Surveying Otherworldly Visions

Virgin of the Mountain of Potosí, 1720.

Museo Nacional de Arte, La Paz, Bolivia.

Nuestra Señora de los Angeles with Kiva, late 17th-early 18th c.

Pecos, New Mexico. Photograph by Jorge Pérez de Lara.

Luisa Manuela del Sacramento, ca. 1809.

Banco de la República de Colombia, Bogotá, Colombia.


The people of Spanish America lived in a world infused with the sacred. Most believed the perceptible world to be animated by omniscient forces or beings more powerful than the living—be they God, Jesus and the saints, ancestors, or the indigenous deities that Catholics dismissively called “idols.” In this section, Vistas explores the manifold ways individuals in New Spain and Peru developed visual cultures to mark the sites where interaction with the otherworld took place. It also looks at the ways people gave expression, through objects, images and rituals, to their powerful and life-defining interactions with the divine.

Without a doubt, from the 16th century onward, Catholicism dominated the visual culture of Spanish America devoted to the otherworldly. Saints and angels, the Virgin Mary, and Jesus were made visible again and again, in thousands of manifestations. Image-makers might be artists of the highest acclaim fulfilling a grand public commission, or individuals seeking a material focus for personal devotion. They worked in a myriad of materials—with paint applied to canvas and walls, inks on paper, or gesso and wood, tagua nut, maguey fiber. The most precious materials adorned figures destined for august patrons and settings: elite homes, convents or cathedrals. Yet neither the cost of the materials nor the degree of craftsmanship determined the spiritual effectiveness of an image. A humble, sculpted image of wood of the Virgin Mary could be just as revered as one bedecked in velvet robes and pearls.

Looking at visual expressions of the otherworld gives one view, albeit a carefully focused one, on the larger landscape of religious belief. For every painting of the Virgin or statue of a saint, there were thousands upon thousands of rituals through which people made connections to the otherworld; these have left little trace in the visual or historical record. Nuns prayed silently behind convent walls, people recited their rosaries before sleep; barefoot farmers lit candles before prints of saints affixed to walls. The otherworld was also evoked in poems read from a book, sermons heard in church, or songs sung in a plaza. This written and oral world was the accompaniment to the visual one glimpsed here.

Catholicism was a religion imposed—often violently—on America. Long before the conquest, pre-Hispanic societies had their own highly developed religions and ritual lives. In the 16th century, early evangelizers, men of the cloth, arrived with men of the sword and destroyed thousands, if not tens of thousands, of indigenous temples and shrines, sacred books and sculptures. European conquerors degraded native deities, labeling them “idols” and suppressing their visual expression. The mendicant friars who were charged with evangelizing native peoples quickly realized that one belief system could not be substituted for another merely by force, and poured their energies into educating and indoctrinating the young. They commissioned churches and reset public celebrations to the Church calendar.

By the 17th century, Catholicism had taken hold in indigenous communities. But not surprisingly, Church orthodoxy in the Americas (as in Europe, Asia and Africa) was, and still is, perennially modified by local practice and shaped by enduring native beliefs. In fact, one scholar of Andean religion, Kenneth Mills, speaks of the “many faces of Christianity,” to emphasize the range and varied complexion of Christian practices that developed in Spanish America.

As Catholics, native peoples did much to define the nature of otherworldly beings and sites of interaction with them. In New Spain, the Virgin of Guadalupe left her image upon a poor Nahua man’s cloak. Slaves from Africa also had a role in shaping Catholicism: in the Caribbean and in Brazil, African orishas mingled with saints. In a number of instances, European-born or Creole clergy encouraged theater, dance and processions, allowing local practice to overlap with Catholic performance, as a way of strengthening the Catholic faith. In other cases, they accepted indigenous practices with guarded tolerance. In the Andes, the Jesuits sometimes allowed khipus—mnemonic devices made of knotted cords—to be used like rosaries. And in New Mexico, kivas were built within the walls of a few monasteries. At Pecos, for instance, the ruined walls of the monastery stand near a subterranean, circular kiva. Modern photographs like the one in Vistas images, which shows the kiva’s reconstructed roofing and ladder entryway, reveal the intimate link between Christian and Puebloan architectural forms.

Despite its power, however, the Church was unable to erase native histories, which often recorded moments of contact with non-Christian or pre-Christian otherworlds—particularly via ancestors and past heroes, whom many people believed were active forces in their contemporary worlds. One surviving Nahua manuscript, called the Historia Tolteca Chichimeca, painted in the town of Cuauhtinchan in the mid-16th century, offers an example. As can be seen in Vistas images, one of the manuscript pages depicts, in great detail, the cave of Colhuacatepec, a primordial point of origin whence founders of the town of Cuauhtinchan emerged: a Nahua Genesis, not a Christian one.

History was entwined with lives of the dead, and these selfsame dead were often conduits to otherworldly places and knowledge. Thus, many indigenous peoples revered the funerary remains of ancestors, particularly patriarchs of communities or founders of lineages. In the Caribbean, some zemis contain bones which may be those of deceased leaders. And in Andes, the mummies of Inka kings and queens, as well as local leaders were considered one type of wak’a, or sacred entity. These mummy bundles, elaborately dressed, played a large role in the visual culture of pre-Hispanic times, when they were taken out in public, fed and honored as mediators between this world and the next. Yet conquerors and priests banned many visual expressions of the ancestors, including zemis and mummy bundles.

This indigenous vision of the dead and their connection to the otherworld contrasted to that of more orthodox Catholicism in the colonies. This difference is visible in the deathbed portraits commissioned in Spanish America. The purposes of these pictures seems to have been to commemorate lives well lived and to inspire members of the community of the living. Neither the portraits, nor the souls of the people they represented were objects of devotion, or active forces in the otherworld. But such portraits, like those of nuns bedecked with crowns of flowers, remind contemporary viewers how much death surrounded the living—and how many cultural products, both visual and rhetorical, went into maintaining connections to the dead and attempting to understand the worlds where they dwelt.

But for all the ways Catholic practice was transformed by folk practices and local beliefs, the Church itself was not always tolerant. The Inquisition punished people for practices it deemed idolatrous and worked to pull belief towards orthodox teachings. While its main targets were rarely indigenous people, its presence was well known. In Lima, the Jesuit-run Casa de Santa Cruz was both a prison for those accused by the Inquisition and also a school for native leaders. Native communities in the countryside from Mexico through Peru were more often targeted by local bishops, who sent investigators of “idolatry” to rout out unorthodox practices. The continued existence, in places like Huarochiri, Peru, of native healers and diviners, their use of keros, drums, medicine bundles, and ceremonial garments (found by Church investigators in the 17th century) signals that the Catholic Church never fully monopolized all means of access to the otherworld.

The powerful need of Spanish Americans to access otherworlds is no way better attested to than through its landscape—to this day blanketed with colonial churches and cathedrals. Through celebration of the mass in these churches, priests conducted rites that turned wine and bread into the blood and body of Jesus. The accoutrements for such services—from priestly robes to candlesticks, altar cloths, and monstrances—set the stage for invoking the divine. In addition, when mass was offered, whether in a cloistered convent, a Maya town, or a magnificent cathedral, images of saints and angels, Church fathers and royal patrons, Jesus and Mary often adorned the space. On retablos and ceilings, in side chapels and choirs, images filled the churches of Spanish America. With scenes from the Bible, heaven and hell, churches offered visual, as well as ritual, access to the Christian otherworld.

It was not only buildings that marked the sites of otherworldly access. In pre-Hispanic Mexico, shrines and temples were built above caves or to align with the planet Venus as it swept across the sky. In the Andes, wak’as could take the form of mountain peaks, streams, and prominent rock outcroppings. After the Spanish conquest, colonial churches were often built near, if not upon, these sacred sites. While these churches undoubtedly drew on pre-existing understandings of the sacred landscape, they also tended to displace indigenous understandings of the otherworld, or subsume those ideas within Catholic ones.

Certain peoples—beyond the priests ordained by the Church—had privileged access to otherworlds. Just as Europe produced visionaries, like Saint Catherine, who dreamed of a mystic marriage to Christ, or Saint Francis, who bore the wounds of Jesus on his hands and feet, so too did Spanish America. Local visionaries could capture huge followings and many were promoted by the Church. Spanish-American born visionaries and saints, like Saint Rose of Lima, Madre María de Jesús of Tunja, or Saint Martín de Porras, reinforced the idea that the portals to the otherworld could be opened to the living. But, like the visions themselves, access points to the sacred were also difficult for Church leaders to fully anticipate. Miracle working saints, like the Virgin of Ocotlán, the Virgin of Potosí and the Virgin of Cocharcas, appeared in surprising places to unlikely visionaries. And pilgrimages to the shrines of such Virgins became integral to the landscape and ritual practices of the sacred in Spanish America.

Today, parades and processions are most often held to celebrate historical events, secular holidays like Independence Day, and sports victories. In Spanish America, they were often a way of visually reenacting the porousness between the otherworld of God and the saints and the human community. One extraordinary set of 17th-century paintings shows a parade during the important feast of Corpus Christi in Cuzco. In one of the paintings, which can be seen in Vistas images, Andean leaders lead an elaborate cart, bearing a statue of Saint Christopher through the streets of the city. As depicted by the painter, both the wooden saint and human participants seem equally alive, equally part of this community.



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