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Cristobal de Villalpando: Mexican Painter of the Baroque.

Cristobal de Villalpando: Mexican Painter of the Baroque

Metropolitan Museum of Art New York, New York

July 25-October 15, 2017

Cristobal de Villalpando (c. 1649-1714) was Mexico's leading viceregal painter in the late seventeenth century. He was born in Mexico City and likely began his career in the workshop of the painter Baltasar de Echave Rioja (1632-82). Throughout his prolific career, he earned several prestigious public commissions, among them monumental altarpieces for Puebla Cathedral and the sacristy of Mexico City's Cathedral. He was honored as an officer of Mexico City's painters' guild and served several times as the director (veedor) of the painters' guild. While Villalpando assimilated compositions from European Baroque artists such as Peter Paul Rubens via reproductive prints, his novel interpretation of religious subject matter and dazzling command of color and light established him as one of the great early modern painters of Latin America.

This impressive exhibition brought together key works by the artist that were shown for the first time in the United States. (1) It was organized by Ronda Kasl, Curator of Latin American Art at the Metropolitan Museum of Art; Jonathan Brown of the Institute of Fine Arts; and Clara Bargellini of the Universidad Nacional Autonoma de Mexico. It took its place in a groundbreaking series of international exhibitions that have asserted the originality and innovation of viceregal Mexican art. (2)

The exhibition was installed in the museum's Robert Lehman wing, where the gallery's atrium showcased Villalpando's large-scale Moses and the Brazen Serpent and The Transfiguration of Jesus (fig. 1), which was painted in 1683 for the Cathedral of Puebla. This 28-foot-tall canvas was recently restored and has never been exhibited outside of Mexico. (3) Ten additional works were displayed in the gallery's first level.

The overall arrangement of Villalpando's paintings thus radiated from his largest and most powerful work, which was commissioned to decorate a chapel dedicated to a miracle-working image of Christ at the Column. The Archbishop of Puebla probably recommended this subject, given its theological complexity. The installation of the altarpiece in the gallery's chapel-like atrium allowed museumgoers to appreciate it from different angles and points of view. The two narratives appear in a continuous landscape that incorporates the wilderness of the Exodus and Mounts Tabor and Calvary. Moreover, the compositions are visually juxtaposed through Villalpando's impressive command of light and color. The lower half of the retable illustrates the Old Testament theme of Moses and the Brazen Serpent (detail, fig. 2). It takes on a darker tone and character in its representation of a passage from the Book of Numbers (21:5-7). Poisonous snakes attacked the Israelites as punishment for doubting God's word. The prophet Moses directs their attention to a brass sculpture of a serpent that they are commanded to venerate in order to spare themselves further harm. The brazen serpent is a prefiguration for salvation and redemption that materializes in the upper section of the altarpiece with Jesus's transfiguration, which is witnessed by his apostles. The painting's message of redemption is reinforced by the transitional figures of two angels who are placed between the retable's two scenes. In particular, the angel to the viewer's left holds a panel with a didactic message that translates from Latin, "as Moses lifted up the serpent in the desert, so must the Son of Man be lifted up."

Villalpando signed his works and inscribed his altarpiece with the epithet Villalpando inventor. By incorporating "inventor" into his signature, Villalpando might not only have been signposting the inventiveness and intellectual sophistication of his composition but also articulating his ambition and desire for social recognition.

The eleven works in the exhibition represented a succinct chronology of Villalpando's career. Significant paintings on view included Villalpando's newly attributed Adoration of the Magi (1683), borrowed from Fordham University, and major loans from the Cathedral of Puebla and the Museum of the Basilica of Guadalupe. The Agony in the Garden (c. 1670-79) (fig. 3) was among the early-career works included in the show. The painting comes from a series of five in the sacristy of the church of the convent of El Carmen in Mexico City that exalt Carmelite spirituality. (4) The styles and subjects of these paintings tend be more restrained, except for The Agony in the Garden, which is brighter in color and more expressive in gesture. The painting vividly interprets a narrative told in the gospels of Matthew (26: 36-40), Mark (14: 32-41), and Luke (22: 39-46). After their last meal, Jesus and the apostles went to Gethsemane on the Mount of Olives, where Jesus prays and accepts the suffering that he would come to endure on the cross.

Villalpando also painted three works on copper, originally installed in the Ochavo Chapel in the Cathedral of Puebla. The exhibition included two of these paintings: The Deluge (1689) (fig. 4) and Adam and Eve in Paradise (c. 1689). These small paintings are filled with seemingly countless details that require careful looking and observation. The Deluge represents a cataclysmic vision of the Biblical flood that is unified by darkness and intermittently broken by lightning bolts that traverse the composition. The dramatic poses and tangled bodies of the figures coupled with Villalpando's striking use of color powerfully convey the tragedy and violence of this traumatic biblical episode.

The Holy Name of Mary (c. 1690-99) (fig. 5) demonstrates Villalpando's dynamic sense of movement, color, and light as well as his creative interpretation of religious allegory. The composition focuses on the devotion to El dulcisimo nombre de Marta Santisima ("The sweetest name of the most holy Mary"), illustrated in the inscription that borders the halo circling Mary's head. This painting especially highlights Villalpando's innovative pictorial language. The foreshortened view of the Ark of the Covenant in the foreground draws the viewer's attention to the central figure of Mary, whose unborn son embodied the fulfillment of the Covenant in Christianity. Mary is surrounded by a semicircle of angels, whose bodies vary in degrees of corporeality, from fleshy and luminous beings to ethereal and transparent ones.

Catalogues in English and Spanish published by the Fomento Cultural Banamex accompanied the exhibition. (5) They contain essays and entries written by leading experts in the field such as Jonathan Brown, Rogelio Ruiz Gomar, Ronda Kasl, the late Juana Gutierrez Haces, and Pedro Angeles. Gallery texts and wall labels provided detailed information about the context of each work and the chronology of Villalpando's career. The exhibition, though, continued to highlight one of the paradoxes besetting the study of colonial Latin American art: How do art historians make a case for its New World innovations without resorting to Eurocentric models of analysis and interpretation? (6)

In sum, this exhibition introduced a general audience to a significant figure in the history of vice-regal Latin American art, whose name is perhaps better known to specialists in the field. It put on display the originality and skill of Villalpando's style and his extraordinary talent in visualizing complex, sacred themes.

Lisandra Estevez

Winston-Salem State University


(1.) This exhibition traveled from Mexico City to New York and was co-organized by the Fomento Cultural Banamex; for a handsome online summary of the show, see villalpando/#/en.

(2.) Important international art exhibitions have reassessed the ingenuity and innovation of early modern Latin American art and visual culture, which had been often (and, sadly, pejoratively) characterized as derivative of European models. Some of the exhibits that have stood out for their bold recontextualization of the historical and theoretical framework of colonial Latin American art include: Converging Cultures: Art & Identity in Spanish America, Brooklyn Museum, March 1-August 11, 1996; Painting a New World: Mexican Art and Life, 1521-1821, Denver Art Museum, April 3-July 25, 2004; Tesoros/Treasures/Tesouros: The Arts in Latin America, 1492-1820, The Philadelphia Museum of Art, September 20, 2006-December 31, 2006; Painting from the Viceroyalties. Shared Identities in the Hispanic World, Museo Nacional del Prado and Palacio Real, Madrid," October 26, 2010-January 30, 2011; Contested Visions in the Spanish Colonial World, Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA), November 6, 2011-January 29, 2012, and Museo Nacional de Historia, Mexico City, July 6-October 7, 2012; and Mexican Art at the Louvre: Master-pieces from the 17th and 18th Centuries, Musee du Louvre, March 7, 2013-June 3, 2013. The Pacific Standard Time LA/LA (Latin American and Latino Art in LA) project also sponsored significant programs, such as Visual Voyages: Images of Latin American Nature from Columbus to Darwin, The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens, September 16, 2017-January 8, 2018; and Painted in Mexico, 1700-1790: Pinxit Mexici, Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA), November 19, 2017-March 18, 2018, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, April 24July 22, 2018.

(3.) A time-lapse video shows the installation of this altarpiece in the gallery: https:// For a video documenting the painting's conservation, see: https://www.metmuseum. org/metmedia/video/collections/aw/cristobalde-villalpando-moses-and-brazen-serpent- and-transfiguration-of-jesus.

(4.) This series was organized in two sets, the first representing Saint John of the Cross and Saint Teresa of Avila, and the second containing The Agony in the Garden, Christ at the Column, and The Mocking of Jesus.

(5.) Jonathan Brown, Rogelio Ruiz Gomar, Ronda Kasl, Juana Gutierrez Haces, and Pedro Angeles, Cristobal de Villalpando: Mexican Painter of the Baroque (Mexico City: Fomento Cultural Banamex, 2017).

(6.) For recent reappraisals of Villalpando's place in the art historical canon, see Aaron M. Hyman, "Inventing Painting: Cristobal de Villalpando, Juan Correa, and New Spain's Transatlantic Canon," The Art Bulletin 99 no. 2 (2017): 102-135; and Eduardo de Jesus Douglas, "Brave New World? Mexican Old Masters," Apollo 186 no. 656 (2017): 80-86.

Caption: Figure 1. Cristobal de Villalpando, Moses and the Brazen Serpent and the Transfiguration of Jesus, 1683, oil on canvas, 28 ft. 4 9/16 in. x 18 ft. 9/16 in. (865 x 550.1 cm), Col. Cathedral of Puebla. Propiedad de la Nacion Mexicana. Secretaria de Cultura. Direction General de Sitios y Monumentos del Patrimonio Cultural. (Photo: courtesy of the Fomento Cultural Banamex, A.C., Mexico City)

Caption: Figure 2, above. Cristobal de Villalpando, Moses and the Brazen Serpent (detail), from Moses and the Brazen Serpent and the Transfiguration of Jesus, 1683, oil on canvas, 28 ft. 4 9/16 in. x 18 ft. 9/16 in. (865 x 550.1 cm), Col. Cathedral of Puebla. Propiedad de la Nacion Mexicana. Secretaria de Cultura. Direction General de Sitios y Monumentos del Patrimonio Cultural. (Photo: courtesy of the Fomento Cultural Banamex, A.C., Mexico City)

Caption: Figure 3, right. Cristobal de Villalpando, The Agony in the Garden, c. 1670-1679, oil on canvas, 80 11/16 x 71 5/8 in. (204.9 x 181.9 cm), Col. Museo de El Carmen, INAH. (Photo: courtesy of the Fomento Cultural Banamex, A.C., Mexico City)

Caption: Figure 4. Cristobal de Villalpando, The Deluge, 1689, oil on copper, 23 1/4 x 35 7/16 in. (59.1 x 90 cm), Col. Cathedral of Puebla. Propiedad de la Nacion Mexicana. Secretaria de Cultura. Direction General de Sitios y Monumentos del Patrimonio Cultural (Photo: courtesy of the Fomento Cultural Banamex, A.C., Mexico City)

Caption: Figure 5. Cristobal de Villalpando, The Holy Name of Mary, c. 1690-1699, oil on canvas, 72 1/16 in. x 9 ft. 6 9/16 in. (183 x 291 cm), Museo de la Basilica de Guadalupe, Mexico City. (Photo: courtesy of the Fomento Cultural Banamex, A.C., Mexico City)
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Author:Estevez, Lisandra
Publication:Art Inquiries
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jan 1, 2018
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