Tuesday, May 19, 2015

The Trinity in Colonial Latin American Art

The doctrine of the Trinity sets Christianity apart from the two other Abrahamic faiths, Judaism and Islam.  Both of these are adamant in their insistence that God is One and reject Christianity's trinitarian formulation that God is three persons- Father, Son and Holy Spirit- in one person.  The idea of Trinity is not directly found in the Bible, but was a doctrine arrived at in the councils of the early Church and formalized at the Council of Nicea in 325 A.D.  

Throughout the history of art, there have been different ways of depicting the idea of the Trinity, of visually spelling-out the complex theological notion of three persons in one. The importance of teaching images surged with the Spanish Conquest because there was, suddenly, a large indigenous population that needed to be indoctrinated in Christianity. How could the clergy charged with the conversion explain the Trinity to someone who had never heard of the concept? Images were central in this, as they were with all facets of the conversion.  Here are some of those images.

Jesus Seated at the Right Hand of the Father:
 One type derives directly from the New Testament where the Gospel of Mark describes Jesus ascending into Jesus heaven and then sitting at the right hand of the Father.  Scripture also describes the Holy Spirit descending in the form of a dove upon Jesus at his baptism (present in all four gospels), hence the depiction of a bird in representations of the Trinity.
All of these elements are a part of the following representations.

Basilica of Guadelupe, Mexico City

Itizimna Church, Merida, MX

Throne of Mercy:

A variant of Trinity iconography, known as the "Throne of Mercy",  developed in medieval Europe.  In this, God is portrayed as sitting on a throne, wearing a Papal tiara and holding the crucified figure of Jesus; the dove is also seen. Father presents his dying Son on the cross to the viewer. On the cross sits a dove, the symbol of the Holy Spirit because when he was baptized Jesus "saw the Spirit of God descending as a dove" (Matthew 3:16, Mark 1:10, Luke 3:22, John 1:32).  Frequently, as in the first two photos there is an orb representing the world that God created with the implication of his rulership over all.

San Jeronimo Tlacochahuaya, Oaxaca

Merida Cathedral, Merida, MX

Three Identical Men:
Another version of  Trinity iconography portrayed  three identical men. This form had precedents in medieval European art, but more or less disappeared when it regained popularity in the Spanish colonies. However, it was condemned in the 18th century by
Pope Benedict XIV but remained a popular form in New Mexico which was so far from the cultural centers of the Mexico that it developed its own unique art forms. (for more about New Mexican religious art visit the Sept. 6, 2014 post of this blog "Understanding New Mexico's Santos  

Templo de San Matias Jalatlaco, Oaxaca MX

Oaxaca MX
by Pedro Antonio Fresquis, 19th century New Mexico

by José Manuel Benavides, New Mexico, 19th century New Mexico

Three-faced Trinity:

A related iconographic type had a single human figure with three faces. There were examples of this in Europe, but these were attacked by the Church and in the 17th century were forbidden by Pope Urban VIII. In the New World, further from Papal surveillance, these images became most popular in South America.

Colonial Peru

Colonial Colombia- painter Gregorio Vasquez de Arce y Ceballos

The painter Ceballos is said to have been the innovator of the Trinity with four eyes and three faces in one.  This iconography of the Trinity was condemned by the Church as heretical because it resembled three-faced depictions of Hindu deities.  Despite this censuring, such images of the Trinity remained popular in the Latin American world throughout the colonial period.  The painting from Colonial Peru differs from that of Ceballos, although all such images were rejected by the Church.

Trinity Iconography as a teaching tool:
The Christian church is resolute in its insistence that God is one but yet three and the resulting  theological construct of Trinity is a very complex idea, one that is often difficult to communicate, even to Christians.  Painted and sculpted images of the Trinity were not unique to the Spanish Colonial world, but were copied or developed from European prototypes with the exception of a few unique images such as that of Ceballos above.  The Trinity has never been an easy idea to get across to people, particularly people who are brand-new to Christianity. 

The Spanish clerics charged with the massive task of converting the newly-conquered indigenous peoples faced major communication problems due to the language barrier, and also because the new ideas they were teaching were different from established religious beliefs.  As in all facets of this massive conversion process, sculpted and painted images were the central teaching tools. The images in this post were some of the "books"
used in this process.

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