2017-07-26 17:30:03
art review: From Colonial Mexico, a Towering Vision of Grace

Bound up the steps to the front door of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, open your bag for inspection, pay your $25 or 25 cents for a ticket, and walk straight forward. You’ll be in the dim Medieval Sculpture Hall, with its giant iron choir screen — but something unusual, something brilliant, is peeking out beyond it. The usually empty doorway to the Lehman Collection, at the back of the museum, is overwhelmed with dumbstruck apostles, swaddled in silks of rose and lilac; there are prophets with long white beards, backlit by dazzling sun. In the center of it all, beckoning tour groups to his fellowship, is the white-clad, mustachioed son of God, his body halfway between flesh and light.

What you’re seeing through the door is the top half of a stupefying 28-foot-tall altarpiece by Cristóbal de Villalpando, the most important painter of 17th-century Mexico — or New Spain, as the viceroyalty was called when it stretched from Central America to Florida and Louisiana. The altarpiece, completed in 1683, has never before traveled from its home in the colonial cathedral of Puebla, Mexico. From now until October, this masterpiece of the Mexican Baroque — a lighter, less rigid style than its European counterpart, making use of bright color and free ornamentation — stands alone in the Lehman Wing courtyard, and its churning collision of saints and mortals should encourage all sorts of veneration. Not since 2001, when the interior of the Guggenheim was painted black to offset a masterpiece of the Brazilian Baroque, has a Latin American altarpiece of such scale and importance come to New York.

“Cristóbal de Villalpando: Mexican Painter of the Baroque” includes 10 smaller works by the artist, upstairs in the Lehman Wing. You’ll see them eventually, but walk down to the basement level when you arrive to view the altarpiece from up close. The transfiguration of Jesus that you saw at a distance occupies only the top of the painting, while below is an Old Testament vision of darker character. It depicts a passage from the Book of Numbers, in which the Israelites are being ravaged by snakes for doubting the word of God. Women weep or gaze in horror; a serpent winds itself around a muscular body on the ground. Moses, whose head radiates with hornlike beams of light, directs the Israelites to gaze upon a brass sculpture of a serpent, wound around a cross-like pole at the lower center, just beneath Jesus in the upper half. The sculpture, commanded by God, will heal them.

In your first minutes with Villalpando’s altarpiece, you’ll probably still be working out the cast of characters, whose demonstrative poses and resplendent robes double down on Baroque theatricality, and figuring out how the halves work together. For it’s a bizarre double world that Villalpando depicts, not cleanly divided, but bleeding across its Equator, from Old Testament to New and back. Moses appears among the terrified Israelites and again in the clouds of the vibrant upper half, beside Jesus in his cocoon of light. The landscape, steeply raked like a theatrical stage, is mostly contiguous from bottom to top. The desert through which the Jews wander extends upward to become Calvary, where the cross is cast into shadow and bedecked with a crown of thorns, a whip, a lance, and other instruments of the Passion.

Just what are these two scenes, biblically unrelated, doing together? The literal answer is given by a saucy-faced angel holding a panel, which explains in Latin that “as Moses lifted up the serpent in the desert, so must the Son of Man be lifted up.” In other words, the bronze serpent is a prefiguration of Christ’s Crucifixion and the world’s salvation.

But contradicting the famous ban on graven images in the Second Commandment, in this painting God explicitly demands the creation of a work of art. Not an idol, the brass serpent nevertheless saves lives. The sculpture is a stand-in for Christ but also a work of art in itself, and you can therefore see the altarpiece as a vindication of Villalpando’s own painting, meant to inspire reverence and reveal the workings of grace.

There is little biographical information about Villalpando, whose most important works are in churches and rarely travel. Born in Mexico City, he was only in his early 30s when he completed the Puebla altarpiece. He would have learned the rudiments of Baroque figure painting from older artists in Mexico City and from Flemish prints, especially those after Peter Paul Rubens. After all, Rubens, as much as Villalpando, was a subject of Hapsburg Spain — present-day Belgium remained under Spanish rule until the start of the 18th century — and colonial Mexico City was plugged into a trans-Atlantic flow of images and ideas that linked the Spanish empire.

The 10 religious paintings upstairs testify to the complex exchange of European and Mexican influences in Villalpando’s art. All but one is on loan from Mexican collections, and while it’s a pleasure to discover them, not all are of equal sophistication. His early, Italianate “Agony in the Garden,” from the 1670s, sees him faltering with drapery and struggling with scale, and a small picture of Adam and Eve in Eden would be hard to distinguish from those of thousands of Flemish journeymen. But in paintings like “The Holy Name of Mary,” a glorious, asymmetric composition from around 1695 in which the Virgin contemplates her own name written in the clouds, Villalpando infused the drama of the European Baroque with the bright light of the New World.

Exhibitions of colonial Latin American art are so rare in the United States that it would be churlish to wish this one were larger. (A major exhibition of 18th-century Mexican painting opens this fall at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, part of the huge festival Pacific Standard Time.) You’ll still have to go to Mexico City to discover Villalpando’s full achievement, but the outstanding altarpiece from Puebla should be a pilgrimage site of its own this summer. Down in the bottom right corner of the altarpiece, in a flash of gold against the darkness, is a notable signature: “Villalpando inventor.” That proud and deserved designation testifies that an artist in New Spain had no reason to think of himself as a mere European imitator. He was an inventor of his own, and his gaze extended as far as paradise.