Saturday, August 23, 2008

A look at a painting

Anon., El hallazgo de la Virgen de los Remedios ("The Finding of the Virgin of Remedies"). 18th century. Pinacoteca de la Profesa, Mexico City. Image found here.

In the course of Googling about for sabbatical-related material yesterday, I ran across this fascinating painting. What initially struck me was the kneeling figure in the foreground, who looks as though he could have been painted by El Greco, in combination with that marvelous maguey plant that looks like one of Mexico's other great 20th-century muralists--say, Siquieros or Orozco--had painted it. Also, I was struck by the woodenness of the Virgen in comparison to the strong sense that the maguey is actually waving about (something magueys can't and don't do, by the way). So, the painting held--and still holds--my attention at a purely aesthetic level. Given my research interests, its combination of au courant Spanish art sensibilities with a sensibility that, whatever else it is, is certainly not Spanish, certainly makes it a painting worth seeking out for my upcoming trip to Mexico City in October.

This being a painting on a religious subject, though, this painting is performing work at another level--one, by the way, that initially I was completely ignorant of. So, I did a bit more research into the story of the Virgen de los Remedios, and what I have so far found out makes this painting even more intriguing.

The picture you see here is of the sanctuary dedicated to the Virgen, located in Cholula, which is near Puebla (Image found here; my source for most of what follows is from this document (pdf, in Spanish)). The promontory it sits on is actually a pyramid, said to be the largest in the Americas. When Cortés passed through Cholula on his way to Tenochtitlan (the location of present-day Mexico City) in 1519, he placed a succession of crosses on the summit of the pyramid, but they kept being destroyed by lightning. After the defeat of the Aztecs in 1521, monks of the Franciscan order built a church there, which was replaced by this one that was finished in 1666. Almost all that structure was destroyed in an earthquake in 1864, the church was rebuilt shortly after.

As to the Virgin herself, she is a statue of the Virgin Mary that, according to legend, accompanied Cortés on his two expeditions to Tenochtitlan; on the infamous Noche Triste (Night of Sorrows), in which the Aztecs drove out and very nearly destroyed Cortés' army on June 30, 1520, some of the men who survived attributed this to their intercessions to the Virgin. So, then, the Virgen de los Remedios quickly became the saint of choice for soldiers preparing to enter battle. One way to think of the placement of the sanctuary at Cholula is as a symbol not only of the Church over paganism but of Spain over the Aztec: the 16th-century cultural equivalent of standing over your opponent as he lies defeated on the ground.

Why does all this matter? Well, whatever you may think of their motives for doing so, Spain was very much in earnest that as many Indians as possible be converted to Christianity; but to ask Indians to venerate the saint to whom some attributed their defeat created what we would say today was "bad optics." But the concern here was not just for the Indians' sensibilities. As a monk of the time named Flores put it, "The desire to turn the image of Our Lady of the Remedies into a symbol of the conquistador's power is something muttered about disapprovingly, for some are of the opinion that this will spoil 'the Mexican fruit,' born of the Spaniard and the native. On their behalf [A lo autóctono], they would like to remove everything Spanish from Our Lady--not so much for the Indians' sake as for the work of the Church [lo cristiano]." It's fascinating to learn that, even so early in the colonial era, there was concern that mestizos might perceive themselves as defeat incarnate--a theme that still resonates in Mexican culture--and that at least some in the Church were proactive in doing what they could to prevent that from happening.

Knowing that the image--not the statue, but the meaning--of the Virgen de los Remedios was contested and, in the end, softened so as to deemphasize her associations with the Conquest make this painting all the more interesting. As noted above, the Virgen was brought here by Cortés's men and not "found," as the title of the painting states. I've not found a story describing her being found, but the painting, it seems, depicts the core scene from that story. In any event, such a story would aid in softening her image: the strong suggestion would be that she is not foreign but is of this land. Moreover, such a story would echo that of the Virgen de Guadalupe, who appeared to a recently-converted Indian on the Cerro de Tepayac in what is now north-central Mexico City in 1531, and the painting bears some similarities to the image of Guadalupe.

One could argue--and it has been, I assure you--that such gestures by monks, as well as the Church's general openness to syncretism, were self-serving: the Spanish church and state were in their essence one and the same, that conversion to the one also required the new convert to submit to the Crown as well. But as Serge Gruzinski argues in his compelling book, The Mestizo Mind, to read the early decades of the colonial era in only that way is too simplistic. In those early decades, everyone was in survival mode, and out of that dynamic emerged, piecemeal and contingent upon local circumstance, a people and culture that had not existed before:

Latin America's mestizo phenomenon must . . . be viewed simultaneously as an effort to recompose a crumbling universe and a tendency to make local adjustments to the new frameworks imposed by the conquerors. The two trends cannot be dissociated. Neither is independent of the profoundly perturbed environment described above. (63)
Innocuous though it appears to be, this painting and the narrative it depicts are examples of what Gruzinski describes here.

More to come. In the meantime, if you've read this far you may be interested in this post over at Domestic Issue.


R. Sherman said...

Certainly, from the painting it appears as though the Virgin is being embraced by the maguey (agave americana, BTW). It would appear the artist is attempting not only to depict the the seminal event in the myth, but also the symbolic transformation of the Virgin from symbol of Spain and conquest, to symbol of Mexico.

Of course, I am probably full of crap.


John B. said...

No sir, you are not. I think that, whatever else is going on here, the intent to in some way indigenize (yes, I made that up) the Virgen is definitely a subtext here. As you note, you just cannot get any more "American" than a maguey plant: for the Indians, it provided fiber for clothing, paper, food (the roots) and liquor (pulque, a fermented brew from the liquid in the plant--and no, you don't want to). Also, I had the thought that the painting is a sort of "re-writing" of the placing of the sanctuary on top of the pyramid: whereas, as I said, placing the church on the pyramid seems to me a rather aggressive act, in the painting it is as though the Virgen emerges like a blossom or fruit of the plant. I'm also wondering about whether the cult of the Virgen de Guadalupe was seen as a kind of competition by the priests at Cholula. That last, by the way, is a question and not speculation. And that last, curious as I am about it, will have to wait till my next sabbatical.

In any case, it is now the case that the Virgen de los Remedios is second only to the Virgen de Guadalupe in terms of the number of churches dedicated to her. But December 12, Guadalupe's feast day, is an offical holiday in officially-atheist Mexico, while September 8, the feast day of the Virgen de los Remedios, is not.

Paul Decelles said...

Great post and I will be interested in your observations of the actual painting. Do you know anything about the artist?

John B. said...

What better reason to travel 1200 miles to see a painting? The one thing I'm pretty certain of is that the painter was an Indian or mestizo; I'm learning that a large amount of the church art in colonial Mexico was supervised by priests but painted by Indian artisans.