Surveying Mechanics

San Pedro Apóstol, 1618-1626.

Andahuaylillas, Peru.

Missal Stand, late 17th-early 18th c.

Museum of Spanish Colonial Art, Santa Fe, New Mexico, USA.

Archangel Gabriel, ca. 1770-1795.

New Orleans Museum of Art, New Orleans, Louisiana, USA.


In Spanish America, works of visual culture, be they churches or chasubles, paintings or parades, came into being through a complex interplay among people, materials, and technologies. While patrons defined the need for works, they depended upon architects, artists, and craftsmen—a cadre of workers with specialized knowledge of materials and techniques—to give their desires form. With the interchange of both parties, extraordinary and unique, as well as simple and conventional works of visual culture came into being.

In some respects, this “artworld,” this system of social and economic relationships that underlay artistic creation, was hardly different than ones that exist today. In other crucial ways, its practices were quite distinct. For instance, modern notions of artistic independence and inspired creation would have seemed odd to most residents of Spanish America. Throughout much of the colonial period, patrons played a key role in the creative process. Their taste was a decisive force in the final shape of the work. And without the assurance of paying customers, artists and craftsmen had little reason to carve a sculpture or cast a coffee pot. Time-consuming and costly works were almost always commissioned, and wealthy patrons often preferred works that echoed European styles and tastes. Ironically, the most celebrated artists may have been among those most constrained by their patrons’ demands.

Before viceregal rule, pre-Columbian societies supported highly skilled artisans, among them masons, weavers, painters, and feather-workers. After the Spanish conquest, however, the Catholic Church stepped in as an important new patron. For instance, Europeans regarded with awe the delicate “painted” images made of feathers that pre-Hispanic craftsmen had created. And soon after the conquest, Catholic friars set trained specialists to work, making religious vestments and wall coverings. These feather mosaics were works of indescribable skill and beauty; included among the Vistas images is a banner depicting Christ as Salvator Mundi, “painted” in central Mexico out of the feathers of tropical birds.

In other cases indigenous artistry was essential but less clearly visible as such. The most elaborate buildings of Spanish America owed their basic designs to European models and traditions. From Santo Domingo to Santiago de Chile, cathedrals and the houses of wealthy Spanish and Creole families as well as some hospitals and schools depended upon architects well versed in European styles and techniques. The laborers who raised these structures, however, were often indigenous. Sometimes their labor was voluntary, sometimes obligatory. In the mid-16th century, for instance, the residence of Francisco de Montejo, which was built on the main plaza in Mérida, required Maya craftsmen to learn new ways of carving stone to make fluted columns, sculpted figures, and broken pediments.

Similar patterns, in which native craftsmen learned new techniques to serve colonial needs, were repeated in Mexico, Peru, Paraguay and elsewhere. The organization and training of these craftsmen required that knowledge be passed, largely orally, from generation to generation. And men rarely worked alone. Women cooked food, provided clothing and tended fields while men were building. Indigenous people, sometimes along with African slaves, were thus responsible—although largely uncredited—for actually building the vast majority of architectural projects in Spanish America, be they secular or religious. Native people, particularly elites and local leaders, also were important patrons during the colonial period, commissioning manuscripts, portraits and retablos, keros, and parish churches. In cities and towns across Spanish America many of their commissions can still be seen.

Guilds, professional associations of skilled craftsmen modeled on European practices, dominated official artistic production in Spanish America from the late 16th into the 18th century. Craftsmanship was the backbone of the guild system. From Lima to La Paz, from Puebla to Havana, guilds maintained exacting standards for quality workmanship. Each guild, among them silversmiths, painters, and sculptors, had its own cofradía, or religious society, that often served as a kind of mutual aid society. And cofradías were a visible presence in the numerous religious processions and celebrations that marked the liturgical year, as members marched together in a show of collective piety. While many of the works they made or commissioned for these public displays—like banners, arches, and floats—no longer survive, other more permanent ones, like processional crosses and silver emblems, hint at the splendid displays city dwellers must have once seen.

Artistic ideas, models, and styles traveled along many different paths. Some developed in the colonies, others crossed from Asia into the Americas. And a great number of patterns and tastes came from Europe. Books with printed images and individual prints were copied in church schools, sold in city markets, and studied in guild workshops. In 16th-century New Spain, for example, indigenous painters learned to create European-style scenes from prints and engravings. And in the 17th century, architects like Diego de la Sierra sketched Doric and Corinthian columns as they trained for their guild exams. By 1785, the royal government founded the Academy of San Carlos in Mexico City, and dispatched Spanish artists to teach students, both indigenous and Creole, to draw, paint, and sculpt following European academic practice.

Trade, as much as labor, also shaped the making of artworks and daily objects. Raw materials that could be cast, woven, sculpted, and painted were abundant in Spanish America, yet imports from Asia and Europe also played a leading role. At times, imported materials were incorporated into colonial art works as in statues of saints with hands and faces carved of ivory from Asia. In other instances, artists and craftsmen took ideas and inspiration from foreign practices. Both the famous blue-and-white pottery from Puebla and missal stands and other furniture, inlaid with bone and tortoise shell, combined European and Asian styles and techniques. The artisans of Spanish America may not have been well traveled but they participated in the world trade networks taking form in early modernity.

In cities across Spanish America, the manufacture of visual culture, like that of the economy at large, was dependent upon legally sanctioned racial hierarchies and artificially cheap labor. Guilds had restrictive laws on the books—they often excluded all but Creoles and Spaniards from attaining the highest rank of master artisan—relegating blacks, mulattos and native peoples to being permanent assistants. In spite of these rules, some mestizos, such as the painter, sculptor and architect Bernardo Legarda and the painter Miguel Cabrera, who painted murals for Jesuit patrons, became influential. In Quito, a Dominican friar established the Confraternity of the Rosary for indigenous, African, and Spanish artists. Guilds may therefore have set the tone and guidelines for artistic production, but they did not circumscribe all that was created.

Obrajes—or factories, largely for the production of textiles—also benefited from social segregation and debt peonage. They were staffed with hundreds of indigenous, mestizo, and mulatto workers. Women, who were usually banned from guild workshops except as family members, could also find work in obrajes. While laws required that they be paid for their work, many obraje workers found themselves weaving and spinning in servitude, using their labor to pay off debts that could take years to erase. Paintings of textile workshops show workers wearning far more humble clothing than do overseers, suggesting how art could register distinctions of wealth and modes of labor well known in daily life.

Outside cities, small communities called upon local artisans to make the structures and works they needed. Images were made for display in parades and public buildings; churches, such as the one in Andahuaylillas, were raised and typically decorated by local carpenters, masons and painters. While not viewed as artful by metropolitan standards, provincial works served an important set of audiences and purposes. And they were no less effective than the most elaborate retablos of Lima in honoring the saints, evoking the Last Judgment, or recalling ancient history. While many of the names of provincial and indigenous painters and other craftsmen are no longer known, their images remain, testifying to the extraordinary creative abilities and intense desire for images that flourished beyond the guilds and their world of official “good taste.”

When the mechanics of the art and craft production in Spanish America is considered from today’s perspective, it seems familiar and strange, tragic and wonderful. Familiar, in that many of the same art industries are found today in Latin America. Ceramicists, silver workers, and textile makers continue to supply beautiful goods for both local and international markets. Strange, in the primacy of skill over innovation, and the dependence of artists upon the wants of patrons. Tragic, in the endemic use of poorly paid or forced labor, and the wide scale loss of pre-Columbian art-making traditions. And wonderful in that, despite the many flaws of the system, works of extraordinary inventiveness and skill have survived to the present day.



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