Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
November 15, 2023
Luisa Elena Alcalá Donegani Arte y localización de un culto global: La Virgen de Loreto en México Madrid: Abada Editores, 2022. 462 pp.; 30 color ills.; 75 b/w ills. Cloth ( 9788419008084)

Why might a study on the cult of the Virgin of Loreto in Mexico be of interest to readers today? Precisely because it deals with one of the most universal Marian devotions of the early modern period, which allows us to understand the global through the local. As demonstrated by Luisa Elena Alcalá, the Virgin of Loreto embodies a relic of exceptional duality. In one respect, it comprises the Holy House, the very place where the Virgin received the announcement of Jesus’ birth and where the Holy Family would live after their return from Egypt. In 1291, after escaping the Muslim incursion in Nazareth, legend has it that this structure was transported by angels through the skies to Loreto. Conjoined with the house is an ancient sculpture of the Virgin with the Infant Jesus, attributed to the craftsmanship of the evangelist Saint Luke. These two relics constitute the original, ancient, and notably miraculous devotional ensemble, revered and disseminated by the Society of Jesus throughout Europe. The book delves into one of its “faithful” copies, installed in Mexico City in 1680 in the Church of San Gregorio, attached to a school dedicated to the Indigenous nobility. Even though this devotional ensemble no longer exists in Mexico City today, Professor Alcalá has reconstructed its history through an extensive corpus of documents that account for its worship. This body of evidence includes writings, images, and material culture.

The replica of the Virgin of Loreto with its Holy House is a compelling case for understanding the geographical expansion between the New and Old Worlds, along with their various transatlantic connections and relationships from the installation of the replica in the Church of San Gregorio in Mexico City to the expulsion of the Jesuits in 1767. This temporal framework enables the author to analyze, within a span of just under a century, the process of localizing the cult of Loreto in Mexico. The concept of localización is pivotal in this book, and the author defines it as the process by which the image migrated to the American continent and took root in such a way that it became a devotional phenomenon that encompassed the multiplicity of New Spanish society, including urban Indigenous people, peninsular Spaniards, and criollos. This phenomenon fueled the creation of new spaces, images, actions, and materialities. Unlike other renowned miraculous virgins in Spanish America—such as the Virgin of Guadalupe, the Virgin of Chiquinquirá, or the Virgin of Copacabana—whose localización owes much to initial actions involving Indigenous populations and were recognized as miraculous by their devotees, the book shows that the successful devotional process of the Virgin of Loreto was primarily orchestrated from its inception by members of the Society of Jesus, such as the Italians Juan Bautista Zappa and Juan María Salvatierra, supported in turn by the local community, including the criollo poblano Juan de Burgos. For these individuals, the initial concern was not focused on recognizing the miraculous power of the double relic.

This cult traces remote cartographies, intertwined with the origins of Christianity. In Mexico, the replica of the Holy House of Loreto evokes the Holy Land. As explained in the third chapter, through its materiality, the relic of the house, created to scale with the original, allowed its devotees to approach Nazareth by experiencing the act of entering the enclosure and touching its walls. Its authenticity as a true copy was reinforced through listening to sermons, observing touched and made-before-the-original copies, and souvenirs brought from Loreto (79–134). These devices enabled the devotee to bridge the gap through experience and “travel with their imagination” to the Holy Land (80). It becomes evident that in the devotion to the Virgin of Loreto in Mexico City, the relationship with distance was not one of dependency or longing. On the contrary, the distant origin managed to take root as a fundamental component of the cult established in the Church of San Gregorio because, despite being related, the ichantzinco (Nahuatl term for copies of the Holy House) in Mexico did not mirror the Holy House in Loreto.

The book explains the process through which the universal cult of the Virgin of Loreto became inscribed in New Spanish local coordinates and the roles played in it by various individuals, art, architecture, and material culture (11–12). To achieve this, the author, in addition to providing an introduction and an epilogue, divides her research into eight chapters. As is customary for this professor from the Autonomous University of Madrid, a renowned historian of Hispanic American art, her chapters reflect rigorous research and an engaging way of analyzing and interpreting documentation, as well as formulating and lucidly addressing issues. It is thus noteworthy to underscore select chapters. Traditional historiography has often recognized the Virgin of Loreto as one of the Black Virgins venerated in Europe without problematizing the term. This prompts the author to scrutinize, in the fourth chapter, the phenomenon of “whitening” that the copy transported to New Spain underwent. Her arguments demonstrate and acknowledge that color is far from an inconsequential facet when studying Marian transitions between texts, engravings, and paintings. In the case of the Virgin of Loreto in the Church of San Gregorio, color is not a result of syncretism but is influenced by multiple factors, including the perception of various audiences, the control of the image’s reception by religious authorities, as well as the care to preserve the decorum and authenticity of the image (171–224).

Another novel contribution is presented in the sixth chapter, which deals with the congregations of the Buena Muerte for Indigenous people and that of San José for the criollo and Spanish elite. These congregations operated in the eighteenth century in the Church of San Gregorio. Alcalá highlights the importance of these lay social organizations, permitted by the Jesuits and which operated in the eighteenth century in the Church of San Gregorio. In her investigation, the author underscores the significance of these secular social organizations, endorsed by the Jesuits, in the propagation and sustenance of the cult of the Virgin of Loreto, while also shaping the landscape of pious economy (271–94). In this chapter, as well as in the seventh, Alcalá emphasizes that studying these collective groups allows us to understand the racial, social, and gender dynamics and tensions that were entrenched in everyday life in New Spain (295–330). Lastly, the author proposes analyzing an alluring Marian society in the eighth chapter where the Virgin of Loreto shares the stage with the quintessential protagonist Marian image in the viceregal world, the Guadalupana. Alcalá demonstrates that despite being distinct, the two Madonnas complement each other. On one hand, Loreto was the Jesuit cult in Mexico that evoked Europe and the Holy Land; on the other, Guadalupe was the local and Indigenous image through which the Society of Jesus had forged pathways in the new territory (378).

Several parallel stories are woven throughout this scholarly book. It is a study of the Society of Jesus, of Marian worship, of Mexico City in the second half of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, but it is also a book that falls within the discipline of art history. The book reflects on images and material culture, and it contemplates the interaction between objects and devotees, which, as it pertains to miraculous images, their material, visual, and architectural surroundings, teach about devotion oftentimes more effectively than texts. Hence, this work aligns itself with a historiographical tradition that has gained prominence since the late 1980s, largely due to the contributions of scholars like David Freedberg and Hans Belting, who recognized and cultivated space for the history of images and the value of their multiplicity. Accordingly, the author positions herself critically against certain historiographies, especially those emanating from Spain, where specialists still approach devotional and venerable images in a pejorative manner, considering them as popular images and undermining their potential as subjects of study. On the other hand, throughout her book, Alcalá acknowledges the significant contributions made by American historiography in recent decades. Based on this brief review, I consider Arte y localización de un culto global: La Virgen de Loreto en México to be a fundamental book not only for scholars of viceregal and colonial American art, but also for any other geographical context. Luisa Elena Alcalá has succeeded in crafting a narrative that acknowledges the potency of the local while catalyzing a global perspective.

Olga Isabel Acosta Luna
Associate Professor, Department of Art History, University of the Andes, Colombia