Private Devotions, Public Pleasures

Viceregal Art in the Colección Patricia Phelps de Cisneros

June 22, 2017

To mark the occasion of the simultaneous gift of 119 objects from the CPPC’s colonial collection divided between five institutions, we invited three curators to write about how those works will relate to existing holdings. In this second installment, Rosario Granados, the Carl & Marilynn Thoma Associate Curator of Spanish Colonial Art at the Blanton Museum of Art, writes about how the CPPC’s gift of colonial objects that were made to be used in acts of private devotion coincides with an important long-term loan, from the Thoma Foundation, of viceregal art, and a reaffirmation of the Blanton’s commitment to scholarship concerning material culture from Latin America.​

Part one, written by Jorge Rivas, the Frederick and Jan Mayer Curator of Spanish Colonial Art at the Denver Art Museum, can be found here. Part three, written by Dennis Carr, the Carolyn and Peter Lynch Curator of Decorative Arts and Sculpture at Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts​, can be found here.

One of the most significant aspects of the Colección Patricia Phelps de Cisneros (CPPC) of viceregal art is its emphasis on artwork produced in Venezuela between 1650 and 1850. However, to my way of thinking, above and beyond its temporal and geographical delimitations, what makes this collection a universe unto itself is its marked attention to those artifacts created for individual religious practice. Through diverse silver objects, ivory sculptures, oils on canvas and various other materials, the CPPC uniquely emphasizes the diversity of the material culture that supported daily life at its most intimate levels. Therefore it is highly gratifying to know that a number of pieces of Venezuelan devotional material culture can now be explored in detail by students and researchers interested in expanding the analysis of the viceregal world, thanks to an important selection from the CPPC that was recently donated to the Blanton Museum of Art, the art museum of the University of Texas in Austin.

Among the most outstanding objects in the CPPC are four portable tabernacles, undoubtedly manufactured for devotional practice by society’s wealthiest individuals.

Fig. 1. Unidentified artist, Mexico, Tabernacle (18th Century). Gilded and painted wood, mirrors. Open: 130.8 x 263.5 cm. Closed: 130.8 x 90.2 x 50.2 cm

The largest of these triptychs has a central section delimited by four polychromatic gilded columns, within which there is a carved image of the Immaculate Conception. The lateral flanks, painted in a brilliant vermillion shade, contain ten mirrors distributed on two levels amongst the overall surface, situated in this manner in order to reflect the light of the candles that would almost surely be lit in front of this furnishing; these lateral pieces are so long that they seem to conceal the central image, thus augmenting its symbolic potency. This piece was produced in New Spain in the second half of the 18th century and taken to Venezuela, where it most likely came to rest in a domestic chapel, thus constituting a testimonial to the migration of objects, people and devotions among distant territories.

Fig. 2. School of Caracas, Tabernacle (18th Century). Gilded and painted wood. Open: 78.4 x 81.3 x 20.3 cm. Closed: 78.4 x 53.3 x 20.3 cm

Another of the tabernacles in the collection was made in Venezuela’s capital around 1775 from cedar. In the center of the triptych there is a hand-carved crucifix; this figure stands out in its depiction on an indigo blue background that includes gold overlay accents with beadwork and symbols of the passion. The lateral flanks of the piece are burnt red, also featuring gilded overlays, and contain the painted figures of Saint Anthony of Padua and Saint Barbara. It is likely that the inclusion of the two saints is due to the very nature of the piece as a travel article, since Saint Anthony was considered the patron saint of travelers while Saint Barbara, the patron saint of artillery and mining, was one of the most popular patron saints for avoiding sudden death without spiritual assistance, as could occur while in transit. Today, the dimensions of the piece (78.4 cm. or 30 7/8 in. tall) might seem too large for constant movement, but it is small in stature relative to the trunks and suitcases that the moneyed class utilized to transport their belongings among several cities—as shown by this example, also from the CPPC—which makes it feasible to conclude that this may have been the function of the triptych.

Fig. 3. Unidentified artist, Peru, Trunk (18th century). Spanish cedar, embossed leather and iron. 62 x 107 x 53cm. Denver Art Museum. Gift of Patricia Phelps de Cisneros in honor of Natalia Majluf
Fig. 4. Unidentified artist, Venezuela, Tabernacle with Our Lady of the Rosary of Chiquinquirá, Saint Barbara and Saint John Nepomucene (18th century). Oil and tempera on wood. Open: 33.5 x 74 x 4 cm. Closed: 33.5 x 36.5 x 4 cm. Blanton Museum. Promised gift of Patricia Phelps de Cisneros

The smallest of the tabernacles in the collection is much less elaborate than the two previously mentioned examples, but it is equally fascinating as a work of devotion. It displays in its center the Virgin of Chiquinquirá, famous as the patron saint of New Granada (now Colombia). The fact that she was also the patron saint of the Venezuelan province of Zulia makes it feasible to conclude that this piece may possibly have been manufactured there. On the lateral flanks there are representations of the aforementioned Saint Barbara and Saint John of Nepomuk, the patron saint of protection against calamities. In this case, however, the reason for having these three particular images depicted on the same furnishing is not as clear, and may simply be due to the devotional predilections of whoever commissioned its manufacture.

Fig. 5. Juan Pedro López, Tabernacle with Saints Joachim and Anne (18th century). Oil and tempera on wood. Open: 91.1 x 88.3 x 16.5 cm. Closed: 91 x 58 x 16.5 cm. Blanton Museum. Promised gift of Patricia Phelps de Cisneros

The fourth of the tabernacles, also featuring details in gold overlay, has painted upon its lateral flanks Saints Joachim and Anne, the parents of the Virgin Mary. These figures have been attributed to Juan Pedro López, Caracas’ most famous 18th-century painter. This double iconography allows us to guess that the central image, now lost, would likely have been a representation of the mother of Jesus. It was appropriate, then, when an image of our Lady of the Rosary—also associated with López, though definitely not his work—was recently added to it. The style of López can be identified in several works in the CPPC, making it one of the largest repositories of the painter’s work. However, there is a piece that seems to me of particular interest, as it opens a window on the everyday tasks of artistic practice, which have barely been explored.

Fig. 6. Juan Pedro López, Cupboard (18th century). Painted Spanish cedar. 198 x 108 x 34.5 cm. Blanton Museum. Gift of Patricia Phelps de Cisneros

The artifact in question is a simple wardrobe made of cedar that contains images of floral-patterned vases painted in white and green tones on its doors.

Cabinets like this were a key part of the dining room furnishings of some of the wealthiest individuals in the entire Spanish-speaking world. Although it was not unusual for them to be painted, they have not survived in a state of conservation good enough for us to comprehend the intentions of their decorators. In this case, the floral finishing and the vases have allowed for attribution,[1] while at the same time revolutionizing our understanding of artistic practice by showing how painters filled their time while also engaged in the production of religious paintings.[2] Thus, this piece helps redefine our understanding of the visual culture of this period by establishing links with the material products of secular culture, of which few examples remain.

In addition to the triptychs, the CPPC is particularly rich in small-scale anonymous pieces from the mid-18th century, also produced to support individual worship. These works measure an average of 35 centimeters high, and were primarily made of wood. It is interesting that this type of base material would be used in these pieces, since from the 16th century forward other parts of Spanish America had preferred the use of canvas overtop of the solid material. We know that some of these boards are made of cedar, but it would not surprise me if there were local woods also worked in, as occurs in several of the other furnishings in the collection. We know, for example, that woodworkers active in Venezuela used woods from the area such as mahogany, pink peroba and snakewood. If such is the case, it may be that the wood was preferred in order to make these objects even more accessible to a larger number of pious consumers.

Fig. 7. Unidentified artist, Venezuela, Our Lady of Sorrows (18th century). Oil on wood. 26 x 19.7 cm. Blanton Museum. Promised gift of Patricia Phelps de Cisneros

As an example of these small devotional pieces, it is worth mentioning an image of Our Lady of Sorrows produced in the city of Coro, whose bold vermillion frame with gold overlay turns even the central theme of suffering into a delight to behold. Likewise, it seems equally significant that a pair of works of this private genre were undertaken in tempera at the beginning of the 19th centuries, as it implies that oils were not always painters’ only option, which establishes the need to take into account several other materials that up to now have received little attention from the academic community.

The donation from the Patricia Phelps de CPPC to the Blanton Museum of Art coincides with a very important long-term loan from the Thoma Collection of South American colonial art. This loan and donation mark the birth of a curatorial area within the museum that will be characterized not only by the critical staging of viceregal art, but also for its emphasis on research and education. With this new area, the Blanton reaffirms its commitment to sharing Latin American art with diverse audiences, a task that began decades ago with its renowned collection of modern and contemporary art. This donation also unequivocally strengthens the reputation of the University of Texas at Austin as one of the most significant centers for Latin American studies, a reputation which has been forged by important collections such as those included in the Benson Library, as well as by the high quality of the faculty dedicated to the study of this region.[3]

A pair of pieces belonging to the CPPC are already on exhibit in the recently-inaugurated permanent galleries of the Blanton, and they will remain there to be admired until the beginning of 2018, at which point the galleries dedicated to Spanish American artistic production will be renovated once again. Each annual arrangement will include a selection of artifacts from the CPPC, with the expectation of continually attracting new perspectives and stimulating deep questions, always with a view toward strengthening the public’s enjoyment of these once-private devotions.

The works represented in Figs. 1 and 2 are currently in the Colección Patricia Phelps de Cisneros. The work represented in Fig. 3 is part of the donation to the Denver Art Museum. The works represented in Figs. 4–7 are part of the donation to the Blanton Museum of Art.

[1] I am grateful to Jorge F. Rivas for sharing with me this information about the attribution undertaken by the Venezuelan historian and art restorer Carlos F. Duarte, Director of the Colonial Art Museum of Quinta de Anauco.

[2] The small display case attributed to master woodworker Domingo Gutiérrez, also from the collection, may also have been overlaid with gold by Juan Pedro López, demonstrating more deeply still the diversity of activities in which the painters of the viceregal periods were required to engage. See De oficio pintor: arte colonial venezolano: colección Patricia Phelps de Cisneros (On the Profession of Painting: Colonial Art of Venezuela: Phelps de Cisneros Collection, Caracas: Fundación Cisneros; Santiago de los Caballeros; Centro León, 2007).


[3] The graduate program in Latin American History at the University of Texas at Austin has been recognized as number one in quality by US News.

 Translated from the Spanish by Phillip Penix-Tadsen