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Under Spain’s thumb, a mysterious art took root

A new exhibition at Harvard Art Museums explores colonization’s enduring cultural imprint

Matteo Perez de Alesio's "Virgin Mary Reading," circa 1589-1616 (center), is installed at the heart of Harvard Art Museums' “From the Andes to the Caribbean: American Art from the Spanish Empire,” on display through July 30.Mary Kocol/Harvard Art Museums

CAMBRIDGE — I’ll confess to not knowing that more than 400 years ago, a full-blown Renaissance painting studio — a watchful master, trained by Michelangelo at the Sistine Chapel, no less, and his students and assistants — was thriving in Lima, Peru. The city on South America’s Pacific coast was a bustling hub of the expanding trans-Atlantic Spanish empire, decades before the Pilgrims set foot on Plymouth Rock. This news, if you want to call it that, is one of the many surprises delivered by “From the Andes to the Caribbean: American Art from the Spanish Empire,” newly opened at Harvard Art Museums. Revelatory in its big-picture frame, it should reconfigure and expand anyone’s thinking on the role of cultural production in the march of empire.

The exhibition, conceived by themuseums’ associate curator of American Art, Horace D. Ballard, flows from that very point: On a blood-red wall, a small portrait of the Virgin Mary beckons, alone. She’s serene and pale-skinned, her eyes downcast, reading a book; however lovely, it’s late-Renaissance conventional, though its origins are anything but.

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Attributed to Matteo Pérez de Alesio — the assistant to Michelangelo who left Europe to seek his fortune in Lima around 1588 — the painting, like many under his name, is the product of a studio workforce that was significantly indigenous, scarcely European at all. The portrait would be at home in any collection of devotional Italian Renaissance painting, but its implicit Incan labor makes it an emblem of something else entirely: of culture transposed, insidiously, through faith and industry, and how colonization steals not just land, but the eye, heart, and mind.

“The Raising of the Cross,” 17th century by an artist active in the Viceroyalty of Peru, after Bernardo Bitti, 1548-1610.Jamie M. Stukenberg/Carl & Marilynn Thoma Collection

Devotional painting was no mere cottage industry in the New World; Spanish colonies, fueled by vast wealth from gold but especially silver discoveries, were growing rapidly in the 16th century to become the most populous and wealthiest in the world. Pérez de Alesio and others like him were surely entrepreneurially minded. But the work is hardly a mere remnant of commercial opportunism, as the exhibition makes clear in revelatory ways.

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Among the many remarkable things about it is how many of the paintings and drawings here are by unnamed artists — or, in the language of the show itself “artists active in” certain places and times. These works, 20 of the almost 30 here, give the most pause. Many defy the logic of period and place. They’re both European in style and influence, and starkly not.

As Ballard told me when we walked through the show earlier this month, their makers have been subsumed by history in much the same way colonialism itself tills under the origins of a place to transplant its own narrative. The indigenous assistants put to work by studios like Pérez de Alesio’s are a case in point: There are records of people coming into the studios, Ballard said, and people going out. No names match, he said; their employment was an act of conversion, requiring a christening, with a new Christian name. They would emerge no longer themselves.

“Saint Isidore the Farmer,” 1830-60 by an artist active in Bolivia.Jamie M. Stukenberg/Carl & Marilynn Thoma Collection

The wonder of the show, though, is in the undermining of Spanish colonial identity as either/or, and suggesting instead both/and. Many of the unattributed paintings display a collision of narratives and styles so befuddling that they demand consideration outside standard ideas of genre, which is ultimately what the exhibition proposes.

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One, “Saint Isidore the Farmer,” painted in the mid-19th century, left me gleefully bewildered. It reminded me of the wildly fantastical work of the Netherlandish early-Renaissance fabulist Hiëronymus Bosch; a giant red-coated St. Isidore — patron saint of Madrid, among other things — looms over miniature scenes unfolding all over the canvas.

Saint Isidore is depicted as a 19th-century hidalgo, or gentleman farmer, with a giant staff loosening a gush of water from the earth for the peasants at his feet. If such a thing as a devotional folkloric genre painting could exist, this might be its textbook example. In its fusion of styles and faiths, it’s a joyfully self-conscious hybrid. In its flatness of perspective, it feels almost medieval, but that’s to apply a European lens. More likely, it’s painted from the point of view of folk traditionalism that preceded European faith, but absorbs a Christian narrative all the same (an angel wearing bright blue boots steers a plow through the field; Isidore was said to have angels descend to turn his fields for him). The painting depicts a Spanish Catholic parable, but it feels less devotional than it does mildly subversive; it acknowledges assimilation, but says: We’re still here.

“Tobias and the Angel,” 1787, by José Campeche y Jordán.Jamie M. Stukenberg, Carl & Marilynn Thoma Foundation

Pérez de Alesio’s portrait of Mary is the oldest painting in the exhibition, while this one is its most recent. Generations lie between them — of mixing of peoples, ideas, faiths, techniques. By then, former assistants would have been dispersed by the dozens or hundreds, adding new skills and knowledge to old ways across the Spanish American world. In that collision of cultures, peoples and perspectives unique to the Spanish colonies emerged.

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Among the few named artists in the exhibition is José Campeche y Jordán, a well-known Spanish American artist of the 18th and 19th centuries. He’s a case in point. The son of a Portuguese-speaking native of the Canary Islands and a formerly-enslaved African craftsman who found work in the colonies restoring religious icons, Campeche y Jordán enjoyed privilege due to his light skin, ascending the heights of his field.

His piece, “Tobias and the Angel,” 1787, is among the more conventional here, a product, perhaps, of his renown and market-pleasing priorities. It’s in pieces where license is taken and convention is ignored or subverted that the real pleasures lie and marginal narratives emerge.

“Christ Entering Jerusalem,” 18th century, by an artist active in the Viceroyalty of Peru (Cusco School).Jamie M. Stukenberg

An 18th-century painting of Christ entering Jerusalem, artist unknown, is an exquisite, enigmatic thing; painted in oil with inlays of real gold, the piece, with its cross-hatches and stippling, bears the mark of many hands, a glorious fusion of materials and techniques. It portrays a central trope of the Christian myth, but was painted in Peru, a universe away by an unknown artist who may not have been Christian.

Lacking provenance, studio, or artist, it is the work the museum may know the least about, Ballard said; like so many others here, its story hasn’t followed it down through the ages. That’s at least partly why it’s among the show’s most compelling. Like colonialism itself, this is a story with no tidy ending to be written, and missing chapters yet to be unearthed.

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FROM THE ANDES TO THE CARIBBEAN: AMERICAN ART FROM THE SPANISH EMPIRE

Through July 30. Harvard Art Museums, 32 Quincy St., Cambridge. 617-495-9400, www.harvardartmuseums.org


Murray Whyte can be reached at murray.whyte@globe.com. Follow him @TheMurrayWhyte.