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  • From the Jordan River to Lake Titicaca:Paintings of the Baptism of Christ in Colonial Andean Churches
  • Ananda Cohen Suarez (bio)

The arts of the colonial Andes bear witness to a complex and contested story of evangelization that involved a variety of actors, including priests, artists, indigenous congregations, and confraternities. Sculptures of saints, sumptuous retablos (altarpieces), canvas paintings with elaborate gilded frames, and mural cycles devoted to a variety of biblical themes were employed in the religious instruction of indigenous communities, and as catalysts for sensorial modes of communication. The visual arts provided a tangible analogue to sermons and printed catechisms, offering parishioners a lens through which to envision the sacred. Adapted from European iconographic models and infused with local references and symbolism, religious art throughout the colonial Americas introduced new visual vocabularies to indigenous congregations, who quickly became conversant in these images of conversion.

A number of scholars have elaborated on the critical roles of priests, bishops, indigenous elites, and private patrons in commissioning religious artwork and the selection of specific themes to appeal to local viewers.1 One aspect of artistic [End Page 103] production and patronage that has received less attention, however, is the role of artists as intermediaries in the articulation of localized forms of Christianity.2 In the Andean context, the question of artistic intent is a murky area of inquiry that remains nearly impossible to substantiate. While contracts stipulating the terms of an artistic transaction can enable us to better understand the wishes of a given patron for the way an artwork should appear, little documentation exists that would reveal the preferences or visual strategies of the artists in question. We must rely instead on the images themselves as evidence of the strategic and maneuvers undertaken by the artist to infuse religious images with local meaning. Identifying the source images that informed a given composition can provide a framework for understanding the desires of the patron; for instance, a number of artists’ contracts make reference to drawings or prints that the patron would give to the artist for reference.3 Careful analysis of source prints in concert with the final painted product can also reveal the creative latitude that artists exercised to code biblical images with a diverse repertoire of local references.4

This article will examine two mural paintings of the Baptism of Christ located in Cuzco-area parish churches, and their sources; they are Diego Cusi Guaman’s composition at the church of Urcos (ca. 1630s) and Pablo Gamarra’s mural at the church of Pitumarca (1777). The two paintings are shown in Figures 1 and 2.

Conceived more than a century apart but connected through their mutual reliance on a sixteenth-century source print, these murals offer a compelling case study of the diverse pictorial strategies that artists undertook in their efforts to produce religious images that would resonate with local viewers. By virtue of [End Page 104]

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Figure 1.

Diego Cusi Guaman, Baptism of Christ, Mural Painting, Church of Santiago Apóstol de Urcos, ca 1630s

Source: Photo courtesy of Jaime Chino Huanca. Reprinted with permission.

their fixity in architectural space, the two murals under consideration embodied local identities and religiosities in ways unparalleled by mobile forms of art such as sculptures or oil paintings. This comparative approach will allow us to chart the broad shifts that occurred in mural painting from the seventeenth to [End Page 105]

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Figure 2.

Pablo Gamarra, Baptism of Christ, Mural Painting, Church of San Juan Bautista de Pitumarca, 1777

Source: Photo by author.

eighteenth centuries, through a focused analysis of Baptism of Christ imagery and its various permutations across Europe and the Andes, by way of a 1582 source engraving by the Flemish printmaker Pieter Perret (1555–1639). By tracing the transformation of one specific genre of religious imagery through time, we can gain a focused perspective on how muralists produced increasingly provocative compositions that drew liberally from European prototypes while also tapping into alternative repositories of knowledge, whether by referencing local landscapes or by conflating Christian and Inca stories of origin. This article also calls for a closer consideration...


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