The Virgen and the castas: further comments

Sor María Antonia de la Purísima Concepción, 18th century, Ex Convento de Culhuacán (pictures), Mexico City. Click on the image to enlarge. The caption records her parents’ names, her birthdate, and the date and place she took the habit for the first time. As the picture indicates, by the time of its making the Virgen de Guadalupe had become an officially-approved icon for devout Catholics.

Image found here via a correspondent.

My source for this image was a recent visitor to this blog, and her kind e-mail, which mentioned in passing that entering a convent was a way for young women of mixed race to obtain a more-secure place in colonial Spanish America, has prompted me to pick up a loose end from my more recent posts on the Virgen de Guadalupe.

The loosest of those ends (for me) was how the Church reconciled the Virgen de Guadalupe’s association with the Immaculate Conception with her depiction as a mestiza, especially given the Church’s active role in the policing of racial hierarchies. That question begins to get answered via María Elena Martínez’s excellent book Genealogical Fictions: Limpieza de Sangre, Religion, and Gender in Colonial Mexico. Martínez notes that, whereas limpieza de sangre (“purity of blood”) originated in Spain during the Reconquista as a way of determining not race but a genealogy of religious affiliation (those who could demonstrate that their families had been Christians for at least three generations (unless someone in their family had been a Muslim) were thus eligible for the higher government and Church posts–as an aside, this explains why Cabeza de Vaca refers to himself and his fellow castaways not as Spaniards but as Christians), over time in the Americas the term came to indicate racial distinctions.

The existence of the Indians were the cause of this change in the term’s meaning. They were regarded as pure, but:

Ambiguities in the purity status of native people [. . .] emanated from the very contradictions of Spanish colonialism, from a political ideology that on the one hand announced that they were untainted because they lacked Jewish, Muslim and heretical antecedents and had willingly accepted the faith, and on the other constantly iterated that they would revert to idolatry if left to their own devices and in the hands of misguided leaders. (214)

These contradictions led as well to a lack of consistency among the different religious orders regarding how to think through this question. The Franciscans, for example, didn’t regard indigenous descent that was sufficiently distant in one’s past as a hindrance to determining one’s purity (and, thus, access to sinecures in the Church and government). But the Spanish-born and those born of Spanish parents in Mexico (read: those traditionally the only ones eligible for such positions) obviously did not agree with less-strict understandings of purity (Martínez, 219).

Enter both the genre of casta paintings and the rising prominence of the Virgen of Guadalupe.
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Quick notes on some current/recent reading

Engraving by Samuel Stradanus, c. 1615, the earliest known pictoral representation of miracles attributed to the Virgin of Guadalupe. Known depictions of the apparitions and the miracle of the image would not appear until 1648. Image found here.

The recent reading: Stafford Poole, C. M., Our Lady of Guadalupe: The Origins and Sources of a Mexican National Symbol, 1531-1797. I am about done with my Virgen de Guadalupe kick, my reader(s) will probably be pleased to learn. For those who want a thorough, Occam’s Razor-based examination of the historical record regarding the apparitions and the accompanying tradition, though, Poole’s book is definitely the place to start. It could use an update, seeing since its publication some additional documents concerning Juan Diego emerged during the process leading to his canonization. But it remains extremely valuable, especially for such things as providing the ecclesiastical context in both Spain and Mexico during the colonial era and the vagaries of Nahuatl poetry (chief among them, the fact that Nahuatl was a spoken and written language vital to aiding in the conversion and education of indigenous peoples up till almost the end of the colonial era). Here’s the thumbnail summary of Poole’s conclusions:

From 1531 (the year the apparitions are said to have occurred) till the 1550s, no written records of any sort exist which refer to Juan Diego or the apparitions;

beginning in the 1550s, there begin to appear references–not all of them positive–to a chapel (ermita) at Tepeyac (the hill in present-day Mexico City where the Virgin is said to have appeared) and the veneration of an object or objects there;

by 1615 (the year of the Samuel Stradanus engraving above), a pictoral tradition depicting miracles attributed to the Virgin had arisen, thus indicating the existence of an oral tradition that had given rise to them;

in 1648, there suddenly appeared (re Poole) the first narratives regarding Juan Diego and the apparitions and the miracle of the image on his ayate, accompanied by the admission of no prior written records of these narratives but that they had been perpetuated via the memory of those whose relatives or familiars had known Juan Diego;

from 1650 on, the Virgin was vigorously promoted as a sign that God had shown His favor on Mexico and, thus, on criollos (those of Spanish blood born in Mexico), and less-vigorously promoted as a means of evangelizing to the Indians.

As to the veracity of the story and image as currently-received tradition has it, Poole is careful to say that the currently-existing historical records–their words and, as importantly, their silences–don’t support that tradition . . . which is not the same thing as saying that they are untrue. Still, Poole’s incredulity that something as momentous as the apparitions and the miraculous image would go completely unmentioned in Church documents for over 100 years speaks for itself. As to the Virgin’s image’s link to casta paintings, which I speculated on here, Poole doesn’t address either those paintings or even, for that matter, the Virgin’s mestiza appearance. Still, in his thorough examining of sermons that establish a link between the Virgin and the affirmation of crilloismo, Poole helps provide tangential independent confirmation of that connection.

Speaking of casta paintings . . . I also had a look at Painting a New World: Mexican Art and Life 1521-1821. It contains some examples of these paintings, one of which is the first image you see in this earlier post of mine. From its discussion of that painting, written by Ilona Katzew:

Tobacco and chocolate [depicted in the painting] were staples of the New World. Featuring these typical American products in paintings whose subject was miscegenation–believed to be especially widespread in the New World–offered a highly mediated view of life in New Spain, one that casts the colony as the producers of goods and people. (245)

Yes. And add to this Katzew’s observation elsewhere that the enactment of the mid-18th century Bourbon Reforms, among other things, sought to insist more firmly on rules based on New Spain’s racial hierarchy (casta paintings would begin to be numbered accordingly); yet, in this painting and in others depicting all but the very lowest castas, the families would be shown as prosperous and anything but the moral degenerates that the casta system implicitly claimed the less-than-pure were. The casta paintings thus became, in this argument, somewhat akin to Hester Prynne’s scarlet letter: they honored the letter of the law but violated its spirit. They, along with the Virgen de Guadalupe in a parallel course (which is to say, these traditions seem not, or only rarely, to intersect), came to be manifestations of criollo pride rather than its official inferiority relative to Spain.

There is more to say about this.

Current reading: George Washington Cable, Strange True Tales of Louisiana (1888, 1889). Over at good old Blog Meridian, I recently posted on the potential dark side of literary regionalism, of which Cable is definitely a part, but it seems to me that he himself doesn’t fall prey to that dark side, either here or in The Grandissimes. Strange Tales is a collection of (so far) linked stories that Cable claims are based on actual memoirs and diaries that have come into his possession about life in antebellum New Orleans and southern Louisiana plantation life. Let’s just say I have my doubts about those claims, but that does nothing to lessen their interest for me. [UPDATE: Via this article (.pdf), I’ve learned that Cable indeed did use a combination of actual letters and diaries, along with contemporary newspaper accounts, to produce these stories. But the collection has, overall, a unified feel not unlike Faulkner’s Go Down, Moses.] And let’s just say as well that I think Edna Ferber read this book fairly attentively, but that that and other matters will have to wait for a fuller airing later on.

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.
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A reading of a casta painting

(Note: This post, crossposted here, is part of a larger interest of mine in identifying the characteristics of visual and textual rhetorics of interracial mixing and seeing what larger conclusions we can draw from those characteristics.)

Ilona Katzew, Casta Painting: Images of Race in Eighteenth-Century Mexico (Yale, 2004). Amazon link here. Image found here.

Posts both at my other blog and at this one on the genre of casta painting continue to draw a fair amount of traffic, so as a follow-up to those posts I thought I would post some brief comments on Katzew’s book and offer up not so much a reading of a painting as a kind of wading-into of the various social codes casta paintings participated in.

Here are some things I hadn’t know before reading this book that seem to me of significance: First of all, casta paintings are apparently exclusively a Spanish colonial–more precisely Mexican–genre (though Katzew notes the existence of one known casta painting set from Peru). This was surprising to me because the French Caribbean colonies likewise had worked out elaborate nomenclatures for various racial combinations–though theirs involved black-white combinations, and the New Spain system carried within it an implicit didactic element for its audience, about which more later. The other thing I didn’t know was the extent of these paintings’ popularity: Katzew notes that there are 100 known complete sets of these paintings (a set usually consists of 16 paintings; some depict up to 19 racial combinations) and any number of paintings belonging to now-incomplete sets. The other sign of their popularity is that, similar to but stricter than the guild system for painters in Dutch and Flemish culture, the Spanish crown regulated the licensing of artist workshops and who could paint what subjects in the colonies. Specifically, the Crown determined through examination who could paint religious and royal subjects and how to paint them, but no such regulations governed casta paintings; Katzew politely suggests that this lack of regulation accounts for these paintings’ “wide range of quality” (9).

If you have more than passing (no pun, about which more later) interest in this subject, look for this book. Katzew’s book is exemplary art history, with the emphasis here on the “history” part. But though there is lots of history, it serves to provide much-needed context for what would otherwise be rather enigmatic paintings. But neither does it skimp on images: there are 265 of them, most of them in color, not counting large closeups of some of the paintings. Moreover, many of the paintings included here are held privately and published here for the first time, thus adding to the book’s value.

Reading Katzew’s book reassured me that for the most part I hadn’t just been talking through my hat in those earlier posts regarding these paintings’ ambiguities for their audiences. Because her book is a work of art history, as opposed to criticism, she does not in the end argue for a definitive way to think about them. Rather, by so firmly establishing their cultural and social and legal contexts, Katzew makes clear that a far safer way for us to think about these paintings is that how they were understood in the 18th century depended on a whole complex of issues. They are part American exotica for primarily Spanish consumption, part visual codification of class and racial codes (and, thus, reassurance for Spaniards that everything is under control) . . . and yet, something about the very necessity to create a casta system in the first place would lead to its eventual (partial) deconstruction in the form of the wars for independence in the first quarter of the 19th century. The title of Katzew’s conclusion pretty much sums it up: “A genre with many meanings.” It’s outside the scope of her book to do so, but I would push that conclusion harder: Given that these series of paintings are intended to be part dictionary of racial types, part social code, and part visual cabinet of curiosities, I tend to think that their audiences, if they thought about the correspondences between the paintings and the realities of New Spain, could not escape the uneasy feeling that a social order founded on racial difference would eventually become untenable–especially given that part of these paintings’ very point (and whether this point was intended or not is difficult to determine) is that those differences were becoming ever harder to discern in real life. These paintings end up implicitly depicting their own inadequacy to depict the very thing they’re intended to depict–another version of something I was trying to get at in this post with regard to American literature.

Imagine if the King of Ambiguity in American literature, Nathaniel Hawthorne, had instead been a painter in 18th-century colonial Mexico. I think you’d have a pretty good sense of the complexities casta paintings presented for their immediate audiences–and, for that matter, for us.

An example of what I mean is below the fold.
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A painting by Dalí

This is a bit outside the concerns of this blog, but not too far afield. While looking at some paintings by Salvador Dalí this morning I ran across this: The Virgin of Guadalupe (1959)

(click to enlarge the image; originally found at Virtual Dalí)

The Virgin of Guadalupe, the patron saint of Mexico, is not just an iconic figure in the Americas, she is also depicted as a mestiza. Dalí’s painting is an interesting fusion of Raphael and El Greco; his Virgin (who is holding an infant Jesus; the Mexican Virgin does now) appears to be a bit lighter-skinned than the image preserved in Mexico City. My first impression is that Dalí is reimagining her for a European audience: re-interracialized?

Hither and yon: posts from elsewhere

The links that follow are posts that originally appeared at my “home” blog that touch on this blog’s preoccupations and will probably end up being incorporated into the book project, even if only tangentially. Consider this page, then, as being as much a sort of collections of notes to myself as an actual post that some might find worthwhile. But I also invite you to leave comments, either here or at the original posts.

“American Aesthetics I: Bingham’s Lion”: In which I argue that this hemisphere’s aesthetic sensibilities are based in pastiche and not electicism or egalitarianism.

“Ellison and (American) Public Space”: A discussion of Ellison’s essay “Twentieth-Century Fiction and the Black Mask of Humanity”–in particular its proposal that we view “the whole of American life as a drama acted out upon the body of a Negro giant, who, lying trussed up like Gulliver, forms the stage and scene upon which and within which the action unfolds” and the further, equally-provocative claim that “[i]t is not accidental that the disappearance of the human Negro [as opposed to stereotyped Negroes] from our fiction coincides with the disappearance of deep-probing doubt and a sense of evil.”

“Some comments on The Fathers: A reading of Allen Tate’s 1938 novel as something of a rewriting of Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom! (1936), though one that doesn’t deal quite as honestly with its subject as Faulkner’s does with its subject.

“More on Arc d’X: A short discussion of Steve Erickson’s 1993 novel, in which I promise to return but, at least over there, did not. That’ll happen here and in the book project.

“Denial on the Mississippi?: The strange career of the narrator in Show Boat and “Denial on the Mississippi?: Part II–the river as engine of nostalgia in Show Boat: Two posts that contain the germ of an article I’m writing on Edna Ferber’s 1926 novel that is near completion and which I will wrap up this summer. Each explores how the characters and even the novel’s narrator are strangely (willfully?) reticent on the theme of certain characters’ racial ambiguity, even though its most famous scene is the “outing” of Steve and Julie as a miscegenated couple and the action Steve takes to make himself “black” according to the letter of the law. Meanwhile, “Blankness: On unselfconsciousness in narrative” is an offshoot of those posts.

Three casta paintings

mulato2.gif Attrib. José de Alcíbar, 6. De Español y Negra, Mulato, ca. 1760-1770. Denver Art Museum. Image found here; specifics for this painting from Ilona Katzew, Casta Painting: Images of Race in Eighteenth-Century Mexico.

Two worlds God has placed in the hands of our Catholic Monarch, and the New does not resemble the Old, not in its climate, its customs, nor its inhabitants; it has another legislative body, another council for governing, yet always with the end of making them alike: In the Old Spain only a single caste of men is recognized, in the New many and different.
–Francisco Antonio Lorenzana, Spanish prelate and archbishop of Mexico from 1766 to 17721

In Antonio Lorenzana’s statement we find a basic stating of something that the Spanish crown was simply blind to, at least on an official level: that its colonies were not merely just really far away from Madrid but could not have been more different from Spain. Certainly by Antonio Lorenzana’s time those differences were inescapable; Mexico’s revolt from Spain would begin only 40 years later.

All art is the human imagination’s attempt to make sense of the world and the things and people in it, and casta paintings are a distinctly New World genre that attempts to depict and codify the bewildering variety of racial combinations arising from the commingling of indigenous, African and European populations in this hemisphere.
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