The Evolution of Religious Paintings in Latin America

The Evolution of Religious Paintings in Latin America

Religious painting in Latin America has developed in the new world and re-shaped existing ideals from the Old Word. From pre-Hispanic times, with their renowned monumental art, to the present day, the region's indigenous and mestizos have sought to express the Catholic perspective of life within the culture that surrounds them. This connection between religious art and the social context has been a constant throughout history, given that the Catholic religion has had a great influence on customs and ways of life in Latin America.

Since the times of the Conquest, religion has had a great impact on Latin American religious painting. In the early years, religious painting was dominated by Spanish artists, who produced such masterpieces as the Virgin of Guadalupe by Juan de Juanes. As the Baroque style became more popular, Latin American artists began to experiment with new forms and techniques. This can be seen in the work of Miguel Cabrera, one of the greatest Latin American Baroque artists. Cabrera painted many religious works, including the famous "Virgin of the Apocalypse."


The conquistadores brought a verify of styles of religious painting that mixed together with the established pre-Colombian style. This fusion has created a rich artistic heritage that is still seen in many churches and museums throughout Latin America. The artworks that were produced often reflected a mix of European styles and indigenous elements, as Spanish artists portrayed saints and religious subjects according to European models, while Creole artists began to incorporate elements of indigenous cultures and African heritage. This can be seen in the work of the most important colonial artists, such as Juan de Pareja, Miguel Cabrera and Cristóbal de Villalpando.


In the 19th century, religious painting in Latin America was influenced by the neoclassical movement, which sought to imitate the style of ancient Greece and Rome. This can be seen in the work of artists such as Antonio González and Antonio Rodríguez. However, there were also artists who rebelled against the neoclassical movement and began to experiment with new forms of expression.


Throughout the centuries, religion has continued to be a major influence on Latin American religious painting. In the 20th century, religion in art became more personal and less traditional. Many artists used their art to express their own religion or to question religious institutions. Many artists used their works to explore religion in new and original ways, for example, Mexican artists Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo painted extensive religious works, many of which centered on the figure of the Virgin of Guadalupe.


In general, religious art in Latin America is characterized by its iconography full of symbols and samples of a language built around these allegories. The figure of the saint is an excellent representation of this type of iconography.

In the 21st century, religious art painted in Latin America recorded a twist in its history. The dominance of traditional protective images over Biblical or mythological motifs was about to end. The new generations sought to gather in the same place the different manifestations of religion through those pieces that, in their opinion, showed the communion of all the faithful.

The new scenario allowed an explosion in the mural painting sector, which has been characterized by a great advance in experimentation. Thus, we are before a repertoire of multiple variations, ranging from minimalism to intricate colors. Followers of the tradition portray religious life through nightmarish paintings, contrasting with works aimed at transmitting the intimate serenity of hope.

In all cases, the motivation is the encounter with God. The artist adopts a personal and ironic stance towards the people who are linked to him, emphasizing the ambiguity of life, the fragility of happiness and the difficulty of moral confrontation. Thus, religious painting is a sample of tradition and modernity, sacred and secular, rooted in the past and anticipating the future.


A look at sacred art in Cuba.


Origins (16th century-1818: foundation of the Academy of San Alejandro)

The need for plastic art in Cuba arises in the convents and churches, where religious images are imported that would later have to be restored and reproduced with the help of slaves, clergymen and nomadic artists who visited the island. In its beginnings, this period can be called American Baroque (Rigol 1982: 19), alluding to an imported and Americanized Baroque. The Catholic Church, as the arm of Spanish power, puts painting at its service, flooding the lands of America with painters and artisans who will bring the art of painting just as it was in Spain. According to Cossio del Pomar (Rigol 1982: 19), this painting will come full of Flemish realism, Italian naturalism, and medieval ethos. For Cuba, quickly abandoned after the little gold that the great Spanish greed could offer was exhausted, the 16th and 17th centuries will be of subsistence and only the work of painters, mainly passing through and with essentially religious motives, will contribute something to this form of baroque. American.

The Catholic legacy was ensured by the presence of works by renowned artists in the 19th century churches of Havana, the only source for the appreciation of the great masters. Proof of this is the church of Nuestra Señora de la Merced, the top work of this genre in Cuba. Reviewing the works of Joaquín Weiss (1980) and Angel Gaztelu (1965), the church contains a sumptuous wall decoration of academic invoice, unique in our colonial churches.

Cuban painters from the last quarter of the 19th century such as Melero, Herrera, Chartrand and Petit participated in it. It also contains valuable works by Zuloaga, Murillo and Alonso Cano. In the chapel of Our Lady of Lourdes, aptly called by some the Sistine Chapel of Cuban religious art, Esteban Chartrand and M. Didier Petit reflected the Procession of the Blessed Sacrament of Lourdes while Miguel Melero and Antonio Herrera decorated the dome and the skylight that placed in the second stage of construction in 1883 (Fernández Santalices 1997: 143) with, The power of the keys, Scene from the life of Saint Paul and figures of the prophets David, Isaías, Jeremias and Elías.

I would not like to fail to mention the Abakuá drawings and symbols that, especially until the mid-20th century, decorated some neighborhoods and lots in Havana and other provinces (de la Torriente 1954). Related to ritual practices of this secret society, these symbols constitute extremely interesting popular drawings because with easy lines they transmit a whole magical semiotics that is highly expressive to the knowledgeable eye, but always attractive due to the mystery of its compositions. For our next post, we will share more information about this secret society and how Belkis Ayon represented it mysteries.


Avant-garde (1927-1959)

In plastic arts, as in other spheres of work, Cuba remained in the saga of the renovating movements. Almost everything arrived in Cuba, but it arrived late, when its apotheosis had passed.

This stage is characterized by the definitive break with the Europeanized image (most of the times Frenchified) of Cuban painting. In the works of the great masters of this period, the religious theme is hardly addressed. The new plastic did not want to remember in its content the past governed by European canons; it aspired to an authentically Cuban work that they achieve in many of its edges. This included the treatment of the religious theme, since it will reflect the peculiar religiosity of the Cuban, far from dogmatism and militant practice and full of a certain mestizo and popular superstition. Modernist primitivism (led, among others, by figures such as Pablo Picasso and André Breton) fuels the interest of the avant-garde in Cuban themes, recreating with a mixture of expressionism and surrealism, among others, themes related to Afro-Cuban religions. (Martínez 1994: 74-94; Mosquera 1993: 14, 114).


Within this context, the works of Enríquez and Lam are loaded with great sensuality and Creole mysticism. Particularly the work of Lam, the most universal of Cuban painters, although moved by the same interest, is more symbolic and with a vision from within (perhaps due to his own partly African origin) of Afro-Cuban religious rites.



Contemporary Cuban Art (1980-present)

The 80s and 90s lead to an explosion in Cuban artistic production that is characterized by a plurality of manifestations in the constant search for new paths. The New Cuban Art is a movement governed by uniquely autochthonous patterns (which cannot be framed in postmodernism, avant-garde, or surrealism, although it is nourished and defended by all of them) that lead, through the historical development of Cuban art, to challenge the theoretical, methodological and aesthetic aspects of contemporary art.

The exhibition, Volume I, (International Art Center, Havana, January 14, 1981) symbolizes the emergence of New Cuban Art with the figures of José Bedia, Juan Francisco Elso Padilla, José Manuel Fors, Flavio Garciandía, Israel León, Rogelio López Marín (Gory), Gustavo Pérez Monzón, Ricardo Rodríguez Brey, Tomás Sánchez, Leandro Soto and Rubén Torres Llorca (Camnitzer 1994, 1-8). In the work of Rubén Torres Llorca, there are representations of the Virgen de la Caridad del Cobre, patron saint of Cuba and deeply rooted in Cuban religiosity (Portuondo 1995; de la Fuente García 1999: 99-122), as an irreverent symbol of Cubanness in kitsch (or corny) collages (Camnitzer 1994: 26-30). Among the artists of this generation there are followers of Afro-Cuban religions (santeros and paleros), some more explicit than others in their work. José Bedia (palero) and Ricardo Rodríguez Brey have a strong influence of Afro-Cuban religions in their work (Camnitzer 1994: 41-50). The work of Juan Francisco Elso Padilla, on the other hand, cultivates Latin American mythology including elements of Afro-Cuban Santeria (Camnitzer 1994: 50-60). Making a poetic and unorthodox use of the Santeria ritual, he blessed with his own blood the materials for his work "Por América" of strong Americanist symbolism.

Within the Contemporary Cuban Art movement the religious theme also has a novel treatment. The Cuban Vanguard essentially abandons religious themes, with the exception of those related to Afro-Cuban religions, and it is not until this period that these elements reappear as symbols of a new semiotics in Cuban art. Eclectic elements appear in the treatment of the religious theme, not as a Western postmodernism, but as a search for new elements of expression, in an environment where eclecticism and magic is a component of daily life.

The polyphones of contemporary Cuban visual arts is also reflected in the treatment of religious themes. This will not be evoked to talk to God, rarely to talk about Him and most of the time as a symbolic element, in sharp disfigurement and subversion of that traditional European religious idea. Instead, it is made to represent the current Cuban reality full of contradictions, inversion of values and strength of a new intelligence.

The demystification of the Revolution as a concern in the plastic expression of the newest generation also makes use of religious elements to be reflected in the artistic work. Such is the work of José Toirac and José Almarales. The complex relationship between religion and the materialistic vision of the world, between religion and sex, among other topics, are addressed in the work of artists such as Luis Olivera (his work "La inmaculada contención", exhibited at the recent First Erotic Art Salon in La Acacia gallery in Havana, places the image of a virgin inside a condom as an allusion to the barriers that the Catholic religion imposes on sex; Cepero 2000).

In artists such as Zaida del Río, Diana Balboa, Ibrahim Miranda, Cosme Proenza, Reinerio Tamayo, Odalys Hernández Fernández and Angel Ramírez, an esoteric and highly symbolic message is revealed using elements of the Catholic or Yoruba religion (Cruz 1990; García Abela 1996: 45 -48; Cepero 1996: 65-66; Piñera 1996: 6; Blanco dela Cruz 1997: 63-64; Minemura 1998: 71-72; Toledo 1999). In others, such as Manuel Mendive and Roberto Diago, the work is marked by the externalization of Afro-Cuban and syncretic religious elements (Castellanos 1995: 21-30). Ever Fonseca recreates popular mythology (Juan 1980: 75-77).

A refined counterpoint between "religious parable" and "simulating parable" with the recreation of biblical passages appears in the work of artists such as Lissette Matalón, Rubén Alpízar, Aisar Jalil and Omar Hechavarría González (Castellanos 1996: 67-68). In Aimée García, surrealism and the Catholic image intertwine as a way of communicating a very subtle universal poetic message (Navarro 1997: 45-49). Lázaro García (Camnitzer 1994: 287) recreates the biblical tradition in a stark way and, therefore, more real and close.

The work of a good number of contemporary artists in Cuba still have religious themes reflected in some way, perhaps most of the time in allusion to the deities of the Yoruba pantheon. This phenomenon of growing interest in the subject of Afro-Cuban religions occurs in two directions: one as a result of the new focus on religion, and in particular Afro-Cuban religions, by society and the State, which is reflected in the growing number of its practitioners (even without a defined religious affiliation) and that increases in periods of crisis, and another linked to the "tourist" appeal of the theme that leads to a decadent commercial art.

The evolution of the treatment of the religious theme in Cuban art reflects the evolution of Cuban religiosity (Portuondo 1995; Orozco and Bolívar 1998; de la Fuente García 1999: 99-122). From a strong imposed Catholicism, the colony must face syncretism with African religions, especially the Yoruba. The Catholic Church attacked Yoruba, represses him and distances him from his evangelizing work. This process leaves its mark on the development of the Cuban nationality and seals a peculiar popular religiosity, full of beliefs and superstitions that easily adapt to the needs of the believer, far from the militant and orthodox activity advocated by the Catholic Church.

That spirit is reflected by Vanguardism. The allusion to issues related to Afro-Cuban religions, so popular in Cuba, is addressed from the Vanguard with the pioneering works of Abela, Enríquez and Lam, and continues to be treated throughout the 20th century, with more emphasis within the New Cuban art. After the stage of ideological confrontation with religion, the religious theme reappears with the New Cuban Art as a reflection of the new socio-economic relations in the country and a faithful mirror of the religiosity of the Cuban: irreverent use of religious symbols as a form of expression. artistic, renewing and alien to any orthodox affiliation. Religious beliefs and superstitions are respected and reflected in the plastic work with total aesthetic freedom, a reflection of popular religious sentiment.

If you are interested in getting closer to the production of contemporary artists who develop this theme in Cuba, you can find on our page Oils & Canvas the painter and restorer Yoanis Gil, who has developed an immense restoration work after passing through convents and churches, where it brings back to life saints such as, The Virgin of Charity of El Cobre, The Immaculate Virgin, San Lorenzo, San Juan Bosco.

Back to blog