The border between the United States and Mexico has artificially divided languages, cultures, landscapes, and religions for more than a century and a half. This region is the crossroads not only of Anglo-America and Latin America, but also of multiple empires; the Aztec, Spanish, and US empires each staked a claim on this region, leaving political, economic, cultural, and religious markers on the landscape and its peoples. These imperial bodies brought their preferred religious practices and religiously inspired social, economic, and political cultures, which reshaped populations and landscapes from the 15th century to the present. Religion has been a significant dimension of this region from prior to the arrival of the Spanish through the early 21st century.
Anne M. Martínez
Gabriela Sánchez Reyes
The cult of saints, through their relics in colonial Mexico, is related to the importation of relics from the great centers of pilgrimage in Europe and the Holy Land. Reliquaries were artifacts made to preserve the relics, avoid their fragmentation, and expose them to the faithful. Since the Middle Ages, different types were created with different forms whose function was to protect and exhibit the content. These designs passed to American territories, where it is still possible to admire some European reliquaries as well as some of local manufacture. The circulation of relics began in 1521, after the consolidation of the evangelization and the inauguration of the new viceroyalty government. The circulation and donation of relics should be understood as a long process. They were imported objects that were difficult to acquire, as their sale was prohibited by law. Typically, it was necessary to have contacts in the high clergy abroad. Acquiring relics also required a significant investment of funds to cover both the relic’s purchase and the costs of its transfer from abroad. Despite these difficulties, little by little, the relics of various saints and martyrs made their way to the Americas, some in carton boxes, others in gold urns or even in small paper envelopes. Reliquaries were soon manufactured to house these relics. Their design generally depended on two factors: the quantity of the relics obtained, and the shape of the relics. The collections of reliquaries with their respective relics were displayed both in the cathedral headquarters and in the temples of the religious orders. Because they were incorporated at different times, they were made in different styles using different materials, and so it is possible to find a great variety in their manufacture. Various types of reliquaries can be classified from this time, from the reliquary chapels to the altarpiece reliquaries, anthropomorphic reliquaries, and medallion reliquaries, and they stand as a testament to the cult of saints in colonial Mexico.
In the 16th century, the social and political changes derived from the European religious wars between Catholic and Protestant countries, economic crises, and the Counter-Reformation had an enormous impact on the evolution of visual culture. These transformations drastically changed the way in which the Catholic faithful interacted with works of art. The exemplary uses given to the images of Jesus Christ, the Virgin Mary, and the saints were promoted as intermediaries between God and people. The intense realism in art served precisely this objective, since the faithful could recognize themself in these figures. In addition, the rise of the brotherhoods and penitentiary guilds led to the popularization of behaviors that imitated the Passion of Christ, such as public self-flagellation. Therefore, the Spanish processional sculpture was fully brought forward by many of these brotherhoods. Processions used theatrical resources and were very successful among the people. In the 17th century, the Hispanic baroque aesthetic was strongly linked to the Catholic Church and was especially evident during Holy Week. The public processions and their artistic resources were very successful, so much so that they have survived to the present, evolving and adapting to each period.
Religious art in Valencia and Seville reflected the international character of these port cities, attracting a diverse patronage base as well as some of the most talented artists in Spain. The city of Valencia turned east toward the Mediterranean and the movement of artists and artworks around the sea reflected its political, economic, and cultural importance in the region. Seville was the administrative center for Spain’s American colonies and its influence spread across the Atlantic. The international scope of these ports meant that their artistic culture played a defining role in Counter-Reformation Spain. This article addresses several interrelated themes in the religious art of Valencia and Seville. The thematic threads explored here include the international character of these cities and their outward focus on the Mediterranean and the Americas, the role of secular and ecclesiastical art patrons in commissions of painting and sculpture, artistic solutions for the representation of complex imagery and the requirements of Counter-Reformation art, and the accommodation of artists to new tastes in art that reflected a changing political and economic climate. The extraordinary wealth of religious art produced in these two cities can be seen as a manifestation of a central tenet of the Catholic Church in Spain—the power of imagery to inspire, teach, delight, and admonish. Artists and patrons collaborated to forge and perpetuate a veritable industry of image-making that served political ends, addressed social concerns, and highlighted the piety and devotion of each city’s inhabitants in the 17th century.