Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
October 15, 2009
Michael Schreffler The Art of Allegiance: Visual Culture and Imperial Power in Baroque New Spain University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2007. 208 pp.; 24 color ills.; 39 b/w ills. Cloth $75.00 (9780271029832)

“There could be no lord without vassals, nor vassals without a lord.” Penned in 1611 by Sebastián de Covarrubias, this deceptively simple sentence serves well to summarize the central argument of Michael Schreffler’s The Art of Allegiance: Visual Culture and Imperial Power in Baroque New Spain. Departing from recent studies that have interpreted seventeenth-century Mexican artworks as expressions of an emergent Creole patriotism, Schreffler offers an enlightening discussion of a series of secular images that reasserted the vicarious presence of the Spanish King in colonial Mexico. These images, Schreffler argues, embodied the sense of mutual dependence that existed in the exercise of power within the Spanish empire. In the same way Covarrubias’s sentence characterizes rulership as an act of reciprocity, the images discussed in the book emphasize the interdependence between ruler and subject. Imperial power in Habsburg Spain relied on a complex body of propaganda that visually reasserted the monarchs’ political supremacy, but also depended on the subjects’ endorsement of this ruling exercise. As a result, images of kingly power in colonial Mexico spoke as much about the qualities of the monarch as about the subjects’ obedience, loyalty, and allegiance (or lack thereof).

By and large, The Art of Allegiance focuses on visual images created during the reign of the last Spanish Habsburg King, Charles II (r. 1665–1700). Indeed, some of the most compelling images glorifying kingly authority were created during this period of great challenges for the Habsburg ideal of “Universal Monarchy.” Schreffler makes sense of such a paradox by analyzing the New Spanish representations in relation to cognate examples in peninsular Spain (what Jonathan Brown in his Painting in Spain, 1500–1700 [New Haven: Yale University Press, 1999] has labeled the “Grand Finale” of Golden Age Spanish painting), and by identifying certain counter-discourses that destabilized the neat definitions of imperial power advanced by the crown. With such a nuanced approach, Schreffler expands the interpretive range of prior discussions of secular paintings in colonial Mexico as expressions of “proto-national” sentiments by taking into account the inner workings of the visual culture of Habsburg Spain, as well as the ambivalence of colonial discourses.

This complex project is carried out through five chapters that move progressively from bigger to smaller objects of study—from considerations of the main architectural embodiments of royal power to the furnishings used inside such buildings. The three first chapters are devoted to the study of Mexico City’s Royal Palace, a building destroyed in 1692 but well documented both textually and visually. This precinct functioned as the main residence of the viceroy (the king’s alter ego in New Spain) and as the headquarters of one of the most important governmental bodies of the viceroyalty, the Royal Audiencia. Schreffler’s study of this emblematic building progresses from its exterior to the interior, addressing first the painted representations of the monument within the urban fabric of colonial Mexico City, and later its pictorial decorations. In particular, the analysis of the iconographic program of the Hall of the Royal Accord, the meeting place of the Royal Audiencia, with its gallery of viceroys’ portraits becomes in Schreffler’s analysis an embodiment of the long-standing political notion of the king’s “two bodies” (that is, a mortal physical body and an everlasting political one perpetuated by means of monarchical succession), on which early modern Spanish notions of power were based.

Central to these considerations are a series of visual references found in maps, biombos (decorative folding screens), and enconchado (mother-of-pearl inlay) paintings. Although these images greatly differ one from another in their description of the palace, the common pictorial resources they deploy provide interesting clues about the central and distinguished position that the building occupied within the life of the city. To fully comprehend these visual clues, Schreffler resorts to a wealth of textual accounts that help him to reconstruct not only the original layout and functions of the building but also the conventions of seeing within Habsburg Spain. Specifically, Isidro de Sariñana’s Llanto del Occidente (1666), an excerpt of which Schreffler offers in English translation as an appendix to the book, provides abundant information about the inner decoration of the palace, and more importantly about the ways in which privileged visitors were meant to see and experience its spaces. As such, the textual “source” becomes an interpretative key to understand the visual rhetoric of power and imperial control that operated in colonial Mexico.

This is precisely the major contribution of The Art of Allegiance. Rather than merely offering alternative interpretations to well-known images, Schreffler takes his analysis a step further, opening a path to approach Mexican colonial visual culture as integrated to that of peninsular Spain. Schreffler’s close readings of his visual “sources” highlight the discursive strategies creators and audiences deployed, and the ways in which particular images “worked” within the contemporary conventions of seeing. For instance, Schreffler establishes the importance of the gaze in the political praxis of the time, examining the elevated panoramic view of Mexico City’s cityscapes in relation to the vista de ojos (ocular inspection of public works), one of the traditional rituals and duties carried out by viceroys in their exercise of power. He also examines these cityscapes against the Baroque compositional conceit of “seeing through the King’s eyes,” most clearly articulated in Diego Velázquez’s Las Meninas (1656), which in the Mexican context seems to work as a gesture of allegiance to the Spanish Crown.

In the last two chapters Schreffler moves away from the Royal Palace and its imagery to focus instead on some of the paintings that he has been using as “sources” up to this point. He addresses the iconography and language of images representing the conquest of Mexico as a means to discuss larger imperial discourses about history, geography, and commerce. Chapter 4 examines two series of enconchados that recount the conquest narrative as separate, sequential episodes, privileging certain moments of the story and the figure of Hernán Cortés as the epic protagonist. In these lavish visual constructions, Schreffler discerns a clear pattern of gestures and compositional elements that emphasize the presence and authority of the Spanish Crown in New Spain in a manner consonant with the portrayals of deference and obedience to the king found in the military scenes created and displayed within peninsular courtly circles. Among those expressions of loyalty, the political protocol of gift-giving, mirrored in the scenes that recount the gift exchange that occurred between Cortés and the last Aztec king, Moctezuma, seem to articulate the economic reciprocity that sustained the Spanish empire, by which the New World subjects offered their riches to the crown in exchange for aid and protection.

Chapter 5 revisits the conquest theme, this time centering the discussion on a biombo painted by the renowned New Spanish painter Juan Correa. In this particular example, the foundational epic story is reduced to the (triumphant) meeting between Cortés and Moctezuma, while an allegorical representation of the four continents (lead by the contemporary Spanish monarchs as personifications of Europe) decorates the other side of the screen. Schreffler analyzes this iconographic program in relation to the economic circumstances of Habsburg Spain, examining images of the encounter of different lands and cultures in relation to the trans-Atlantic commercial routes that sustained the Spanish empire. Discussed against the cartographic practices and allegorical constructions regarding the interactions between Europe and New Spain, it becomes apparent that compositional strategies such as the ones Correa employed in his biombo acted as agents in the perpetuation of a particular understanding of geopolitical space based on the Habsburg ideal of a “Universal Monarchy.”

In the conclusion, Schreffler addresses some of the commonalities between the images previously discussed, in particular, their purpose to create fictional “enclosures.” Building upon the interpretations of Spanish courtly art and architecture as producing a distant image of the Habsburg kings advanced by José Miguel Morán Turina (“El palacio como laberinto y las transformaciones de Felipe V en el Alcázar de Madrid,” Anales del Instituto de Estudios Madrileños 18 (1981): 251–63) and Fernando Checa Cremades (“Felipe II en El Escorial: La representación del poder real,” Anales de Historia del Arte 1 (1989): 121–136), Schreffler considers the physical placements of the New Spanish images of allegiance as endorsements to a geopolitical order that by the late seventeenth century was at the verge of collapse.

Thanks to Schreffler’s intricate and nuanced approach, images that have often been reduced to unidimensional renderings of a group’s ideology become meaningful agents to articulate political and social concerns. Some readers may regret the restricted number of examples discussed in this book, since there exist many other images that reflect similar issues. This limitation, however, is easily understandable when considering the overall argumentative apparatus in which these images are set; Schreffler ultimately succeeds in articulating how the sense of political reciprocity that sustained the Spanish empire resonated in the visual reflexivity of the images produced in New Spain. As such this is a welcome and needed addition to the growing body of art-historical discussions about colonial Mexico.

Yet there is a minor puzzling detail that begs to be addressed. Given the visual and conceptual richness of the New Spanish artworks Schreffler analyses, the choice of Titian’s Charles V at Mühlberg (1548) as the book jacket’s central image strikes this reviewer as odd. Despite its direct reference to royal power and control, this European painting is only cursorily discussed in the text, as a copy of it once decorated Mexico City’s Royal Palace. Although such book design decisions are often beyond the author’s control and are commonly dictated by production and marketing strategies, the choice of an Italian Renaissance work as the cover of a book dealing with Mexican Baroque art makes one wonder if despite all the scholarly advances made in recent years in this field, works by colonial Latin American artists are still perceived as second-rate, provincial productions, not capable of capturing the attention of large audiences.

Mónica Domínguez Torres
Associate Professor, Department of Art History, University of Delaware