Caste discrimination woven into Spanish Colonial art of the Americas

Above: “Virgin of the Tailors,” Cusco, Peru, circa 1750, on loan from Museo Pedro de Osma, Lima

Late-colonial New Spain was awash with conflicting energies: American-born Spaniards (Creoles), like their North American counterparts, felt a growing desire for independence, yet needed their identification with Europe to cement their sense of superiority over the racialized indigenous, African, and mixed-race lower classes….”

“Casta Painting and the Rhetorical Body,” Christa Olson, Rhetoric Society Quarterly, Fall 2009

And 18th-century fashion statements as recorded in paintings and sculpture became a tool to exhibit the claimed superiority of those with pure, or at least high, percentages of Spanish blood flowing through their veins. On display at the Blanton Museum of Art through January 8, Painted Cloth: Fashion and Ritual in Colonial Latin America focuses on the societal role of textiles in conveying class distinctions.

Miguel Cabrera (1695-1768) posed his subjects above in rich brocades that immediately convey their elevated status. Of mixed, mestizo, parentage commonplace in New Spain, the Oaxaca-born painter became the most in-demand artist for both the wealthy and the church, meriting the coveted status of court painter of the Archbishop of Mexico.

Don Juan Xavier Joachin Gutierrez Altamirano Velasco donned a flamboyant look fashionable among French aristocrats to project his rank as the sixth Count of Santiago Calimaya and Governor of the Philippines. The parents of Maria de la Luz Padilla y Gomez de Cervantes, her bloodline clearly indicated by a string of names, chose French court attire for the Cabrera portrait they commissioned of their criolla daughter. This painting might have been used to promote her eligibility for marriage or to celebrate her acceptance to a prestigious convent. Alas, however bejeweled, Maria appears somewhat hopeless about whatever her future prospects might be.

The above painting illustrates the type of mestizo union, a Spaniard and an indigenous American, that produced Cabrera. It is typical of late 18th-century casta paintings employed in New Spain as cautionary tales demonstrating the descending order of social and civil rank as Spanish blood was diluted. Aristocrats in Spain collected them as artistic curiosities illustrating life in their distant colonies. Even Cabrera painted a series of these paintings.

Casta paintings were labeled with shockingly racist terms because, well, that was in large part their purpose: the union of a Spaniard and a Black woman would result in a mulatto child; an indigenous man and a Black woman resulted in a lobo, or wolf; an indigenous man and a mestiza produced a coyote; and a lobo and a Black woman brought a chino into this world with rigid class distinctions.

The clothing worn by the subjects of the casta paintings reflects their parentage. In the Peruvian painting above, part of a series of 20, a Spaniard wears traditional European attire while his Native American wife wears her traditional clothing. At least the subjects appear loving and much happier than the forlorn-looking aristocratic “Maria” in Cabrera’s portrait.

“Garments are a lens by which we can recognize the many inequalities and societal contradictions that characterized the social fabric of this contested era which altered the lives of so many indigenous communities….”

Rosario I. Granados, lead curator, quoted in “A New Exhibition at the Blanton Museum in Texas Is Using Fashion to Explore the Art and Hidden Histories of Colonial Latin America,” Christine Ajudua, Artnet News, August 23, 2022

Artists in New Spain preferred providing Jesus with more lavish loincloths than the soiled spartan one generally described as all he wore on the cross. Florid flourishes adorn the silver one above. This preference endures today. We bumped into some of my favorite contemporary fashions for Jesus, all shimmery and fringed, in Chiapas, Mexico.

And then there is Mary. The high veneration accorded the Virgin Mary arrived with the Spaniards. In “Our Lady of the Forsaken” above, with Baby Jesus hovering like a bumblebee, the Virgin’s golden crown and aura way under-estimate the weighty gold coronas atop the original statue of this Mary, the patroness of Valencia, Spain.

While the tailors of Cusco were occupied weaving golden threads into silken attire for statues of the Virgin Mary brought from Spain, gold and silver was shipped back to Spain to ensure their statues were crowned in the finest fashion. View some glittering examples from Sevilla here.

The indigenous attire of “La Gran Nusta Mama Occollo,” or “The Great Princess Mama Occollo,” reflects a yearning for Catholic heroines relating to this side of the Atlantic Ocean, saintly figures perhaps not recognized as such by the Vatican. According to Donna Pierce of the Denver Art Museum:

“The inscription claims that she was the first Christian Inca woman in the Andes and that when a man tried to violate her vow of chastity, she fought and beheaded him. In doing so, she recreated a feat credited to Mama Occollo, the first queen of the Inca dynasty, who conquered Cuzco by decapitating an enemy.”

No gilded threads or golden crown needed to demonstrate her power.

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