Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
November 13, 2023
Charlene Villasenor Black Transforming Saints: From Spain to New Spain Nashville, TN: Vanderbilt University Press, 2022. 398 pp.; 126 color ills. Cloth $119.00 (9780826504715)

Charlene Villaseñor Black’s latest book is concerned with female saints and their aesthetic dimensions and transformations. The author chooses five case studies in an effort to demonstrate and explicate the marked changes the devotions underwent from early modern Spain to New Spain. The function of images within wider, religious, social, and political contexts is a primary concern for the author, and she strives to be especially attuned to “women’s experience” and “issues related to indigeneity and race” (8). All chapters follow a similar pattern—first showing how select saints were seen in Spain before discussing their manifestations and marked differences in New Spain.

The first chapter “St. Anne, Art, and Conversion,” maintains that the cult of Saint Anne prospered in New Spain even as it “dwindled” in Iberia. Devotion was fomented early in Mexico, and Anne’s Indigenous following was especially obvious in Franciscan strongholds. To explain the saint’s appeal, the book turns to the social history of the Mexican family and a consideration of precontact religious devotions. The author asserts that both an Indigenous “preference for the extended matriarchal family” and the saint’s “conflation with the Aztec goddess Toci” drove the saint’s reputation in Mexico (47). To help bolster her claims, the author emphasizes particular aspects of the pre-Hispanic goddess and mines early ethnographic sources and pictorial manuscripts. But sources such as the Codex Borbonicus remind us that the grandmotherly Toci, the maternal Teteoinnan, and the transgressive Tlazolteotl were likely one and the same goddess, an identity that became fractured and reflective of divided Christian concepts in the early colonial period. Does the evidence, then, point to a blending of Anne with a precontact Toci, or does it speak to two female figures already touched by a process of translation? The author admits the data is difficult to disentangle, and her efforts to interpret correspondences between saintly devotions and Nahua values are not always successful.  

The second chapter “The Madonna, between Mother and Queen,” includes fruitful discussion of the Virgo lactans. In response to the Council of Trent’s prohibitions, Spain discouraged the image of the lactating virgin. Seventeenth-century Spanish artists responded by avoiding blatant scenes while skillfully alluding to maternal feeding. Eventually, Immaculate Conception imagery replaced breastfeeding iconography. Turning our attention to New Spain, the author points to the “relatively few images of the Madonna and Child,” and “the even fewer examples of nursing Madonnas” (90). The prevalence of the Virgin of el Refugio contradicts the first premise, but the larger frustration is the author’s limited overview of nursing Madonnas. She ignores the drawing included in Diego Muñoz de Camargo’s Historia showing the conversion of Tlaxcalan nobles below an image of the Virgo lactans (Glasgow University Library, 1581–1584), the early sanctuary dedicated to Nuestra Señora de la Leche in Saint Augustine, Florida, the fine works by Juan Rodríguez Juárez (Museo Regional de Guadalajara) and José del Castillo (Museo Nacional de Arte, Mexico City), and anonymous examples from Oaxaca, Campeche, and Yucatán. According to the author, the Virgo lactans never became popular in Mexico for two reasons. First, breastfeeding practices were commonplace within Indigenous communities (so there was no need to model this behavior in colonial painting), and second, Mexican viewers preferred a celestial Mary to a humanized one. But by 1550 the Virgo lactans had fallen out of favor throughout Europe, not just in Spain. While the Council of Trent may have exacerbated the trend, the change of iconography might speak more to matters of taste and artistic agency than actual prohibitions. Clearly, Golden Age painters did not entirely avoid Marian nudity or the depiction of breastmilk—the author mentions the mystical milk provided Saint Bernard of Clairvaux and Saint Augustine, citing Bartolomé de Murillo’s paintings at the Prado Museum. Readers should know that New Spain produced similar works showing Bernard, Augustine, Dominic, Cajetan, and Peter Nolasco all receiving milk expressed from Mary’s breast. Mexican devotional literature often drew comparisons between the gift of Mary’s milk and the salvation of humankind. In a treatise by Poblana nun Sor Maria Anna Agueda de San Ignacio, Marabillas del divino amor selladas con el sello de la verdad (Mexico 1758), Mary’s breastmilk is precisely what holds the Trinity together, and, analogously, it is the salvific adhesive that binds us to God. The celestial and the humanized often intersected.

The third chapter “The Suffering Mother,” explores images of the Virgin of Sorrows and the Virgin of Solitude. Biblical references to Mary’s suffering are limited, a sharp contrast to the pictorial intensity seen in the early modern Spanish world. Whereas such images in Iberia can be linked to royal patronage, in New Spain their affective power parallels native suffering. The suffering Mary was seen early in Mexico and related devotions continued to be important throughout the viceregal period. One important sculpture and altar dedicated to the Virgin of Sorrows dates from 1690 and was crafted for the hacienda of Santa Lucia (north of Mexico City). The sculpture’s tearful eyes were considered chief nodal points for understanding the depth of the Virgin’s suffering. The person responsible for the commission was José Vidal Figueroa, a Mexican Jesuit who also published a book advancing the notion that the virgin, precisely through her eyes, “experienced the Passion as intensely as her son” (153). The role of the Jesuits, and Vidal in particular, in promoting the Virgin of Sorrows cannot be overstated. Vidal had previously established a sodality in honor of the devotion which led to the 1673 construction of her altar in San Pedro y San Pablo, the primary Jesuit church in Mexico City. As art historian Clara Bargellini has shown, the Mexico City altar became the model for similar retablos dedicated to the Virgin of Sorrows, including the one at Santa Lucia.

Chapter Four “Rebellious Daughters,” addresses an obscure medieval figure who was revitalized and transformed in early modern Spain. The book positions Saint Librada as “another feminine archetype, that of the perfect daughter” (169). The author argues that the recent orientation of the saint as a feminist icon in New Mexico “harkens back to early modern beliefs” (171). The chapter provides a summary of the devotion’s history, including limited medieval sources and evidence of an association with the Reconquista. The sixteenth century saw the creation of Librada’s spectacular altar in Sigüenza’s cathedral (1525–1526), the translation of her relics to the cathedral in 1537, and the publication of the Sigüenza breviary in 1561 (which included a revision of her twelfth-century officium). The post-Tridentine threat of suppression led to increased production of Librada-related literature in an effort to prove a continuous tradition of veneration. The author cites the importance of Jerónimo Román de la Higuera, a Jesuit who spurred official papal acceptance of the cult. Ultimately, the saint was revised and the 1625 Congregation of Rites accepted a reformed Librada, one that was partially conflated with the bearded Saint Wilgefortis. A close reading of historian Katrina Olds’ work (not cited by the author) shows the extent to which Librada’s new delineation in text and image was orchestrated by Higuera. The selective amalgamation with Wilgefortis was neither driven by feminist concerns nor popular piety, but were elections made by an unscrupulous, conniving, pious nationalist. The more pressing issue is the saint’s importance in Spanish America.

It is nearly impossible to locate Librada in Mexico prior to the nineteenth century. When a 1776 inventory of New Mexico church property fails to turn up references to the saint, no doubt because her image was not in circulation in the northern part of the viceroyalty at this early date, the author reasons that the absence “suggests that she was a popular saint, not one officially promoted or sanctioned by the Catholic Church” (206). Yet the (absence of) evidence undermines the premise that the cult existed during this period and that it “promoted conversion to Christianity” (217). We cannot speak of New Mexico in the mid-nineteenth century as “New Spain” any more than we can refer to its population during this period as “Native converts” (212). Librada, a female saint who rejected obeyance to her father in favor of her faith, is nevertheless linked by the author to the early missionary history of the viceroyalty, a period in which mendicants routinely adopted conversion strategies that severed bonds between children and parents. But the proliferation of Librada imagery in New Mexico took place without Franciscan oversight—indeed, her image was a key component of the region’s paraliturgical piety precisely because friars and priests provided little guidance. That the saint “facilitated” devotion to Christ is clear (she was eagerly adopted by male penitential confraternities who crafted images and composed alabados in her honor), but that she especially appealed to colonial women or manifested “anxieties about the relationship between children and parents in the context of conversion” (267) remains unconvincing.

The last chapter “Mary Magdalene and the Erotics of Devotion,” deals with a subject that has received considerable scholarly attention. The author’s main contribution is her discussion of Indigenous inflections, including the possibility that Mary Magdalene adopted traits associated with the pre-Columbian goddess Tlazolteotl. The author explains that devotion to the penitent saint arrived in Mexico prior to Trent: Cortés reportedly gifted an image to Motecuhzoma’s daughter and early churches were erected in her honor. Devotion increased thereafter and spread beyond strictly Indigenous communities. The author highlights a discernable “eroticism” in colonial paintings, and she pays special attention to the saint’s pose in the work of Juan Correa. The section linking her to Tlazolteotl is compelling, especially as it considers the unique ritual practices which continue to take place in Xico, Veracruz. Here, Magdalene is celebrated with white flowers (white is the color of Tlazolteotl) and her faithful offer an abundance of tears as they confess their sins to her devotional sculpture (a ritual weeping reminiscent of precontact traditions).  

The book takes major risks and, consequently, will prove controversial. I appreciate the polemics. Nevertheless, there is a marked disconnect between what the author purportedly attempts and what the book actually achieves. “The detailed historical research into these five case studies,” the author writes in her conclusion “endeavored to recover a sense of the agency of devotees in the past. How did women in viceregal Mexico respond to these cults to female holy persons? How did these images act in the multiracial context of New Spain?” (268). Yet a viceregal female audience seems elusive throughout the book; inexplicably, the project ignores female convents and associated artwork and literature. Notwithstanding nineteenth-century Indigenous and Mexican santeros, the author focuses almost exclusively on nonnative, elite artists. One wonders what the book might have accomplished had the author also considered conventual art and literature, anonymous paintings, humble prints, enconchados, and more than one featherwork.

Cristina Cruz González
Associate Professor, Department of Art, Graphic Design, and Art History, Oklahoma State University