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American Literary History 17.3 (2005) 420-437

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Racial, Religious, and Civic Creole Identity in Colonial Spanish America

Patrocinio de la Virgen de Guadalupe sobre el Reino de Nueva España ("Auspices of Our Lady of Guadalupe over the Kingdom of New Spain") (Fig. 1) is an eighteenth-century canvass by an anonymous Mexican painter that rather vividly captures Creole discourses in colonial Mexico. A garlanded Our Lady of Guadalupe stands on top of a fountain from which four kneeling nobles, two indigenous, two Hispanic, drink.

Fountains had long been associated with salvation and purity in Christian discourse.1 For example, in their 1596 Ghent altarpiece, Fountain of Life and Mercy, Gerard Horenbout (1467–1540) and his son Lucas Horenbout (d. 1544) have the community of the pious drink of a fountain whose source is the body of Christ (Fig. 2)2 . Believers eucharistically partake of the blood of Christ, whose wounds refill the well. Some princes and clerics, including a turbaned potentate and a tonsured friar, who stand for the Turks and Luther, respectively, turn their backs on the fountain as they gather to worship Dame World. To reinforce the Counter-Reformation message, the Flemish Horenbouts have angels hovering over the pious and demons over the infidels and heretics.

The same theological and compositional principles organize the Mexican painting, but the fountain's spring is Our Lady of Guadalupe and both natives and Hispanics kneel to drink from the well. Using this virgin as the source of the "fountain of life and mercy" came naturally to those who thought of Our Lady of Guadalupe as an immaculate conception, for some of the imagery underlying the belief in the immaculate conception came from the Song of Songs, one of the strangest books of the Old Testament. According to Christian theology, the Song of Songs prefigures the mystery of St. Mary's conception by describing a woman, the lover of God, as a walled garden (hortus conclusus) and a fountain ("You are like a private garden, my treasure, my bride! You are like a spring that no [End Page 420] one can drink from, a fountain of my own" [Song of Solomon 4.12]).3 The most striking difference between the Mexican painting and Horenbout's is that in the former no party turns its back on the fountain: both Indians and Europeans belong in the same community of the pious.

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Figure 1
Anonymous (eighteenth-century) Mar'a de Guadalupe como fuente de gracia sobre el imperio español. Museo Soumaya, Mexico D. F.

To further make his point, the anonymous Mexican author places a bouquet on top of each pair of Indian and Hispanic royalty. This symmetrical distribution of flowers is fraught with meaning. As with the trope of two communities gathered around a fountain, one partaking of the body of Christ and the other refusing to do so, it  was a common visual metaphor to have the tree of life and knowledge separate the community of the elected from the damned.4 Take, for example, the case of Fall and Grace by Lucas Cranach (1472–1553) (Fig. 3).

In this engraving, two radically different narratives unfold on opposite sides of a tree: to the denuded side belongs the story of the [End Page 421]

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Figure 2
Gerard Horenbout and Lucas Horenbout. Fountain of Life and Mercy, 1596, Altarpiece. Ghent, Belgium. Copyright IRPA-KIK, Brussels.

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Figure 3
Lucas Cranach the elder. Fall and Grace, engraving ca. 1530. British Museum, Department of Prints and Drawings.
[End Page 422]

fall, hell, and the apocalypse, to the verdant one the story of deliverance and salvation brought about by Christ's passion and resurrection. In Cranach's composition, the Jews led by Moses fall in the barren, postlapsarian world of sin and demons, whereas the Christian community (one made of sheep and shepherds) belong in a world of bounty and plenty. The Mexican painting under review, once again, does not exclude anyone from the Christian community...


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