by Amanda Judah
While studying in Ecuador, I’ve been able to take an Art History class about the colonial artwork of the capital city, Quito. Having been raised with a Protestant perspective, I never got the chance to explore Catholic artwork in much depth. This class has allowed me to understand a bit more of the reality of the citizens of colonial Quito through their religious artwork. This artwork created a new community in continental South America, while simultaneously maintaining cultural ties to the European Catholic tradition. New saints were recognized, the Virgin Mary adopted a different cultural role, and indigenous iconography was incorporated, most famously in the Iglesia de San Francisco, which was built over a sacred spot for the natives.
In a time when many citizens were illiterate, paintings were a way for churches to share important pieces of their doctrine and central Biblical passages with the faithful. Although there were often some inscriptions in Latin, the mental image was most important for the average viewer. For members of religious orders, smaller pieces of art were very common for personal contemplation.
One story I find especially fascinating is the way in which colonial Church included many members of the population in the production of artwork. Although the system had its flaws, women, natives, and slaves were all adopted into co-fraternities, where they were taught to read and produce different types of art, including jewelry, carpentry, and painting. Nuns were even able to sell their work in towns and were specifically contracted for certain projects.
We live in a world where monuments can speak volumes about the values of a society. While the ornamentation of Catholic artwork can be criticized as a distraction from important philosophical or theological matters, learning more about the processes and symbolism in these works has added more nuance to how I see these objects. While their superficial beauty may be most apparent, their theological value is also certainly present.
I have always been able to see God through nature, but have sometimes struggled to see Him in manmade objects, especially if the creator has a different conception of the Divine from my own. However, in learning about the variety in each piece of artwork and the many layers of iconography in each painting, I’ve become to grow in my appreciation for each individual’s perception of the Divine. While there were certainly popular trends in any era for artistic subjects or architectural styles to follow, the time and patience it took to produce art of any kind speaks to a devotion that is sometimes difficult to come across today.
Featured image courtesy of Ministerio de Turismo Ecuador via Flickr