As the Spanish invaded and conquered the Americas, they employed their ardent Catholicism and religious imagery as a tool of the conquest. The cult of angels was already popular in Spain, since archangels were thought to be in direct contact with the Spanish royal family and worked specifically for the people of Spain. During the Muslim occupation of Iberian Peninsula, the archangels were depicted as military figures who aided the Christian Spaniards is pushing out the Muslims. Archangels in the American colonies took on a similar militant role and became known as the arcangeles arcabuceros (or archangels with weapons). Just like the Spaniards which were fighting a holy war to convert the native populations, the archangels were depicted in military garb preparing their guns for battle. These archangels served two major purposes; the first was to remind the native populations of the holiness and might of the spaniards, and the second was to teach the indigenous population of the Peruvian Viceroyalty about Spanish history and more importantly Catholicism. Even though archangels were used originally as a tool for conquest, their continued popularity within all of Latin America demonstrates that the artistic and religious relationship between the Spanish and the indigenous peoples of the Americas was complicated and evolving, and many religious images have persisted in Latin America because they took on a new meaning of national pride.
This painting of the Archangel Gabriel was finished circa 1775 and it is attributed to the Cuzco school of painting, though the actual painter of this work is unknown. Eighteenth-century Peru was still under Spanish rule, and this was seen in the indigenous uprisings that occurred during various parts of the century up until the Peruvian War of Independence. One of those uprisings can be related back to this portrait and its function, in 1780 Tupac Amaru II lead an attack against a Spanish force while they were attending church. This one rebellion reminds us of the importance that religion especially Catholicism had on the colonization, genocide and subjugation of native peoples in Peru (and the rest of the New World). Catholicism could be used both as a tool of conquest and rebellion, religion became a double edged sword that helped define latin american identity but also perpetuated spanish power. Paintings of archangels could serve two functions, that of private devotion within a home or private chapel or didactic imagery in a public church. Based on the elaborate nature of this painting, it is more likely that this painting was most likely part of an altar for the Archangel Gabriel. This painting likely formed part of a retablo, a piece of artwork that hung as part of an altar, where church parishioners could go and directly pray to Gabriel and leave him offerings, or light a candle at the altar as is common practice today. The tradition of retablos in churches continues to this day and they are seen all over Catholic churches in Latin America. As the Archangel Gabriel is the messenger of God, most parishioners would have prayed to him for holy intervention to help them hear/interpret the message of God. Many prayers to the Archangel Gabriel now ask for clarity and wisdom. The reason why religious paintings in the colonies were so important was because they “became a visual language for an Indian audience unschooled in either European religion or history.” (Stroessner, 1990). Since the Spanish crown put such an emphasis on the arts, schools of arts in Latin America developed as well. This painting of Saint Gabriel belongs to the Cuzco School. The Cuzco school with its inception continued the traditions of European and Spanish art however with time native and mestizo influences began to incorporate themselves into colonial art. This painting, like so many others is a mix of indigenous styles and iconography (the flower border) with european themes and styles (catholicism)
The style of painting that seems to hearken back to Poussin (see image above), where it almost seems as if the painting was done using color blocking, creating crisp lines in the composition.The composition is self-contained and none of the painting extends beyond the frame. When looking at the figure of the Angel Gabriel, there are no clear brush marks, everything is beautifully blended. The outlines of the figure are extremely clean and the colors add to the crispness of the painting. The one main style element of the painting is that of the dramatic shadows that create a sort of diagonal line through the composition. On the left side of the painting there are rays of light that illuminate the hand, the face and the clothing of the archangel. On the right side of the painting, there is a dramatic shadow that is contrasted by the bright flower border. Upon closer examination of the flowers the artist seemed to paint each petal with one thick brush stroke (impasto). The flower border is typical of Peruvian Viceregal paintings, with great emphasis being paid to each type of flower, its color and detail. They are so naturalistically depicted that they seem to almost jump out of the painting. The flower border envelops the archangel, surrounding him with sumptuous, even excessive, decoration. When we look at the figure of the archangel there is an extreme feminization of the body and the face, St. Gabriel looks more like a young androgynous women than an immortal male angel, which might be a play on angels transcending gender. The Archangel Gabriel is made to look extremely beautiful and otherworldly, transcending human gender as a member of the heavenly hierarchy and beautiful beyond earthly standards. His demeanor remains calm and serene, even when battling evil in defense of humanity.
Religious paintings and religion itself served as a colonization tool in the Spanish colonies but later became symbols of independence and local pride. Paintings of archangels best illustrate this concept of art as a tool of conquest. As Holland Cotter states “devotional images are not inanimate objects; they are responsive presences with feelings and personalities. They console, reprimand, give directions and, for believers, carry an emotional charge mingling awe with affection.” (Cotter, 2000) In the case of archangels, these holy figures aided in the conquest of the colonies through their spiritual and military abilities. The militant nature of angels is epitomized by the arcangeles arcabuceros. These archangels were painted in full military dress to show how they were fighting a holy war, linking the invasion and conquest of the Americas to a holy battle in which the angels aided the righteous victors. As noted by Gabriel Palmer, representations of angels as soldiers arose from an interpretation of the Counter-Reformation’s vigorous defense of Catholicism. (Fraser, 1995). Though the Archangel Gabriel in this painting does not wear military attire, he still served as a symbol of the defender of Christians against all enemies.
Anonymous Cusco School. Archangel Eliel with Harquebus. (ca. 1690 – ca. 1720), oil on canvas, 66.3 in x 42.5 in. Lima Art Museum. Lima, Peru. https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/2/28/Anonymous_Cusco_School_-_Archangel_Eliel_with_Harquebus_-_Google_Art_Project.jpg
Potter, Holland. “In Festivity and Faith, Spain’s Religious Images.(exhibition ‘Images in Procession: Testimonies to Spanish Faith,’ American Bible Society, New York City, through Apr. 29, 2000)(Living Arts Pages).” The New York Times, April 07, 2000.
Fraser, Valerie. Bulletin of Latin American Research 14, no. 2 (1995): 234-37. http://www.jstor.org/stable/3339068.
Cohen Suarez, Ananda. “Painting Andean Liminalities at the Church of Andahuaylillas, Cuzco, Peru.” Colonial Latin American Review 22, no. 3 (2013): 369-99.
Cusco School. Joseph and Jesus. 18th century, oil on canvas. https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/6/61/Joseph_jesus-Cusco-1700s.jpg
Cuzco School. Archangel Raphael. 18th century, oil on canvas. https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/7/73/Cuzco_School_Archangel_Raphael.jpg
Leyva-Gutiérrez, Niria E. “Conflict and Imagery: Saint Michael and Ecclesiastical Power in New Spain.” Hispanic Research Journal 15, no. 5 (2014): 422-44.
Mumford, Jeremy. “Andean Worlds: Indigenous History, Culture, and Consciousness under Spanish Rule, 1532-1825 (review).” Hispanic American Historical Review 83, no. 1 (2003): 176-77.
Poussin, Nicolas. Holy Family on the Steps. 1648, oil on canvas, 69 cm x 98 cm, National Gallery of Art. Washington D.C https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/f/f3/Nicolas_Poussin_-_Holy_Family_on_the_Steps_-_WGA18323.jpg
Stroessner, Bob, and Dewalt, Teddy. “Three Artists of Cuzco: Three Centuries of Colonial Art. (Peru).” Americas (English Edition) 42, no. 2 (1990): 56-58.