Casta paintings and the Virgin of Guadalupe: a link?

Luis de Mena, casta painting, c. 1750. Museo de América, Madrid. Click on image to enlarge. Image found here.

As part of my research for the book project, the other day I revisited this post‘s accompanying image, and some further reading–especially in reading the historical record supporting the authenticity of the story and, more directly, here–I was reminded, in a different way this time, of the contested nature of just about everything regarding the story of the Virgin’s appearance to Juan Diego, from the very earliest days of that story (she appeared to the Indian Juan Diego in 1531). Some (much?) of that argument, we find between the lines, was driven by rivalries among bishops and their respective orders (which I first speculated on here). Thus, it makes sense that we also have overt written and visual assertions of Juan Diego‘s worthiness as a way of asserting the truth of the Virgin’s appearance to him on the hill of Tepeyac; hence, in the frieze over the east entrance of the old basilica dedicated to the Virgin, Juan Diego’s accompanying hat and staff, which mark him iconographically not only as a shepherd but also as someone making a pilgrimage to a shrine, and the beaver in the foreground (a symbol of chastity in medieval bestiaries).

Anyway, that and the fact of the Virgin’s appearance as a mestiza to an indigenous person–that is, she appears, in effect, as always already of mixed ethnicity–made me wonder about linkages, whether direct or thematic, between depictions of the Virgin and the genre of casta painting that arose in Mexico and, to a lesser extent, in Peru during the colonial era. Those paintings are not merely secular in content, they are quite literally domestic: often their settings are the interiors of houses, or they show a family out for a promenade; some standardized depictions of castes show physical violence occurring between the spouses, their child attempting to intervene. So, off to Wichita State University’s library I went yesterday, and in one of the books I looked at I ran across the Luis de Mena painting you see at the top of this post. As it turns out, this same image also appears in Ilona Katzew’s excellent book on the subject; I own this book, but I didn’t remember seeing it in there and so didn’t bother to look again before last night. (Man: the things I tell you people.)

In a way, it’s my forgetting this image that really prompts this post.

Casta paintings that also include images of the Virgin apparently are not very common: this is the only such example in Katzew’s book, and I know I’ve not seen any others like this. At one level, that near-absence of juxtapositions is to be expected: The Virgin is, of course, the embodiment of chastity, while the most direct message of the casta paintings is, ahem, the consequences of the procreative act; moreover, though interracial marriages were officially permitted in Mexico, some, as I discussed in this post, were more approved-of than others were with regard to the social standing of the children of that marriage–more approved-of because of the matter of their racial purity. These were clearly not sacred but secular matters, as regarded the rules governing the painting guilds and their permitted subjects; to directly link the Virgin to such paintings would cross not only legal bounds but also those of propriety. I can be forgiven for not having remembered Mena’s painting, then: it’s something of an anomaly within this genre.

Katzew herself doesn’t spend too much time on Mena’s painting, either. She briefly discusses it within the context of a book by Juan Manuel de San Vicente, a book published in 1768 whose purpose was to extol New Spain’s virtues and whose language Katzew describes as an example of “creole discourses of pride” (193)–even though San Vicente was a Spaniard. This book

ends majestically with a discussion of the Virgin of Guadalupe, of whom he quotes the famous verse from Psalm 147 (20): “Non fecit taliter omni nationi” (He has not done the like for any other nation), pointing to the honor that God bestowed on Mexico by having the Virgin appear in that country. The Virgin of Guadalupe also features prominently in Mena’s casta painting along with the fruits of the land, the city’s famous retreats [shown in the upper-right corner], and the Virgin’s sanctuary [in the upper-left corner], allowing us to see how the work might have been interpreted by contemporary audiences. (194)

Katzew, as is typical of her book, doesn’t go into those interpretations. But, especially when compared to other casta paintings, it becomes pretty clear that Mena wants to insist on a more benign interpretation of these different castas by placing their depiction within a context in which Mexico’s other virtues are submitted for our admiration. The castas occupy the middle two registers of the painting; they are framed, below, by a depiction of native fruits and vegetables (it is no accident that the costumes of the figures in the casta paintings are in the same colors as the produce–as if to suggest that these many-hued people are likewise the fruit of the same Mexican soil) and, above, by the Virgin, her basilica and Ixtacalco, a popular place to visit on the southeast of the capital known for its canals. The painting’s overall message is that of exuberant variety that is clearly and distinctly Mexican, a variety, moreover, presided over approvingly by the Virgin herself.

But as soon as I saw Mena’s painting, I was immediately reminded of the painting below, which I saw for the first time when the Mrs. and I went on our Mexico City trip back in the fall of 2008:

Anon., Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe de México, Patrona de la Nueva España. 18th cen. Museo de la Basilica de Guadalupe, Mexico City. Image found here.

(Apologies, by the way, for the poor quality of the image. For details I describe below, I’m working from a picture in a small booklet I bought at the museum.)

The Museum caters to a niche audience, obviously, but if you’ve read this far and ever find yourself in Mexico City with a few extra hours to spare at the basilica, it’s well worth the 30 peso admission fee to visit. Fortunately for the Mrs. and me, it wasn’t too crowded the day we went because when I saw this painting, I couldn’t help but stare and stare at it.

In remembering this painting, it suddenly occurred to me that it bears some compositional similarities to the standard casta painting: we have a male and female of different races (here, the female figure on the left symbolizes Europe; the male figure, dressed in indigenous garb, represents the Americas. (The male figure, by the way, is speaking the same verse from Psalm 140 that Katzew reports San Vicente as quoting regarding the Virgin’s appearance.) But other images in the painting seem to argue for the Virgin’s distinctive Mexican-ness. Directly below the angel who is directly under the Virgin’s feet (the angel, by the way, is part of her traditional depiction–it’s on the framed cloth with the miraculous image that hangs over the altar in the new basilica), we see two small scenes depicting, on the left, the Virgin’s final appearance to Juan Diego and, on the right, Juan Diego showing the bishop his ayate with the Virgin’s image on it. But those two scenes rest on the outspread wings of an eagle perched on a prickly pear cactus, which itself is emerging from a body of water: the Aztecs’ sign from the gods to build their city on that place and, now, the emblem in the center of the Mexican flag.

Clearly, this painting functions as more than an image honoring the Virgin or as one depicting particular scenes from the story of her appearances to Juan Diego. It contains, in the allegorical figures of Europe and the Americas, themselves explicitly female and male, “parents” for the Virgin–whose respective races would account for the Virgin’s mestiza appearance, were this a typical casta painting. Moreover, her placement over the eagle on the cactus seems both to locate her in a very specific place and to explicitly associate her appearance with that earlier tradition (pagan though it was) of miraculous signs to the people in the Valle de Anahuac.

But no matter the truth of the Virgin’s origins, no religious syncretism is at work here: The Conquest was by now two centuries past for both Mena and the anonymous painter of the painting I have been discussing. San Vicente, whom I quoted above, introduced his work on Mexico by celebrating the Aztec emperors who preceded Cortés’ arrival, “because it is one of the circumstances that truly makes this city great, for having as its children (although heathen) eleven so great and illustrious emperors.” Katzew goes on to comment, “In other words, Mexico’s precolonial past is deployed to legitimize the uniqueness of the country and to set the stage for the remainder of his description [of the country]” (194). The latter half of 18th century was a time among Mexicans of growing pride of place and of culture, and the Virgin was most definitely included in that pride, so much so that in 1746 she would be declared the patroness of New Spain by the archbishop. What is at work in this painting is an allegorizing of the Virgin’s cultural parentage, and that her parentage is a miscegenated one. To see a painting of the Virgin from this time borrowing the basic form of the casta paintings is certainly startling from the point of view of religion and of veneration, but from that of culture, specifically Mexican culture, it makes perfect sense. But even more importantly, the Church’s official embracing of the Virgin as New Spain’s patroness implicitly validated the mixed-race populations who venerated her.

In a later post, I want to address at greater length something I said in this post–in particular, this:

Whatever happened in December of 1531 and the weeks and months following–whether miracle or fraud or some now-irrecoverable combination of the two–the Church lost control over the meaning of the Virgin and the resulting manner of her veneration in the instant that she appeared to an Indian as a mestiza. Which, of course, is tantamount to saying that it thus never had control over her. Such is her power in Mexico and throughout Hispanic America: that everyone knows this; all the Church can do is acknowledge it and appear to grant it official sanction as it is able via such means as papal visits and the move to canonize Juan Diego.


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