The art of colonial Latin America reflects a rich and fascinating age created by a luxury-loving society little understood in our time. Pedro de Vargas, Diego Quispe Tito and Marcos Zapata, three great artists of Cuzco, Peru, were as important to colonial Spanish art as Giotto and Leonardo da Vinci were to the Italian Renaissance. De Vargas, Quispe and Zapata spent their lives creating public art for their community, and their works remain a testament to a unique cultural heritage spanning three centuries. Yet they have been largely and undeservedly ignored by contemporary scholarship.
The story of these artists is closely linked to the history of the great Inca capital city of Cuzco. Like a Florence of the New World, Cuzco was the center of culture for an extensive region of the Spanish colony, isolated from the rest of the world by the Andes Mountains. Sacked and burned three times during the conquest, Cuzco's Inca ruins survived as foundations for the Spanish buildings which rose above the old city. Several major Christian churches were actually built on top of Inca temples to encourage acceptance of the new religion; other impressive mission churches were built throughout the rugged Cuzco region.
Cuzco's art tradition was born in these churches. Intended to promote the cult of the Virgin and Jesus Christ and replace the ancient worship of the gods of the moon and sun, the churches were furnished with spectacular interiors calculated to amaze the Indian population. The altars, paintings and sculptures became a visual language for an Indian audience unschooled in either European religion or history. European artists were imported to ensure that the symbolism and iconography were correct. The artists brought with them the reigning Hispano-Flemish style, typified by high-finish paintings with sharp focus and careful detail.
Pedro de Vargas was one such immigrant artist. Born near Cordoba, Spain in 1553, he became a soldier so he could travel to Peru. By 1574 he had joined the Society of Jesus and was listed as the assistant to the Italian Mannerist painter, Bernardo Bitti. The two young Jesuits travelled throughout Peru supervising the construction of great altar screens--enormous carved wooden frames enclosing sculptures, paintings or relief panels modeled from gesso and the wild rushes growing in Lake Titicaca.
These altar pieces were the focal point of the mission church interiors, and represented the most costly and labor-intensive artistic constructions of the entire Spanish colonial period. Carpenters, joiners, sculptors, painters and gilders created splendid carved walls of burnished gold and brilliant images. Dozens of highly skilled craftsmen would work for years on a single altar.
Like European art centers from the same period--roughly 1500 to 1800--Cuzco's costly art, architecture and high-quality craftsmanship were maintained by guilds which commanded the very best of local talent. As the years passed, the Cuzco guilds elaborated their style, at first reflecting Spanish and European directions, but soon taking pride in their own particular artistic and historical development. Along with Bitti, de Vargas played a major role in the formation of the Cuzco school. His works are characterized by enamel-like finishes, radiant colonial ideal figure types and a decorative use of gold on details--features which greatly influenced later Cuzco painters.
During this same period, Christian images were in great demand by Jesuit missionaries for their campaign in Japan. A versatile artist, de Vargas supplied jewelry-like miniature paintings on wood and copper in both late Flemish and Italian Mannerist styles for this rapidly expanding Oriental market. He also created large portable paintings representing sculptured altars, which could be rolled for shipment to the Philippines and Japan. Vargas' works must have been highly prized in Japan, for many of his lost paintings have reappeared there, mounted and preserved in beautiful Japanese lacquered shrine cases. …