Contexts of Art in the Spanish Americas

Contexts of Art in the Spanish Americas

Learning about where art objects were originally displayed is essential to better understand the role art played in society. In the Spanish Americas, art was shown in both private and public settings. Religious imagery was the most common type of art produced at the time and was used not only to reinforce Catholic teachings, but also to enhance the experience of faith on an individual level. Portraits were frequently produced for various spaces and with multiple meanings: in the public environment, a portrait could be used to reinforce authority and demonstrate loyalty, while in a home’s interior, portraits conveyed the social status of the owner.

Anonymous: Tres esculturas del Niño Jesús con donantes indígenas [Christ Child in Three Guises with Indigenous Donors]

From Public to Private

In the Spanish Americas, art objects were used to enhance the experience of Catholic faith on an individual level. As devotion to images with a specific titles or named saints spread out across the region, objects that were originally intended for public settings were repurposed to be displayed in private environments.
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Anonymous: Retrato de Gregorio de Viana [Portrait of Gregorio de Viana]

Private Display

In domestic settings, art objects in medium to small dimensions were commonly produced to fit in family chapels and private oratories. The subject matter of this kind of Catholic imagery made for private use included specific devotions aimed to help in various life circumstances like death, or illness. In addition to their use in domestic settings, compact portable devotional items were particularly favored by missionaries, priests, merchants, and Spanish officials while traveling across the extensive territories annexed to the Crown in the early sixteenth century.
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Anonymous: Nuestra Señora de Belén con un donante [Our Lady of Bethlehem with a Donor]

Public Display

In the Spanish Americas, churches’ interiors became the best place for indoctrination in the main dogmas of the faith for both Indigenous people and those of Spanish descent. Mural paintings attached to the new churches’ walls were highly favored for this purpose, as well as massive altarpieces that decorated the back of the altar where the mass took place. The large dimensions of surviving artworks in addition to iconography allow modern-day researchers to determine an artwork's original public setting.
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