Like the proverbial bus, you wait for an exhibition of Catholic cultural interest to come along and then two show up at once. As nobody notices, they swiftly move on. Fortunately, one is on for a few more weeks.
Both exhibitions in central London are historic events that have received almost no publicity at all. Recently departed was exquisite medieval European metalwork at Sam Fogg, while Colnaghi is still displaying 17th-18th-century Latin American art in every medium. What they have in common is Catholicism, and the word “treasure” in their titles. Whether the contents are liturgical items intended to sway the simple-minded peasantry of Europe, or the recently converted native population of the New World, it’s easy to see the magic they must have worked in their day.
The Middle Ages have bequeathed us the arcane ways of medieval Christendom, along with some unfamiliar ways of doing things. A mundane example would be the keyholes. As we are used to these being placed vertically, it’s surprising to see so many sacred receptacles with modern-looking keyholes placed horizontally. Being a private gallery, Sam Fogg lets the viewer get close enough to admire all the details. On open display, without a cold screen of glass to get in the way, these objects could bring out the wide-eyed yokel of yore in any of us. The Mayfair gallery conveys all the wonder that is lacking in the major museums’ displays of medieval works. With pools of light bringing everything to life amid the gloom, it would only need some incense to transport us back 800 years. There might have been plainsong in the background, although that could be my imagination.
Atmospheric lighting does not dispel the shadow of iconoclasm; literally so in the case of a Limoges altar cross (c. 1220-30) on which the body of Christ remains only as a discoloured silhouette. The corpus was detached at some point, with some force judging by the state of a nearby gilded-copper figure whose fingers were torn off with the vigour of its removal.
Every object in this landmark exhibition tells a story. Now that the show is over, as is so often the case these days, the only relic of the relics is an online catalogue. The printed form is a dying art, like the medieval mastery of fletching and coopering. Fortunately, the gallery’s online scholarship is definitive, magnificently illustrated, and free to anyone with internet access.
Over at Colnaghi, the large library has been swollen further with the magnificent printed catalogues of Discovering Viceregal Latin American Treasures. It’s a subject seldom explored in modern Britain or anywhere else. This is the largest-ever exhibition of its type. Some readers might be unsure what “viceregal” is. “Spanish colonial” would be a more prosaic term to describe the parts of North, Central and South America taken by Spain around 500 years ago. The works in this St James’s gallery are mainly 17th and 18th century.
Unlike much colonial art, there is a fascinating syncretism going on here. Instead of the hands-off approach of British imperialists, concerned mostly with local wildlife and portraits of themselves, the Spanish authorities brought religious zeal with them when they crossed the Atlantic.
Colnaghi is rightly inclusive about the indigenous, pre-Columbian contribution. As an unexpected mercy, the gift of Catholicism is not presented as a bundle of atrocities and forced conversions. The syncretic output includes depictions of a black Christ – continuing traditional iconography of powerful deities with very dark skin – and the Mexican image that every viewer will be familiar with. Our Lady of Guadalupe is still the most ubiquitous image in Latin America. This exhibition includes many versions of the divinely painted indigenous Virgin Mary.
The collaborative imagery in the exhibition is a Counter-Reformation delight. Thomas More should have ditched burnings at the stake and deported heretical Protestants to the Spanish colonies for some real torment. Sculpture, in particular, encouraged a distinctive creativity to appear in the Americas. European and indigenous artists worked together in the grand project of conversion through visual persuasion. Religious iconoclasm was applied only to the pre-Christian heritage. The Catholics of the viceroyalty approached art with a fervour that might have looked like idolatry to anyone but Spanish missionaries. Each region had its own artistic approach, with the sum of the parts being total vigour.
The Colnaghi exhibition delights in its display of objects as art rather than liturgical function. Everything in the Middle Ages of the Sam Fogg exhibition served a purpose. In the Baroque “New” World there was instead a glorious fiesta of superfluity.
Visitors to the Sam Fogg show would have come away thinking what a very self-contained thing Europe was. Its only civilised neighbour, and influence, was the Islamic world. The Spanish Empire spanned the world and absorbed influences wherever it went. The interchange between the Iberian Peninsula, Asia and the Americas was massive.
Even England had a part to play, which happens to be one component of the exhibition without a Catholic flavour. It seems that among the furniture makers of Mexico, Thomas Chippendale’s writings were widely read and then reworked with some viceregal flourishes. Perhaps it is not so improbable that the British government has applied to join the Trans-Pacific trade partnership.
Discovering Viceregal Latin American Treasures runs until 10 September at Colnaghi, 26 Bury Street, London SW1Y 6AL, or visit colnaghi.com for a virtual viewing
This article first appeared in the September 2021 issue of the Catholic Herald. Subscribe today.
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