Art Institute showcases works created to evangelize

By Chicago Catholic
Sunday, May 15, 2016

Art Institute showcases works created to evangelize

Unidentified Artist. Genealogical Tree of the Mercedarian Order, Mid-18th century. Carl and Marilynn Thoma Collection. (Art Institute of Chicago)
Workshop of Bernardo Rodriguez. The Holy Family with Mercedarian Symbols, Late 18th–early 19th century. Carl and Marilynn Thoma Collection. (Art Institute of Chicago)
Unidentified Workshop. Ship of Patience, 18th century. Carl and Marilynn Thoma Collection. (Art Institute of Chicago)
Unknown Artist. The Virgin Mary of the Rosary with Saints Dominic and Catherine of Siena, 17th century. Carl and Marilynn Thoma Collection. (Art Institute of Chicago)
Bernardo Bitti. Virgin and Child, circa 1592-1605. Carl and Marilynn Thoma Collection. (Art Institute of Chicago)

The Catholic Church has long used art as a way to evangelize its people. Back when populations were mostly illiterate, churches and chapels were decorated with images from the Bible or Catholic tradition and history to teach the tenets of the faith to those attending services.

Art from one such period — the 17th through 19th century in Spanish America — is featured in a new exhibit at the Art Institute of Chicago titled “Doctrine and Devotion: Art of the Religious Orders in the Spanish Andes.”

The exhibit displays 13 paintings by South American artists commissioned by four religious communities — the Dominicans, Franciscans, Mercedarians and Jesuits — sent by Spain’s King Charles V to convert the indigenous Inca people to Catholicism. Each community developed its own style of art, which is explored in the exhibit along with the politics of the time.

While paintings tell the story of some traditional Catholic themes like the Nativity, Madonna and child and Jesus’ crucifixion, there are also images of popular figures like St. Rose of Lima and St. Francis Xavier.

The exhibit, which is translated into both English and Spanish, is on display through June 25, 2017.

Editor Joyce Duriga recently interviewed by email Delia Cosentino, associate professor of art history at DePaul University who specializes in Latin American art. She once curated a show at DePaul using art from the same collection.

Catholic New World: What was the period or political climate like during the 17th and 19th century where missionaries went to minister?

Delia Cosentino: For European missionaries heading west across the Atlantic Ocean, Spanish America represented an exciting growth market. Not only were there ample indigenous and emergent mixed-race (mestizo) populations to whom they might minister, but the territories also presented the possibility of a fresh start, especially for those missionaries seeking distance from European religious wars.

CNW: Why did the missionaries turn to art to evangelize? Was it effective?

Cosentino: Art was effective for evangelization because initially it helped to bridge linguistic divides between missionaries and their subjects, providing a common visual language for the expression of Christianity and details of its doctrine.

Imagery also encouraged followers to imagine a very different reality than autochthonous traditions had allowed, especially since figural representation had not been characteristic of Andean cultures on the eve of the Spanish Conquest.

On the other hand, interpretations of Christianity and its visual culture by diverse audiences were not necessarily consistent. As a result, both new meanings and distinctive imagery — sometimes unorthodox — emerged in this American context.

CNW: Was there a certain style of art that developed from this time period?

Cosentino: Because of the distance from European centers of art-making, there was room for many styles in the Spanish colonies. For instance, classical, Baroque and Mannerist expressions were brought directly to the Americas by Italian, Spanish and Flemish settlers.

Meanwhile, however, local tastes and customs accounted for the emergence of distinct styles, such as the flattened and gilded forms seen in paintings of the well-known Cuzco school.

CNW: What role did the indigenous Incas play in the making of the art?

Cosentino: Indigenous and mestizo people made up the majority of the Andean population, and therefore naturally played a significant role in the creation of art and architecture during the colonial period. Descendants of Inca elite like Diego Quispe Tito and Guaman Poma de Ayala became wellknown artists, but the names of most are lost to us today.

CNW: Are there any pieces in this exhibit that really resonate with you or that are particularly distinctive?

Cosentino: I am very fond of the Genealogical Tree of the Mercedarian Order, from 18th-century Bolivia. This kind of splendid family tree, used in varied fashion by other orders as well, represents one of those genres that enjoyed a special existence in the Spanish Americas. Such genealogies had the important capacity to communicate an instant sense of community to both converts and to missionaries seeking a connection with their own spiritual lineages back home.

In a colonial environment where ancestry helped to structure society, these painted trees projected an important model of order.

CNW: Do you have any recommendations for viewing the exhibit? For example, what should visitors keep in mind or pay particular attention to when they go?

Cosentino: As with any exhibition, I recommend both taking a moment to consider the big picture — what the body of works as a whole says about the historical moment in this particular geography — and attend to whatever images are most intriguing to the individual viewer.

I’d also encourage visitors to see the works not necessarily as an extension of European culture, but rather on their own terms, as products of a distinctive Andean environment.


  • spiritual art
  • depaul university
  • art institue of chicago
  • evangelization

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