Saturday, July 17, 2010

Casta paintings and the Virgin of Guadalupe: a link

Luis de Mena, casta painting, c. 1750. Museo de América, Madrid. Click on image to enlarge. Image found here.

(A couple of earlier posts on casta painting are here. A long post on the meaning of the Virgin of Guadalupe in connection with the New World as a miscegenated space is here.)

As part of my research for the book project, the other day I revisited this post's accompanying image, and some further reading--especially in reading the historical record supporting the authenticity of the story and, more directly, here--I was reminded, in a different way this time, of the contested nature of just about everything regarding the story of the Virgin's appearance to Juan Diego, from the very earliest days of that story (she appeared to the Indian Juan Diego in 1531). Some (much?) of that argument, we find between the lines, was driven by rivalries among bishops and their respective orders (which I first speculated on here). Thus, it makes sense that we also have overt written and visual assertions of Juan Diego's worthiness as a way of asserting the truth of the Virgin's appearance to him on the hill of Tepeyac; hence, in the frieze over the east entrance of the old basilica dedicated to the Virgin, Juan Diego's accompanying hat and staff, which mark him iconographically not only as a shepherd but also as someone making a pilgrimage to a shrine, and the beaver in the foreground (a symbol of chastity in medieval bestiaries).

Anyway, that and the fact of the Virgin's appearance as a mestiza to an indigenous person--that is, she appears, in effect, as always already of mixed ethnicity--made me wonder about linkages, whether direct or thematic, between depictions of the Virgin and the genre of casta painting that arose in Mexico and, to a lesser extent, in Peru during the colonial era. Those paintings are not merely secular in content, they are quite literally domestic: often their settings are the interiors of houses, or they show a family out for a promenade; some standardized depictions of castes show physical violence occurring between the spouses, their child attempting to intervene. So, off to Wichita State University's library I went yesterday, and in one of the books I looked at I ran across the Luis de Mena painting you see at the top of this post. As it turns out, this same image also appears in Ilona Katzew's excellent book on the subject; I own this book, but I didn't remember seeing it in there and so didn't bother to look again before last night. (Man: the things I tell you people.)

In a way, it's my forgetting this image that really prompts this post.

Casta paintings that also include images of the Virgin apparently are not very common: this is the only such example in Katzew's book, and I know I've not seen any others like this. At one level, that near-absence of juxtapositions is to be expected: The Virgin is, of course, the embodiment of chastity, while the most direct message of the casta paintings is, ahem, the consequences of the procreative act; moreover, though interracial marriages were officially permitted in Mexico, some, as I discussed in this post, were more approved-of than others were with regard to the social standing of the children of that marriage--more approved-of because of the matter of their racial purity. These were clearly not sacred but secular matters, as regarded the rules governing the painting guilds and their permitted subjects; to directly link the Virgin to such paintings would cross not only legal bounds but also those of propriety. I can be forgiven for not having remembered Mena's painting, then: it's something of an anomaly within this genre.

Katzew herself doesn't spend too much time on Mena's painting, either. She briefly discusses it within the context of a book by Juan Manuel de San Vicente, a book published in 1768 whose purpose was to extol New Spain's virtues and whose language Katzew describes as an example of "creole discourses of pride" (193)--even though San Vicente was a Spaniard. This book

ends majestically with a discussion of the Virgin of Guadalupe, of whom he quotes the famous verse from Psalm 147 (20): "Non fecit taliter omni nationi" (He has not done the like for any other nation), pointing to the honor that God bestowed on Mexico by having the Virgin appear in that country. The Virgin of Guadalupe also features prominently in Mena's casta painting along with the fruits of the land, the city's famous retreats [shown in the upper-right corner], and the Virgin's sanctuary [in the upper-left corner], allowing us to see how the work might have been interpreted by contemporary audiences. (194)

Katzew, as is typical of her book, doesn't go into those interpretations. But, especially when compared to other casta paintings, it becomes pretty clear that Mena wants to insist on a more benign interpretation of these different castas by placing their depiction within a context in which Mexico's other virtues are submitted for our admiration. The castas occupy the middle two registers of the painting; they are framed, below, by a depiction of native fruits and vegetables (it is no accident that the costumes of the figures in the casta paintings are in the same colors as the produce--as if to suggest that these many-hued people are likewise the fruit of the same Mexican soil) and, above, by the Virgin, her basilica and Ixtacalco, a popular place to visit on the southeast of the capital known for its canals. The painting's overall message is that of exuberant variety that is clearly and distinctly Mexican, a variety, moreover, presided over approvingly by the Virgin herself.

But as soon as I saw Mena's painting, I was immediately reminded of the painting below, which I saw for the first time when the Mrs. and I went on our Mexico City trip back in the fall of 2008:

Anon., Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe de México, Patrona de la Nueva España. 18th cen. Museo de la Basilica de Guadalupe, Mexico City. Image found here.

(Apologies, by the way, for the poor quality of the image. For details I describe below, I'm working from a picture in a small booklet I bought at the museum.)

The Museum caters to a niche audience, obviously, but if you've read this far and ever find yourself in Mexico City with a few extra hours to spare at the basilica, it's well worth the 30 pesos admission fee to visit. Fortunately for the Mrs. and me, it wasn't too crowded the day we went because when I saw this painting, I couldn't help but stare and stare at it.

In remembering this painting, it suddenly occurred to me that it bears some compositional similarities to the standard casta painting: we have a male and female of different races (here, the female figure on the left symbolizes Europe; the male figure, dressed in indigenous garb, represents the Americas. (The male figure, by the way, is speaking the same verse from Psalm 140 that Katzew reports San Vicente as quoting regarding the Virgin's appearance.) But other images in the painting seem to argue for the Virgin's distinctive Mexican-ness. Directly below the angel who is directly under the Virgin's feet (the angel, by the way, is part of her traditional depiction--it's on the framed cloth with the miraculous image that hangs over the altar in the new basilica), we see two small scenes depicting, on the left, the Virgin's final appearance to Juan Diego and, on the right, Juan Diego showing the bishop his ayate with the Virgin's image on it. But those two scenes rest on the outspread wings of an eagle perched on a prickly pear cactus, which itself is emerging from a body of water: the Aztecs' sign from the gods to build their city on that place and, now, the emblem in the center of the Mexican flag.

Clearly, this painting functions as more than an image honoring the Virgin or as one depicting particular scenes from the story of her appearances to Juan Diego. It contains, in the allegorical figures of Europe and the Americas, themselves explicitly female and male, "parents" for the Virgin--whose respective races would account for the Virgin's mestiza appearance, were this a typical casta painting. Moreover, her placement over the eagle on the cactus seems both to locate her in a very specific place and to explicitly associate her appearance with that earlier tradition (pagan though it was) of miraculous signs to the people in the Valle de Anahuac.

But no matter the truth of the Virgin's origins, no religious syncretism is at work here: The Conquest was by now two centuries past for both Mena and the anonymous painter of the painting I have been discussing. San Vicente, whom I quoted above, introduced his work on Mexico by celebrating the Aztec emperors who preceded Cortés' arrival, "because it is one of the circumstances that truly makes this city great, for having as its children (although heathen) eleven so great and illustrious emperors." Katzew goes on to comment, "In other words, Mexico's precolonial past is deployed to legitimize the uniqueness of the country and to set the stage for the remainder of his description [of the country]" (194). The latter half of 18th century was a time among Mexicans of growing pride of place and of culture, and the Virgin was most definitely included in that pride, so much so that in 1746 she would be declared the patroness of New Spain by the archbishop. What is at work in this painting is an allegorizing of the Virgin's cultural parentage, and that her parentage is a miscegenated one. To see a painting of the Virgin from this time borrowing the basic form of the casta paintings is certainly startling from the point of view of religion and of veneration, but from that of culture, specifically Mexican culture, it makes perfect sense. But even more importantly, the Church's official embracing of the Virgin as New Spain's patroness implicitly validated the mixed-race populations who venerated her.

In a later post, I want to address at greater length something I said in this post--in particular, this:

Whatever happened in December of 1531 and the weeks and months following–whether miracle or fraud or some now-irrecoverable combination of the two–the Church lost control over the meaning of the Virgin and the resulting manner of her veneration in the instant that she appeared to an Indian as a mestiza. Which, of course, is tantamount to saying that it thus never had control over her. Such is her power in Mexico and throughout Hispanic America: that everyone knows this; all the Church can do is acknowledge it and appear to grant it official sanction as it is able via such means as papal visits and the move to canonize Juan Diego.


R. Sherman said...

Well, that post was truly worth your effort and my time reading it. I was completely absorbed.

Just off the top of my head without much thought, I wonder whether each of the nations in the New World have something similar to the V of G. That is, an Old World icon which blesses the new new nation's existence? For the U.S., for example, we began desiring to restore the rights of free Englishmen which had their origins at Runnymeade.

Of course, I'm probably all wet which is normally par for the course.


John B. said...


Thanks for wading through all that and for the kind words.

I'm not an expert on this, so what follows is a bit sketchy: Once the V. de G. was recognized as the patroness of New Spain (now Mexico), the Church encouraged her veneration throughout the Spanish colonies, such that, according to good old Wikipedia, by 1961, Pope John XXIII declared her "Mother of the Americas." I've not done the research on this, but I wouldn't be surprised, given the way she (by which I mean the cult surrounding her veneration) roiled the Church in Mexico proper, if there weren't some stiff competition from other parts of the Americas for granting preeminence to other manifestations of the Virgin. Peru, second only to Mexico in wealth among the colonies, would be a likely suspect. Thanks for asking: you've made me curious.

Sweeping generalization alert: Once the wars for independence ended, throughout Latin America there was an overarching sense of connectedness among the new nations via a common language and religion, but also a common ethnic heritage that quite literally made them distinct from the ethnic groups that gave rise to them. To my knowledge, there's no other figure in Latin America who so fully embodies that shared commonality as the V. de G. Which to my mind leads to this conclusion: if she is a fraud, she's an extraordinary fraud--and one, I might add, that for a very long time now has clearly existed beyond anyone's control.

R. Sherman said...

Is it a sense where the Church, seeking to co-opt a popular symbol, ended up succumbing to it instead?


R. Sherman said...

Oh, yeah, and is there a Portuguese/Brazil equivalent, given that the V de G is a New Spain phenomenon? Did the Brazilians co-opt the Spanish icon?

John B. said...


Your first question is an interesting one. I did a little rereading last night/this morning, and sometime this week or next I hope to get a look at a more comprehensive book on the subject. Among the very earliest mentions of the V. de G. in church documents (from the middle decades of the 1500s) are complaints by clergy that they can't keep Indians from visiting the shrine (a small one, to be sure) that had already been built at the site of the apparitions. But others were also encouraging her veneration at the same time, and at a small town purported to be Juan Diego's birthplace (two other towns also claim that distinction), there are the remains of a small 16th-century church dedicated to Juan Diego, itself built over a house of indigenous construction. As I mentioned, some of that official ambivalence was driven by rivalries among the different orders, in combination with fears of syncretism (a fairly common topic of discussion back then were fears that Indian artisans and worshipers were slipping in bits and pieces of indigenous religious images and practice; Guadalupe herself is thought by many to be just such a combination).

So, sure: some in the Church most definitely gave thought to how to harness the Virgin's appeal for their own ends, even to the end of training painters of the image that would be sent to other churches in how to reproduce precisely the original's size and colors. But I think actual attempts at co-opting her--that is, that which occurred with the full sanction of the Church, from the Pope on down--really began in earnest in the 18th century with her being named as Patroness of New Spain. There was by that time some political restiveness in the colonies (the revolutions would occur in the second decade of the 19th century), and surely that fact figured into the Church's thinking. But I'd say that the 18th century was a couple of centuries too late for co-opting. In fact, as I conclude in this post (and which I'll be working out over the next couple of days), whether miracle or fake, the Virgin's meaning has never been under anyone's control--in one fell swoop, her appearance both signals the eventual end of old orders and the revelation of new ones.

Okay--enough of that.

Re Brazil's patroness, here you go. I gather from my reading that there was no prior candidate, if that's the right word, for patroness. Our Lady of Aparecida is also dark in appearance, but I was also reminded that in Europe there had already been a long tradition (as early as the 11th century) of Black Madonnas in places singularly lacking in dark-skinned people (such as Poland).

John B. said...

UPDATE: I ran across this in the library the other day but didn't note it here because I didn't know much (and still don't), but: Apparently, in the mid-18th century there was indeed a rivalry between advocates of the V. de G. and those of St. Rose of Lima, the first person born in the Americas to be canonized (in 1671). Rose's advocates (in Mexico, too) were, significantly, criollos, people born in this hemisphere who were of pure Spanish descent (which, as near as I can determine, was also Rose's parentage).