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Sunday, June 29, 2014

Art of Oaxaca: The Seven Princes

For our next post on artistic themes we encountered in Oaxaca, we look at the imagery of the Seven Archangels, or Seven Princes as they are often known.
   The seven archangels, also called the Seven Princes of Heaven, as derived from Jewish and biblical sources, both canonical and apocryphal, are Michael, Gabriel, Raphael, Uriel, Jegudiel, Raguel and Selaphiel, although there are acceptable variations.
   Michael, Gabriel and Raphael are the most popular and best known due to their mention in the Bible and promotion by the Catholic church.
Hieronimus Weirix: The Seven Princes of Palermo
The widespread popularity of this subject dates from the early 1500s, when a related icon or fresco, complete with their names and attributes, was discovered in a chapel of the church of Santa Maria degli Angeli in Palermo, shortly after the Spanish occupation of Sicily.  
Originally known as the Seven Princes of Palermo, or the Seven Secret Angels of the Apocalypse, they were adopted as heavenly protectors of the imperial house of Hapsburg. 
   Enjoying papal and royal endorsement, this devotion and its imagery, much of it based on a widely circulated 16th century print by the Flemish engraver Hieronimus Wierixspread rapidly across Europe and into the Americas, where it enjoyed a vogue in Mexico and especially Peru.  
Oaxaca cathedral: The Seven Princes of Palermo with the Holy Trinity  (© Conde de Selva Nevada)
The subject is illustrated in several Oaxacan churches: Two portraits of the Seven Princes are found in the city of Oaxaca. The best known is that by Martial Santaella in Oaxaca cathedral.  
   The restored Santaella painting is notable for its brightly clad, elongated figures in a neo-Mannerist style. The principal archangels are clearly named and portrayed with almost feminine features that contrast with their sturdy buskined legs.  A traditionally portrayed Holy Trinity is shown prominently overhead.
The Seven Princes with the Holy Trinity (Capuchin church of The Seven Princes, Oaxaca)  ©Felipe Falcón
The other painting, attributed to the noted baroque painter José de Páez, hangs in the outlying city church of the Seven Princes, built for the Capuchin nuns.  
   Again the archangels are richly costumed, with gold trimmed robes, and portrayed in a more popular, sentimental vein, although only Michael, Gabriel and Raphael are named. As per the Weirix image, the Holy Trinity surveys the lineup from above. 
Mitla: the Seven Princes with the Holy Trinity  (© urbey1)

Another, very similar version, although faded and in poor condition, is reputed to be in the church of San Pablo Mitla, in the Valley of Oaxaca. Here none of the archangels appear to be named.
Basilica of Guadalupe (Mexico City): The Seven Princes with the Mexican Trinity * (detail)
Other versions of the subject can be seen throughout Mexico, notably the sinuous example in Mexico City and the splendid painting in the great Augustinian priory of Tiripetio,
Michoacán (below).
Tiripetio: the Seven Princes 
This spectacular, richly hued painting of the Seven Princes is in the Andean style of Cuzco, another area of the Americas where the archangels were very popular in colonial times,  
   The seven include the familiar archangels Michael, Raphael and Gabriel,with the four so called apocryphal archangels: Uriel, Sealchiel, Jehudiel and Barachiel. They stand in a row elegantly robed in sumptuously embroidered and gilt trimmed garments. Michael and Uriel are armed. 
   Each is identified by an inscribed, gilded halo, although naming the apocryphal angels was officially forbidden by the church in Rome to little effect in the Americas. St. Michael stands in the center holding the red banner of victory while the snow capped peaks of the Andes, bathed in a sunset glow, rise in the background.


*  The Mexican Trinity is a depiction of the figures—the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit— as three bearded young men, often shown seated on thrones. This portrayal is also known as the Synthronous Trinity, and was initially employed as an aid in introducing this difficult religious concept to new Catholic converts.  Although later banned by the Inquisition as heretical, it continued to be popular in Mexico until late colonial times and beyond.

text © 2014 Richard D. Perry.  images by the author except where noted

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