No one knows for sure when artists first started creating religious art. With the arrival of Europeans in the 16th century, Spain and Portugal took religious art to its highest levels of artistry and creativity as they spread their faith and culture to South America.
Highest Heaven: Spanish and Portuguese Colonial Art from the Roberta and Richard Huber Collection is on view at the San Antonio Museum of Art‘s Cowden Gallery from June 11–Sept. 4, 2016.
The visually stunning and diverse collection of more than 100 works, such as paintings, sculptures, furniture, ivories, and silverworks, explores the art of South America’s Altiplano during a time when cultural exchanges between Spain and Portugal with their South American colonies produced a treasure trove of religious art.
The Altiplano, or high plains, stretches from northern Argentina to the flatlands of Peru. The exhibition tells the story of how art was used in setting up new settlements in the colonial empire, and how it helped spread the Christian faith among indigenous peoples. The visual language used in these religious artworks facilitated cultural and creative exchanges Spain and Portugal had with their respective South American colonies.
As in Europe, the Catholic Church became the main patron of the arts that helped tell stories of good and evil, narrated the lives of Jesus and of saints, all in sumptuous styles. This “art to impress” was used to convert indigenous peoples to Roman Catholic Christianity. The abundance of silver in colonial Bolivia and Peru allowed it to be used copiously as decoration for both religious and domestic objects.
“Highest Heaven explores not only the aesthetic beauty of this art, but also the significant role that it played in the cultural, religious, and social lives of these peoples,” stated Katie Luber, San Antonio Museum of Art Kelso Director, in a news release.
The exhibition, drawn exclusively from the collection of Roberta and Richard Huber, includes more than 100 works, with several pieces never before been seen in a museum exhibition.
Co-curated by William Keyse Rudolph, Mellon chief curator and Marie and Hugh Halff curator of American Art, and Marion J. Oettinger Jr, curator of Latin American Art, the exhibition is full of rich paintings, one-of-a-kind furniture pieces, ecclesiastical silver, precious ivory figurines, vivid painted and carved statues, and luxury objects for secular use.
“(The objects) all testify to the global nature of Spanish colonial art, a world of makers and consumers in which aesthetic trends, artistic impulses, and religious devotion crossed continents and oceans, combining and recombining in a dazzling combination of the universal and the local,” Rudolph said. “Many of our visitors are familiar with the art of Viceregal Mexico (Mexican decorative and fine arts from 1521-1821), given our important collections. They will enjoy discovering the ways the art of the Spanish and Portuguese colonial possessions of today’s South America are both alike and wonderfully distinct and different to what they’ve seen before.”
Collectors Roberta and Richard Huber made approximately half of the contents of their home available to the museum. Over the course of 40 years, the Hubers have lived and traveled in South America and have developed an extensive collection of colonial South American art.
“Highest Heaven is an extraordinary selection of South American colonial art from one of the largest and most distinctive private collections in this country of that unique material,” Rudolph said.
Many paintings of the saints incorporate backgrounds, objects from everyday life, and native dress typical for indigenous people in various South American countries, so that locals could connect to the figures and the stories depicted in the religious art.
“When you see this collection, you will see the culture Spain and Portugal brought to these colonies, as well as indigenous culture reflected in these works of art,” docent Maria Brandenburg said. “The merging of these cultures resulted in the rich spectrum of colors, the Pre-Hispanic color palette becoming incorporated into in these works. This is art made to impress, to convert the viewer.”
Pictorial representations of saints often give clues to their specific feats and stories, helping to teach stories in the new world. The Lisbon-born Saint Anthony of Padua or San Antonio de Padua (1195–1231), is one of the most popular saints of the Portuguese Empire, becoming the patron saint of many of Portugal’s colonies — including San Antonio.
San Antonio is named after the San Antonio River. The river was named for San Antonio de Padua after a Spanish expedition arrived here by river on the saint’s feast day on June 13 in 1691, thus giving the river, and our city, the name of that saint’s day.
To view Highest Heaven, visitors must pay a $10 surcharge along with the museum’s general admission fee for those 18 and over. Visiting the San Antonio Museum of Art is free on Tuesdays from 4-9 p.m. and Sundays from 10 a.m.-noon.
The Elizabeth Huth Coates Charitable Foundation of 1992, a local foundation committed to philanthropy in San Antonio, supports the exhibition.
Top image: Our Lady of the Rosary of Pomona, currently on view as part of Highest Heaven at the San Antonio Museum of Art. Photo courtesy of the San Antonio Museum of Art.