Campion Hall receives donation of a dozen Peruvian paintings

Senior Research Fellow & Archivist Peter Davidson introduces a new collection of Peruvian paintings recently received by the Hall.

Campion Hall has recently received a donation of a dozen Peruvian paintings in the style which is identified as "the School of Cuzco", and which had its origins in the Jesuit culture of accommodation in the baroque period. As well as an image of St Barbara and one of Our Lady of Guadelupe which derives from Mexican pictorial types, there is one angel, S. Michael, in the theatrical costume which represented Roman armour in the opera houses of early-modern Europe. All the other paintings are of Angeles Arcabuceros – Angel Musketeers, one of the most fascinating iconographic hybrids produced anywhere in the baroque world. Brocade clad warrior angels, plumed and winged, are armed with the great matchlock guns of the wars of the seventeenth century. The image of St Michael is possibly eighteenth century, possibly painted in Lima, but all the others date from some point in the twentieth century, thus joining one twentieth century arcabucero already in the Campion Hall collection. It seems extraordinary that a visual tradition which began in the remote Andean missions and colleges of the Old Society should still be alive today, but it is: the market for continuing production of the angels of the Andes has been constant and they are produced now by much the same techniques as were first used in the 1680s.

In the visual arts it is perhaps Peru (and those parts of ancient Peru which  are now in Bolivia) which gives us the most compelling school of hybrid art in Iberian America. Here, in a sense, is Jesuit art of the Americas working at its highest capacity, an unforgettable visual manifestation of the whole programme of Jesuit cultural accommodation. Here we are dealing with a large repertory of sophisticated images, almost all of which carry multiple significations. What we have in Peru is the coming together of two cultivated peoples both of whom, Inka and Spaniard alike, were conquerors with a highly-evolved culture. The cathedral of Cuzco is built on the foundations of the temple of the sun. The merging of the two traditions was manifested in widespread inter-marriage. The Jesuit church in Cuzco preserves a stylistically-hybrid painting of a significant dynastic marriage: that of the great- nephew of St. Ignatius Loyola to Doña Beatriz Clara Coya (sometimes called Beatriz Ñusta) the niece and heiress of the Inka Huayna Capac. Their daughter went on to marry the grandson of the Jesuit St. Francis Borgia. This double marriage formed a very significant part of the way that the Jesuits presented themselves in Peru, an affirmation of familial ties between the Society and the Incas, which were reflected in the remarkable cultural bilinguality of the visual art of Christian Peru.

A superb manifestation of the Baroque of the high Andes comes in the figures of the Arcabuceros who attend the Virgin in the churches of the native American villages, of the remote Jesuit stations. These figures represent an extraordinary imaginative fusion of the idea of the indigenous American deities of the stars, merciful, handsome young warriors, with the European merciful warriors of heaven, the angels and archangels. What is so compelling and moving about these images (and they are being painted in Cuzco to this day) is that they represent the heavenly warriors as the armies of the baroque centuries. So that Flemish engravings illustrative of musket drill are transformed in the Americas into the angel arquebusiers who attend the Virgin of the Andes. The plumes, which are an Inka signifier of holy and royal status, adorn European hats, in this extraordinary work of fusion and interaction. Each posture of the musket drill comes to identify an angel. The Angel who levels his gun at the horizon is called 'Aziel who is the Fear of God, Aziel Timor Dei.' The distinguished art historian Teresa Gisbert associates these Andean angel-paintings with confraternities of indigenous peoples fostered by the Jesuits under the patronage of St Michael.

This meeting of cultures in the Altiplano gives the names of the angels from the apocryphal book of Enoch to these postures taken from the engravings of musket-drill published for the armies of those endless wars in Flanders which in fact consumed most of the riches of the mountains of Potosí. Sometimes the attribute of these angels is a translation of their Hebrew name, more often they have taken on the attribute of the merciful heavenly warriors of the Inka pantheon. Salamiel who is the peace of God, Aziel who is the fear of God; Aspiel, whose gun is reversed as for a Prince's funeral, Aspiel the lightning of God; Laeiel the Forbearance of God represented surrounded by the feathered ornaments of an Inca dignitary. These fascinating paintings deserve even further study, particularly of the apotropaic function which their replicas are believed to have in Peru to this day.

As one Limeño dealer wrote to the collector who has given this modest group of pictures to the College, 'this is not only a fine painting, but he will kill demons in the doorway of your house'. This is not that collector's primary purpose in making this gift, but it is to him a great pleasure that a collection built up with affection over two decades will pass permanently into the keeping of the single institution in Britain where it is most likely to be appreciated, both as modest works of international baroque art and as memorials of the Jesuit 'way of proceeding' in cultural receptiveness, dialogue through the arts, and linguistic achievement.