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Latin American Colonial art is gaining new followers

April 1, 2010 | 10:00 am
SMdA Easter 2010 procession (7)
San Miguel de Allende, Mexico -- The April issue of ArtNews magazine has a good story on the rising interest in Colonial art of Latin America during the past dozen or more years, including at institutions such as the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Among the reasons given for the current changes -- and the slowness of past acceptance --  are the precedent of globalization and its cross-cultural clashes, which began to play out dramatically in Latin American 400-plus years ago; the dwindling stock of Old Master European art for the market; shifting U.S. demographics, and more.

Unmentioned is something that is happening in Latin America right now -- Semana Santa, or Holy Week, culminating in Easter Sunday.

A lot of Colonial art has religious subject matter, since conversion to Catholicism was central to Spain's original conquest goal. Art in Europe and the United States has been pretty thoroughly secularized, while many of the most moving works produced during Latin America's Colonial history retain sacred functions. Paintings and sculptures are still venerated and actively used; that makes them generally unavailable for the sorts of museum collections, traveling exhibitions and marketplace activity that facilitate both modern scholarship and wide public awareness.

SMdA Easter 2010 procession (10 For instance, Wednesday night in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, an extraordinary 18th century figure of El Señor de la Columna -- Christ at the pillar -- was carried in procession through the streets. Normally housed in the somber Sanctuary Church of Atotonilco about seven miles outside of town, the nearly life-size sculpture of a brutally beaten Jesus, following his arrest and before his crucifixion, was wrapped in a shroud, then carried overnight into town.

At the neighborhood Church of San Juan del Dios, the figure was dressed in a crimson loin cloth, girdled with a golden cord, adorned with flowers and placed above the altar. On two nights during Semana Santa the figure is carried through San Miguel's streets; three days after Easter, a final procession returns to Atotonilco.

SMdA Easter 2010 procession (13) Imagine something similar happening with, say, Donatello's "Mary Magdalene" in Florence, Italy's Duomo Museum, or Raphael's "Great Archangel" in the Louvre. Curators worldwide would have a collective coronary.

Understandably, those sorts of ritual uses are also unlikely to happen in New York with a Giacometti "Walking Man" or in Los Angeles with a vacuum-coated glass cube by Larry Bell. But they do make El Señor de la Columna something distinctive: a powerful work of art made several centuries ago by one or more unidentified artists, which needs to be experienced on site in order to be deeply understood.

-- Christopher Knight

Photos: "El Senor de la Columna," circa 1740, in procession and at the Church of San Juan del Dios in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico; Credit: Christopher Knight / Los Angeles Times

Follow Times art critic Christopher Knight at KnightLAT on Twitter.