Art

Art Review

Artistic worlds collide in ‘Highest Heaven’

“Rest on the Flight Into Egypt” is part of “Highest Heaven” at the Worcester Art Museum.

Graydon Wood/Philadelphia Museum of Art

“Rest on the Flight Into Egypt” is part of “Highest Heaven” at the Worcester Art Museum.

WORCESTER — Dangling pearl earrings and a wide-brimmed gaucho hat: a styling, fresh look for the Virgin Mary.

See her in “Highest Heaven: Spanish and Portuguese Colonial Art From the Collection of Roberta and Richard Huber,” now at the Worcester Art Museum through July 9. The show highlights the aesthetic tools the Spanish and Portuguese empires employed to inculcate Andean natives with the Catholic faith.

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The show, from the San Antonio Museum of Art, features roughly 100 paintings and objects made of ivory, wood, and silver from the deep collection of a New York couple who lived for years in South America. The sumptuous work reflects the capital invested in evangelism in a society plumped up on natural resources.

In its emphasis on proselytizing, however, the exhibition leaves part of the story out: the havoc colonization wreaked, and how indigenous beliefs melded with and shaped South American Catholicism.

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Granted, not that much is known about Incan beliefs. European diseases devastated the indigenous population in the 16th century. In the space of a few decades, much knowledge was lost. Still, a show about colonial art ought to consider, in the catalog and in the wall text, the impact of colonialism on the colonized. “Highest Heaven” does not.

“Over a few decades, the shift to Spanish and Portuguese dominance was relatively swift, and the Church played a pivotal role in maintaining social structure. Jesuits and other evangelists used paintings, statues, and comparable religious objects to disseminate the Word. These works didn’t merely tell stories; they had the energy, the magic of a talisman.

The Virgin in pearl earrings, for instance, in the painting “Rest on the Flight Into Egypt.”

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Joseph dandles the baby. Mary, topping off her familiar red and blue garments with the hat and earrings, serenely washes a nappy in a wooden basin. The setting doesn’t resemble Egypt; lush foliage surrounds the young family. A heron plucks a fat frog from a calm river. The flora and fauna, the basin, Mary’s accessories — they’re all local. They infuse the story with fresh life.

The artist is anonymous. Most are in this show. The painting was made in what is now Bolivia in the 1700s. The art primarily dates to the 17th and 18th centuries. During that time, in areas of the former Incan Empire, some Jesuits sought to extinguish all traces of Incan culture; others tried to revive and make use of Incan beliefs.

Catholic iconography was having a heyday. In Europe, the Vatican urged artists to spread the faith. In Spain, Catholic art was used to keep Islam at bay. For flocks of illiterate worshipers, visual stories packed a high-definition punch.

European motifs and styles dominate “Highest Heaven,” but the most startling works are truly mestizo. South American influences burble through the art, but the show is so carefully constructed around religious instruction, with galleries devoted to Mary, to saints, and to the life of Christ, that it merely nods at cultural hybridity — the very thing that makes much of this art riveting.

Images of intricately patterned textiles topped with gold gilding are the sweetest morsels here. They have indigenous DNA: The Incans’ textiles flashed with geometric patterns. Their effusive gold work represented the sweat of the sun.

The otherwise typically Baroque “Saint Michael the Archangel” depicts the angel in frothy lace undergarments and billowing garb stenciled with gold patterns like stars sprinkling the heavens. Wearing a mild expression, Michael stands on the belly of the devil, aiming a spear into his flame-spewing mouth.

Virgins of all stripes — Our Lady of Candlemas of Potosi, Our Lady of Mount Carmel, Our Lady of Guadalupe of Extremadura — wear extraordinary gowns with enormous, painstakingly patterned skirts, often painted with gold. These are usually portraits of dressed statues at which the faithful worshiped, statues toted from town to town to raise money.

Like their European counterparts, South American Catholic painters had a taste for the sensational. “Christ Descending Into Hell” is a doozy: Jesus, his stigmata bleeding, his garment flailing in the wind, stands atop a serpentine Satan and a skeletal Death — but the broad face of a beast hovers below the scene, fangs bloodied. Christ has more to contend with before he rises.

South American colonial art, long ignored, is having a moment. There have been several exhibitions. The terrific “Made in the Americas: The New World Discovers Asia” at the Museum of Fine Arts in 2015-16 celebrated cultural crosscurrents. The scholarship is new and still full of alluring gaps and question marks.

The trade winds don’t blow through “Highest Heaven” with as much gale force as they did through “Made in the Americas,” but there are unmistakable breezes. The ivory “Christ Child as the Good Shepherd,” an Indo-Portuguese piece, has tinges of the Buddhist art of Goa, a Portuguese colony in India. With his crossed legs and robe, this Jesus might as well be a baby Buddha.

Perhaps it’s because the scholarship is still nascent, but I left “Highest Heaven” wanting more. Not about the life of Christ — assiduously covered here and familiar anyway — but about the collision and integration of cultures. We know how it came out for the European Catholics. But what about the people they ruled? What did they lose? What did they leave behind? And what did they bring with them?

HIGHEST HEAVEN: Spanish and Portuguese Colonial Art From the Collection of Roberta and Richard Huber

At Worcester Art Museum, 55 Salisbury St., Worcester, through July 9. 508-799-4406, www.worcesterart.org

Cate McQuaid can be reached at catemcquaid@gmail.com. Follow her on Twitter @cmcq.
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