Looking beyond the virgins and angels, however, the exhibition offers key insights into the social and political history of the colonial Americas.
A focal point of the exhibition is a casta, or caste, painting, on loan from Madrid’s Museum of America. A uniquely American genre, casta paintings characterize the racial mixtures among Spaniards, Indians and Africans in colonial Mexican society.
One such painting, attributed to one of the foremost painters of the Viceroyalty of New Spain, José de Ibarra (1688-1756), is inscribed “Of a Spanish man and an Indian woman, a mestizo,” and depicts a multiracial family. It is one of seven by Ibarra, himself a mestizo, the child of Spanish and Indian parents, that identify and rank the union and offspring of different races. The further away a person was from “pure” white, the lower his or her social status — a point made clear in Ibarra’s painting: The Spanish husband looks directly out, his Indian wife has her back to the viewer.
Casta paintings may well have served to acquaint the Spanish public with people of the New World and to show the royal authorities what their subjects were like. If caste paintings were intended to document social status for European audiences, a mid-19th century Peruvian painting of a saint arguably fulfilled the same function for colonial viewers.
The charming folk-art style of San Ysidro the Laborer belies its political message. The 11th century saint, patron of farmers, peasants and laborers — and, more pointedly, patron of the Spanish capital of Madrid — is depicted in dress of the colonial era and portrayed as a gargantuan figure towering over the cityscape and native people who surround him.
There is no mistaking who ruled and who served in colonial society.