10.10.17 — The Baroque in Mexico

Who would have thought to rank Puebla alongside the great cathedral cities of Europe? Yet Cristóbal de Villalpando left his mark there as, says The Met, “Mexican Painter of the Baroque.” Permit me an extra post this week to keep the theme from last time of art history and extremely tall installations.

The Mexican city was barely fifty years old when Villalpando completed The Transfiguration in 1683, and the bishopric had moved there just thirty years before. Even now, it hardly comes to mind after Mexico City, not far to the northwest. (Wikipedia does credit it with exquisite tiling and mole poblano, so count me in its debt.) Look to a history of painting in the Americas, and you are likely to begin in Philadelphia or Boston on the eve of revolution. Demand to look back further, and you may learn about ancient civilizations. The Met, though, asks for more.

Maybe rank the Met’s Lehman wing up there, too. Now it, too, resembles a cathedral. At twenty-eight feet in height, the painting spans two levels and presents a stunning view right from the entrance. (For the record, The Last Judgment in the Sistine Chapel is half again as tall. But then Michelangelo did have at his disposal the Vatican. It makes a difference.)

One can almost look Jesus in his glory directly in the eye—or look down to see the scene’s unexpected pairing with Moses in the wilderness. One can walk downstairs to look further at the Israelites, as the brazen serpent spares them harm from a swarm of real snakes. One can contrast the brightness of one scene with the murkier mix in the other. One can contrast the shallow space of the heavens with the indeterminate and crowded space below, the golden wash with the more fluid handling of color, or the rapture with the terror. One can also step back upstairs for ten more paintings, all but one on loan from Mexico. They offer as much of a retrospective as Villalpando is likely to get, through October 15.

The drama may well be better in New York at that. The Mexican cathedral lacks an upper gallery, and the painter (like Michelangelo) intended views of a god and human trauma from below. He also planned the painting around its site. There it stands not as an altarpiece, but on a side wall—where windows above the altar illuminate its heavens, while candles barely penetrate the darkness. If that makes Villalpando a master of architecture and space, like Gian Lorenzo Bernini in Italy, he was also a creature of doctrine and of habit. He turns again and again to a shallow burst of yellow and a crowd.

As a Catholic and by disposition, he loved rapture. He also was indeed a Mexican painter, although with little regard for native peoples or culture. He was born in Mexico City, of presumably a Spanish family. One cannot say for sure when, but he was still in his early thirties when he undertook so large a painting. The Met can identify a likely teacher versed in the Baroque, but he knew Europeans like Peter Paul Rubens only from prints. Still, he internalized the art of Spain and its empire.

One can see Spanish and Flemish painting in the poorly defined spaces and often harsh colors. One can see, too, the persistence of Mannerism in his occasional choice of oil on copper. He must also have known The Transfiguration (also in the Vatican) by Raphael, the first to add a lower scene. The terror of snakes picks up Raphael’s child possessed by a demon from the Gospels, but moves the scene to the Old Testament. The artist signed his works Villalpando inventor, but he must surely have bowed to the inventions of Puebla’s bishop—just as Michelangelo must have had a theological advisor for all his boasts. Maybe they liked that Moses appears in the vision above, too—holding a staff with a serpent that stands for medicine even today.

Villalpando often returns to the contrast between the old order and the new. He paints a cross growing out of the Tree of Life—and then he pairs it with the Annunciation. He also sure loves those crowds. Even the Annunciation comes with tiered stadium seating for its cast of thousands of angels, and even Adam and Eve have plenty of company in paradise, if only other versions of themselves. Villalpando combines multiple events in a single painting, with god’s repeated attempts to nurture and instruct the first couple. (Spoiler alert: it does not end well.)

He is resolutely upbeat, and the positive emotions run wild. Israelites at the foot of the brazen serpent appear less in fear than in ecstatic worship. As curators, Ronda Kasl, NYU’s Jonathan Brown, and Clara Bargellini of the Universidad Nacional Autónoma in Mexico describe the Virgin Mary beneath her holy name as a painting of sound itself. When Villalpando depicts the holy family, he cannot settle for a manger with Joseph half asleep. He makes Jesus an unnaturally mature boy, while Joseph becomes a vigorous young man very much like a traditional Jesus. Amid the triumph of doctrine and deliverance, Villalpando’s Baroque can still privilege humanity.

Read more, now in a feature-length article on this site.