Surveying Political Force

Santiago Matamoros, 17th c.

Museo Nacional del Virreinato, Tepotzotlán, Mexico.

Kero with Inka Village and Planting Scenes, late 16th c.

Museo Inka, Cuzco, Peru.

Korikancha and Santo Domingo, 15th-17th c.

Cuzco, Peru.


Governance in Spanish America was, on the surface, a top down affair. City life was punctuated by reminders of the centrality of the king and his representative, the viceroy. Across the whole colonial period, city dwellers were called out from their homes by noisy processions to welcome a new viceroy, celebrate the birth of a royal heir or mourn the death of their king. These events—surprising and irregular—were extravagantly commemorated and they also afforded spectators a visual lesson on politics.

The position of participants in the parade signaled their importance in this political hierarchy, even beyond the elegance and color of their clothing or the weight of their swords. Members of the Audiencia, the judicial branch of the Spanish government, would ride grandly on horseback, as would the Viceroy, while alcaldes, or councilmen, might follow on foot. And the morning after, city dwellers were again reminded of their role in this system when tax collectors knocked at their doors to have them foot the bill.

This section of Vistas focuses on visible things left by these shows of political power. Perhaps least surprising are the portraits of kings, from paintings that adorned the walls of elegant houses to coins that circulated from royal mint to country market. Second in power to the monarch were his appointed viceroys, whose portraits mimicked those of the king. Yet images of the mighty were not the most important ways in which political power was made visible. Political power could be embedded in and enacted through the use of maps of territory, staffs of office and government palaces. These works do not merely reflect the power resulting from governance. Rather, these objects and visual displays had agency—that is, leaders used pageants, buildings and paintings to refresh their audience’s understanding of the political hierarchy. While some scholars interpret these events and objects as propaganda, foisted by an arrogant ruling class onto the populace at large, this represents a too-narrow view. In order to be absorbed into visual culture and preserved over time, staffs of office and royal portraits depended on a willingness of the governed, as well as those governing, to participate in the rituals that cleaved people to rulers.

One metaphor that runs through discussions of politics and its visual expression is war, no doubt because it was both the alpha and omega of political order: wars of conquest preceded government, and wars followed when government failed. In the early years of the 16th century, war and governance were inseparable. The conquistadors, the first Spaniards to wrest governance away from indigenous rulers in the Americas, were hardened soldiers. Early viceroys, like Antonio de Mendoza, likewise needed to wield the sword as well as the scepter. In most cases, though, the powerful were content merely to invoke the iconography of war, rather than actually wage war. Devotion to Santiago Matamoros, St. James the Moor-slayer, played a deep and lasting role in Spanish America. Across the colonies, his image, mounted upon a horse ready for battle, was painted, sculpted, and, upon occasion, carried into the streets during processions.

But political power and the obligations of governance were not just the province of Spaniards and Creoles. From the time of the conquest of Mexico, Spaniards built the colonial state upon pre-existing systems of native governance. While Spaniards gave indigenous leaders new titles and rites of rule, they were reluctant—and probably unable—to dismantle indigenous political systems completely. In the 16th century, many local town governments were run by native men who conducted meetings in their native tongues with little interference or involvement from outsiders. And objects associated with pre-Hispanic political and religious power, such as drinking cups from the Andes known as keros, were still exchanged as political gifts and displayed in public feasts even as they took on new meanings and imagery. Indeed, it comes as little surprise that these objects did not remain static in their importance because native systems of governance continued to develop throughout the colonial period.

Many objects and documents bind temporal political power to divine power. Such unions had deep roots in Spain and the Americas. In Spain, rulers were believed to receive their right to rule through a contract with the people that was sanctioned by God and the Catholic Church. And likewise, the rulers of pre-Hispanic states were held to have divine or semi-divine status. Cathedrals, such as those in the major cities of Lima, Mexico, Puebla, Santo Domingo and Antigua, were not strictly buildings for prayer. They also housed the remains of conquistadors and the masses celebrating the consecration of kings and viceroys. And most cathedrals opened their doors onto the central plazas of Spanish America’s capital cities, sharing pride of place with other prestigious government buildings.

In fact, residents of Spanish America really lived under the domain of two overlapping governments, one run by the Crown, the other by the Church. In many regards, the two were inseparable. Early on, for instance, the conquest of territory and political empire proceeded hand-in-glove with the conversion of native people. The physical and visual traces of this enterprise remain. Just as Santo Domingo rises out of the foundations of the Korikancha, many other churches were built on top of the foundations of indigenous temples. In addition, large monastic complexes were built under the supervision of friars in the 16th century. This same enterprise was still alive in the 18th century, as missions were built in Texas and California. Across the colonial period, the desire to evangelize and civilize always bound Church and state.

The lack of political power was also conveyed through the visual. Women carried parasols, not staffs; plantation slaves wore few clothes. Most indigenous men were forbidden to ride on horseback and carry swords, both distinguishing prerogatives of soldiers and gentlemen.Yet the general lack of political power held by women and native peoples should not be read as a perpetual void. Women could wield political power within the protective shelter of convents, where they could lead communities, oversee the conduct of novices and control the often-considerable sums that were communal assets. Indigenous men, especially elite and educated ones, could hold public office in their own communities, head religious societies called cofradías, and exert considerable sway in local affairs.

It is the objects and buildings produced for the established political institutions—the Spanish state and the Catholic Church—that have been best preserved. Still others outside this circle used the visual to aid in their contests for political power. Rebel leaders, for example, often commandeered the established visual expressions of political power. When the Andean rebel Tupac Amaru II first seized power in 1780, he staged an elaborate public execution of the Spanish corregidor, to show his take-over of the viceregal justice system. He also came to refer to himself as the Inka, a name that called up the specter of pre-Hispanic rulership. That his rebellion did not succeed is, in certain respects, just one piece of the story. For Tupac Amaru’s ambitions and grisly demise were commemorated for centuries via paintings and weavings, as well as in written texts and oral narratives.

Such evocation of the political order of pre-Hispanic empires became integral to visual displays of power in Spanish America. And it was the empires felled by the Spanish conquest—the Aztec in Mexico, and the Inka in Peru—that were most often evoked. To suggest the unbroken progression of imperial governance, floats and triumphal arches celebrating new Spanish kings included images of the imperial Inka or alluded to the royal Aztecs of the past. And on colonial feast days in the Andes, elites who could trace their descent from ancient Inka royalty proudly wore elaborately embroidered tunics along with the maskapaycha, a scarlet fringe across their foreheads that had once been the crown of office of the supreme Inka.

By the end of the 18th century, Creole leaders as well as indigenous people had grown impatient with the yoke of colonial rule. Yet the declaration of independence by the colonies of Spanish America and their transformation into Latin American nations in the early 19th century followed no single trajectory, either politically or visually. In many images of Simón Bolívar, a leader in the Wars of Independence, the tradition of royal portraits was not simply ignored, but rather transformed into a Republican one. Likewise, indigenous political accoutrements and symbols familiar from colonial times were still used in the wake of independence; few peoples erase the rituals or emblems of the past completely. Through the 19th century, well after Independence, the freshly minted nations of Latin America would come to develop their own visual expressions for the new contours of their political power.



The Political Force of Images > Surveying Political Force    > Images    > Texts    > Bibliography