period, adding evidence to its importance within the community and the fusion of indigenous and Spanish techniques. Lastly, the statue was transported in a wooden box, painted blue and adorned with gold and white stars. The presentation of the Virgin of Copacabana by opening and closing this ornate box created a dramatic effect that demanded further reverence for the object within (Stanfield-Mazzi, 77).
The more three-dimensional representations, such as the aforementioned Virgin of Copacabana statue, were worshiped, the greater the demand for reproductions. Rather than creating new statues, paintings of existing statues became very common in the Americas (Stanfield-Mazzi, 4). This style of painting is appropriately named “statue paintings” Overtime, these “reproductions” were altered, incorporating more pre-colonial references. Many of the paintings discussed below are considered statue paintings.
One way in which painters in the Americas incorporated indigenous values into the Marian representations is through altering the attire in which the Virgin is dressed. In Our Lady of the Rosary of Pomata, a statue painting painted in the last third of the 17th or the 18th century by an unidentified artist in Peru or Bolivia, one notices the feather headdresses worn by the Virgin and Child (Díaz and Stratton-Pruitt, 25). Although the Spanish occasionally depict the Virgin Mary wearing a felt hat with a feather plume, feather headdresses are unique to the representations produced in the Andes (Damian, 44-46). These headdresses are reminiscent of the ones worn by leaders and gods of various Andean civilizations such as the Inka, Chimu, and Moche (The Met). For these groups, colored feathers were a luxury and integral part of their culture, as these populations practiced Iegue, the taming and incorporation of birds into the family, and tapirage, the color modification of feathers (Buono, 236). By integrating this pre-colonial reference into post-European arrival art, the anonymous artist was able to incorporate Iberian influences while maintaining some of the peoples’ previous identity.
Sacred indigenous attire is also present in Virgin Spinning painted in the eighteenth century by an unidentified artist at the School of Cuzco. In this Marian representation, some scholars identify the combination of both Inca and Spanish garb. According to scholars such as Carol Damian, Carlos Mesa-Gisbert and Anna Gradowska, the Virgin’s shawl is typical of a native nobility Iliclla (mantal) secured by a tupu (ornamental clasp) while the lace sleeves of the dress are typical of Spanish nobility (Stratton Pruitt, 183 and Damian, 79). Other scholars, such as Luis Eduardo Wuffarden, caution this connection, pointing out that these elements are also present in preceding Spanish representations (Stratton Pruitt, 183). As an aside from these disputed aspects, Carol Damian identifies the style of the Virgin’s hair as a less debated indicator of syncretism, stating that European representations generally depicted Mary with a middle part while this representation shows a single curl falling from the center of the Virgin’s headband. According to Damian, this curl represents the fringe on an Inca royal headdress (Damian, 79).
Although there are Spanish representations of the Virgin spinning, one can also connect this representation to the ritual act of weaving and its significance for Incan sacrifices. Although this activity may be viewed for the Spanish as a humble and domestic act and as a reminder of the exemplary life of Mary (Stratton Pruitt, 182), the artist may have intended to reference the making of the Inca textile cumbi, a fine and valuable cloth (Damian, 80). The diverging meanings of spinning between the Spanish and the Inca is less an example of syncretism and more an example of convergence, the maintenance of dual meaning of a single object for the two cultures (Bailey, 89). Regardless of the technical term, the Virgin Spinning does represent the pushback of indigenous populations on the teachings of Christian missionaries.
Two representations from the eighteen century of the Virgin of Copacabana are also salient to this discussion. The first, Our Lady of the Victory of Malaga by Bolivian artist Luis Niño in 1735, portrays a hidden tumi, an Incan ceremonial knife, in the skirt of the dress, when one visualizes the crescent moon attached to the skirt design (Bailey, 97). In addition to this pre-colonial reference, one can see a reference to birds, a symbol of honor and sanctity to indigenous populations as discussed previously, in the golden columns (Denver Art Museum) and a reference to precolonial rituals through the scattered petals at the Virgin’s feet (Bailey, 97).
Another painting from the eighteenth century of the Virgin of Copacabana, entitled The Virgin Mary of the Cerro Rico at Potosí, also shows the combination of the Virgin Mary and pan-Andean earth goddess Pachamama (Hall, 138) by blending the physical body of the Virgin with a literal mountain. As with Virgin Spinning, the syncretism of this painting is somewhat contested in the academic arena. While a majority of scholars believe that this painting depicts a hybrid figure of the Madonna as a protector and the embodiment of an Andean deity, others disagree (Bailey, 97). The dissenting opinion believes that this representation, instead, links the mountain and the Virgin to the Spanish mining of silver (Stratton-Pruitt, 52). However, combining analysis of both Our Lady of the Victory of Malaga and The Virgin Mary of the Cerro Rico at Potosí, it becomes more evident that the Virgin of Copacabana is, in fact, an example of syncretism. The two representations provide agreeing evidence that the Virgin Mary brought to the New World by the Spanish was adapted into a new, hybrid figure.
Although the five objects mentioned above focus on syncretism of Iberian and indigenous American ideas, the two are not the only populations that influenced Marian representations in the New World. In fact, for colonizers, the Americas only represented a pit stop to Asia. As a result of Iberian movement between the Americas and Asia, there was an influx of Asian decorative arts and techniques to the New World, brought by colonizers and by Asian embassy missions such as the Manila Galleons (LACMA).
One example of a technique invented in Mexico that developed from Asian, Iberian, and American interaction is known as enconchado, the process of inlaying fragments of shell, such as mother of pearl, into an oil painting on canvas. The Virgin of Guadalupe enconchado painting by Miguel González in 1698 in Mexico shows the combination of valuable materials such as metal, wood, mother of pearl, and oil paint. The inlaying of mother of pearl, both the use of this material as well as the technique of inlaying, is representative of Asian decorative art (LACMA). The scenes around the Virgin, such as the depiction in the bottom left corner of her apparition to Juan Diego and the eagle in the bottom middle, represent the incorporation of local narratives with Christianity.
Regardless of the occasional contestation among scholars, there is ample evidence to prove that the Virgin Mary was not adapted unaltered by native peoples. Rather the Christian Mary was combined with the identity of indigenous peoples for the purpose of appeasing the Spanish missionaries and surviving within the new colonial society. Through the intentional alterations of the Virgins physical appearance, the surrounding scenery, and the material from which she was crafted, one can see syncretism and the true creation of a novel Virgin, one that combines aspects of both pre-colonial Spain and the Americas.
"Atahualpa, Fourteenth Inca, 1 of 14 Portraits of Inca Kings." Brooklyn Museum,
www.brooklynmuseum.org/opencollection/objects/2310. Accessed 22 Sept. 2016.
Bailey, Gauvin Alexander. Art of Colonial Latin America. Phaidon, 2005.
Buono, Amy. Crafts of Color: Tupi Tapirage in Early Colonial Brazil,” in The Materiality of Color: The Production, Circulation, and Application of Dyes and Pigments 1400-1800. Edited by Andrea Feeser et al., e-book, Ashgate Press, 2012.
"Ceremonial Knife (Tumi)." The Met, www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/309549. Accessed 29 Sept. 2016.
Damian, Carol. The Virgin of the Andes: Art and Ritual in Colonial Cuzco. E-book, Grassfield Press, 1995.
Diaz, Josef, and Suzanne Stratton-Pruitt. Painting the Divine Images of Mary in the New World. The New Mexico History Museum.
Gilbert, Teresa, and Jose De Mesa. La Virgen Maria en Bolivia. Union Latina, 2002.
Hall, Linda B. Mary, Mother and Warrior. University of Texas Press, 2004.
"Mother-of-Pearl: A Tradition in Asian Lacquer." The Met, www.metmuseum.org/exhibitions/listings/2006/mother-of-pearl/photo-gallery. Accessed 29 Sept. 2016.
"Radiance from the Rain Forest: Featherwork in Ancient Peru." The Met, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2008, www.metmuseum.org/exhibitions/listings/2008/radiance-from-the-rain-forest. Accessed 19 Sept. 2016.
Schenone, Hector. Santa Maria. Editorial de la Universidad Catolica Argentina, 2008.
Stanfield-Mazzi, Maya Selama. Object and apparition : envisioning the Christian divine in the colonial Andes. The University of Arizona Press, 2013.
Stratton-Pruitt, Suzanne, compiler. The Virgin, Saints, and Angels. Skira, 2006.
"The Virgin of Guadalupe (Virgen de Guadalupe)." LACMA - Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 2010, collections.lacma.org/node/222405. Accessed 24 Sept. 2016.
"Virgin of the Victory of Malaga." Denver Art Museum, denverartmuseum.org/edu/object/our-lady-victory-m-laga. Accessed 19 Sept. 2016.
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