Exhibitions/ The Colonial Andes

The Colonial Andes: Tapestries and Silverwork, 1530–1830

September 29 / 2004–December 12 / 2004
Exhibitions are free with Museum admission.

Exhibition Overview

The arrival of the Spanish in 1532 in South America dramatically transformed the Andean cultural landscape, changing societies that had evolved over thousands of years within less than one generation. The arts, however, continued to thrive amid the upheavals, and they preserved an unspoken dialogue between Andean and European artistic traditions. This exhibition of more than 175 works of art focuses on two uniquely rich and inherently Andean art forms that flourished during the colonial period, presenting the finest examples of Inca and colonial garments and tapestries, as well as ritual and domestic silverwork. Their juxtaposition, together with a select group of important colonial paintings and other related objects, drawn from museums, churches, and private collections in South America, Europe, and the United States, documents the creative vitality of the complex Andean culture that developed after the Conquest.

Among the highlights of the exhibition is a group of recently discovered silver objects and little-known tapestries from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Featured are a number of unusually detailed silver vessels, including one of a number portraying scenes of sixteenth-century Andean life. These document the transition from Inca to viceregal style—that were recovered from the Spanish fleet vessel Nuestra Señora de Atocha, which was shipwrecked off the coast of Florida in 1622 (Mel Fisher Maritime Heritage Society, Key West, and private collections). The exhibition also presents a tapestry of The Creation of Eve, from a rare series produced by native Andean weavers under the patronage of the Jesuit Order. Vividly illustrating Old Testament scenes, the series demonstrates the introduction of European narratives into the culture of the Andes (Círculo de Armas, Buenos Aires).


The exhibition is made possible by Univision Communications Inc., Univision 41, TeleFutura 68 and WCAA 105.9FM, WZAA 92.7FM, WADO 1280AM.

Additional support has been provided by The Reed Foundation.

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Beginning with an introduction to the culture of the Inca Empire, the exhibition shows how early colonial artists integrated aspects of their native traditions with European elements to forge a new artistic vocabulary and to explore new Andean identities. An eighteenth-century portrait of the cacique don Marcos Chiguan Topa (Museo Inka, Cusco) illustrates how members of the indigenous elite adapted European and Inca symbols of status and identity to reinforce their authority. Dressed in seventeenth-century European clothing, the subject wears on his forehead a mascaypacha, the scarlet fringe of Inca royalty that became the emblem of native viceregal nobility. At the same time, the painting displays the coat of arms granted to his ancestors by Charles V, as well as the arms of Spain. Garments in the Andes conveyed complex meanings, both in their designs and in the ways in which they were made. The negotiation of personal identity and the integration of Andean heritage within the viceregal society played out in the public sphere, where dress and identity merged. The exhibition will present some of the early transitional garments made in finely woven tapestry, that speak to the complexities of colonial life, such as Inca-style tunics that integrate European heraldic motifs and highly charged Inca symbols of kingship.

Exquisite metalwork and tapestry reveal how European motifs—in particular, significant elements of Renaissance style—were incorporated into the work of Andean artists and craftsmen. One splendid example that will be on view is a gold "poison cup," retrieved from the Atocha shipwreck. Because of its classic Renaissance design, this drinking cup was at first thought to have been of European origin, but its details indicate that it is the work of a New World silversmith. Beyond the technical mastery it displays, it is remarkable for its intended function: it was configured to hold a bezoar stone, or a deposit formed in the stomach of camelids like llamas and alpacas, that was believed to possess the ability to absorb poisons.

Asian trade goods, coming to the Americas from Manila via galleons, also triggered the Andean imagination to produce further exotic hybrid works. Among the objects on view are an Andean tapestry depicting the Christian image of the "Pelican in Her Piety" (Textile Museum, Washington, D.C.), which incorporates Chinese mythological animals and peonies, motifs inspired by silk weavings imported into Peru from Asia. A late-eighteenth-century silver perfuming pot in the form of a lion (private collection, Peru) reflects a similar Asian source of inspiration.

The exhibition also examines the art produced by and for the Catholic Church in Peru. The enormous material resources Andean communities dedicated to the embellishment of their churches are evident in the vast quantities of exuberantly patterned silver applied to their decoration, fostering the creation of the Andean Baroque style. An elaborate silver lectern (private collection, Argentina) on view in the exhibition is but one example of Andean ecclesiastical objects. Crafted about 1700, this reading stand would have been placed on an altar to hold the book of scripture from which the officiant reads during the celebration of the Mass. Its simple wooden structure is overlaid with sheet silver densely decorated with a pair of whimsical angels swinging censers from intricately worked chains, all surrounded by abstract strapwork and foliage, typical of the Baroque style in the highlands between Cuzco and Puno. Also exhibited is a later work, a mid-eighteenth-century Eucharistic vessel made of gold, silver, and precious stones in the form of a pelican (Monasterio de Nuestra Señora del Prado, Lima). The theme of the "Pelican in Her Piety," according to legend, plucking flesh from her own breast to nourish her children, was a symbol of Christ's sacrifice, actualized in the Sacrament of the Eucharist. In the Andes, great silver pelicans such as this one were made with chambers in their breasts to contain the Host and were paraded in the processions of Holy Thursday.

The exuberant mélange of flora, fauna, and local variations of imported Asian and European motifs employed in the liturgical arts also crossed over into secular works, as displayed in superbly crafted silver objects and weavings created for domestic use. On view is a richly patterned poncho (Los Angeles County Museum of Art), a tapestry-woven garment filled with elaborate floral borders and with musicians woven in silver threads. A beautiful silver "coca box" dating from about 1775 (private collection, Madrid) may have been used to hold coca leaves or leaves of yerba mate, which were both brewed as tea. This "Rococo" box is but one example of the distinctively designed household items dedicated to communal consumption of beverages in the exhibition.