The arts that evolved in the Spanish Viceroyalties of Mexico and Perú were, from their beginnings in the second quarter of the sixteenth century, very different from those of the much younger North American colonies. Unlike the iconoclastic religious culture of the Protestant settlers of the United States, derived from England and Northern Europe, the Iberian culture transferred to the Americas was one in which both image-making and the decorative arts were deeply intertwined with the state religion of Roman Catholicism. Thus, in Latin America, the church not only exerted enormous power over the lives of the European and indigenous peoples, but also, through its patronage, profoundly influenced the nature of the visual arts in these regions.
The course followed by the arts in the Spanish Americas rapidly diverged, however, from the medieval and Renaissance models introduced by Spain and its church. Moreover, for all the imposed commonalities, other factors—for example, powerful indigenous survivals or imports from Asia via the Manila Galleon trade—led to the emergence of local artistic differences among the vast and various regions ruled by Spain.
Contributing to these differences were the numerous descendents of the once highly evolved and organized Aztec, Mayan, and Incan empires who would become incorporated into an elaborate colonial society. Although huge numbers toiled under lethal conditions in underground mines, others formed part of a skilled work force, with artists of Spanish descent, that helped to generate vast quantities of luxurious and labor-intensive objects, utilizing and underwritten by the very wealth extracted from the soil. In many cases indigenous artists and craftsmen soon left their own locally distinctive marks on the work they produced. It is the involvement of the native hand as well as the religious nature of much of this art that distinguishes it from that of the colonial United States.
Among the works on view is a seventeenth-century Peruvian painting, Virgin of the Rosary of Guápulo, depicting a dressed statue of the Virgin of the Rosary, said to represent a miracle-working cult figure in a native parish in Guápulo on the outskirts of Quito, Ecuador. It reveals how enthusiastically indigenous communities adopted the Spanish practice of dressing and otherwise embellishing sacred images, a tradition that corresponded to the Precolumbian Andean custom of lavishing precious textiles on devotional objects. Also on view is a sixteenth-century Mexican-feather mosaic, Triptych (Sacring Tablet): Institution of the Eucharist flanked by Saints Peter and Paul. It is one of only three surviving examples of Mexican featherwork sacras (altar plaques incorporating words from the Catholic Mass).