Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Cristóbal de Villalpando exhibit

Opening July 25th 2017 at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, this new exhibition showcases works by the celebrated Mexican artist Cristóbal de Villalpando (ca. 1649–1714) 
   Born in Mexico City, he emerged in the 1680s not only as the leading painter in viceregal Mexico, but also as one of the most innovative and accomplished artists in the entire Hispanic world.  Influenced by the grand manner of Rubens, leavened by the warm, Mannerist inspired Andalusian artistic tradition, and informed by a naive New world earthiness, Villalpando's painting exemplifies the luminous high Mexican baroque, with daring compositions, dynamic movement, brilliant color and expressive elegance.
    The Met exhibit prominently features Villalpando's early masterpiece, the Transfiguration of Jesus, Moses and the Brazen Serpent. This monumental 28-foot-tall canvas was painted in 1683 for a chapel dedicated to a miracle-working image of Christ at the Column, located in Puebla Cathedral and commissioned by the controversial then bishop of Puebla, Manuel Fernández de Santa Cruz.    
    Newly restored, the painting had, until now, never been exhibited outside its place of origin. Ten additional works by Villalpando, most of which have never been shown in the United States, will also be exhibited including, among others, a recently discovered Adoration of the Magi, on loan from Fordham University, and The Holy Name of Mary from the Museum of the Basilica of Guadalupe in Mexico City.
The Transfiguration of Jesus, with Moses and the Brazen Serpent
The first in a series of important ecclesiastical commissions, the "Transfiguration" marked a breakthrough in Villalpando’s work, in terms of its grand scale and its audacious conception and execution. He signed it “Villalpando inventor,” an inscription that emphasizes the artist’s intellectual achievement in addition to his artistic skills, thus asserting his professional status as a “learned practitioner of a noble art.”
   In his bold composition, Villalpando juxtaposed the Old Testament story of Moses and the Brazen Serpent with the New Testament account of the Transfiguration—an unprecedented pairing of these subjects. The two biblical events are staged against sacred landscapes that contrast the celestial realm, with misty mounts Calvary and Tabor, and the terrestrial realm of the desert wilderness as described in Exodus. 
   The two separate but linked sections are populated by life-size figures of every age and gender, clothed and nude, and in a striking variety of poses and attitudes.

The Transfiguration
The rounded upper half of the composition represents the transfiguration of Jesus’s corporeal body into light. This strange event takes place while Jesus is still living and among the apostles. In his Gospel, Matthew recounts that in the evening, Jesus led the brothers James and John as well as Peter up to a high mountain, known as Tabor, where they could be alone. 
   As they all looked on, an extraordinary change suddenly came over Jesus: his face shone like the sun, and his clothes turned a dazzling white. The three disciples then saw the prophets Moses (horned with serpent) and Elijah appear to talk with Jesus. 
   Then an incandescent cloud came over them, from which a voice issued saying, ‘This is my own dear Son, with whom I am pleased – listen to him!’ When the disciples heard the voice, they were so terrified that they threw themselves face downward on the ground.
   In his visual treatment Villalpando emphasizes the ethereal aspect of this other worldly scene rather than its drama, by means of shimmering color and fluid brushwork.

The Brazen Serpent
In contrast, the lower register of Villalpando’s composition is by far the more dramatic section of the canvas. It illustrates the bizarre story of Moses and the Brazen Serpent—significantly, a scriptural precedent for the making and use of images in worship, thus affirming the importance of art and artists. 
   This Old Testament narrative tells of the Israelites who, frustrated by refugee life in the desert, speak out against God and their leader Moses. To punish them, God sends a plague in the form of poisonous snakes to ravage the unfaithful. 
   After the Israelites repent, Moses, as intercessor, appeals to God on their behalf. God instructs Moses to make a brazen image of a serpent and place it on a pole. Whoever was bitten is to look up toward the pole and he would immediately be healed. Moses then constructs the serpent, placing it on a pole as God had instructed.
Villalpando depicts the horned Moses dressed as a soldier, or archangel, pointing up at the serpent. 
In his dramatic presentation of the surrounding chaos, Villalpando emphasizes the horror and agony afflicting the Israelites as well as their common and individual humanity. 
His figures, from young to old, writhe in pain, despair and remorse, desperate to find redemption. Next to a horrified old man on the left, a young woman holds her baby up to the serpent in the hopes of saving her child. The near-hysteria of these women with their babies evokes the ‘Massacre of the Innocents, while the harrowing scenes and grotesque attitudes of many figures suggest the Last Judgment. 

Two angels, one in flight and the other grounded, occupy the middle plane of the painting, a traditional device linking the two main sections of the canvas. They bear shields inscribed with biblical quotations relating the two events: 
    The angel on the left announces the scene of Moses and the Brazen Serpent below, “And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of Man be lifted up; that whosoever believeth in him should not perish but have eternal life,” whereas the standing angel on the right points upward to the Transfiguration. His shield reads, “and behold, there talked with him two men which were Moses and Elias: who appeared in glory, and spoke of his decease which he should accomplish at Jerusalem.”

Although this blog is not the forum for detailed 
iconographical analysis, the complexity of this superb painting has provoked a variety of interpretations, both of its underlying meaning and theology as well as its historic place in the colonial art of Mexico, as expounded in these more extended commentaries:

Bargellini, Clara.  Cristóbal de Villalpando at the Cathedral of Puebla. 
Struggle for Synthesis. The Total Work of Art in the 17th and 18th Centuries. Actas del simposio llevado a cabo en Braga, Portugal, 1996.

Gutíerrez Haces, Juana, Pedro Ángeles, Clara Bargellini and Rogelio Ruíz Gomar.  Cristóbal de Villalpando. Exhibition cat. Mexico City: Fomento Cultural Banamex, 1997.

———. The Painter Cristóbal de Villalpando: his Life and Legacy. In Exploring New World Imagery: Spanish Colonial Papers from the 2002 Mayer Center Symposium at the Denver Art Museum. Edited by Donna Pierce, 104-128: Denver Art Museum, 2005.

Leyva-Gutiérrez, Niria E.  Painting Power: Images of Ecclesiastical Authority in Seventeenth-Century New Spain  PhD dissertation. Institute of Fine Arts. New York University, 2012

Maza, Francisco de la.  El pintor Cristóbal de Villalpando. México, 1964.

text © 2017 Richard D. Perry
illustrations adapted from color images by Patrick Kavanagh and Niria Leyva-Gutiérrez

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