Thursday, November 13, 2014

San Luis Potosí Part 7: The colonial-era displays of Museo del Virreinato

Beautifully crafted keys and locks on display at San Luis' Museo del Virreinato. This fine museum is devoted  to the 300-year colonial period when Spain ruled Nueva España (today's Mexico). Carole and I visited Museo Virreinato (Museum of the Viceroyalty) during our stay in San Luis Potosí in August of 2013. The museum illustrates the life of the Spanish overlords who dominated an overwhelmingly indigenous, mestizo (mixed race), and African slave population. The locks and keys seen above are a fitting metaphor for the tight control that Spain maintained for nearly three centuries over its New World colonies. Ironically, the stultifying political, social, and economic effects of that control led to the violent revolts, including the 1810 Mexican War of Independence. By the late 1820s, Spain had lost control of nearly all of Latin America. The Museo Virreinato is located on the east side of the Plaza del Carmen, between the Templo del Carmen and the Teatro de la Paz. 

Museo Virreinato

The Museo is housed in an 18th Century Carmelite convent. The central courtyard is reached by walking through an entrance hall called a zaguan. The term zaguan dirives from an Arabic word, and much of Spanish colonial architecture was heavily influenced by Arabic/Moorish styles from Spain. The Carmelite Order built the convent between 1768 and 1771. During the mid-19th Century reforms of Benito Juarez, the building was confiscated and partly destroyed. Over time, it was used as a barracks, warehouse, jail, and for offices. In 1936, the building was declared a national monument and now serves as a museum.

The pillars around the courtyard are of the simple Doric style. The central courtyard is surrounded on all four sides by an open arcade bordered by pillars separated by arches. These are called portales. The rooms of the building are generally accessed from the arcade, although there are internal passageways between some of them. The slightly overgrown garden is laid out in an 18th Century style. Architectural styles in Nueva España were heavily influenced by those that were popular in Spain at various times, including Gothic, Roman, Baroque, and Neo-Classical, among others.

Religious artefacts of the Colonial Era

Painting of San Francisco de Assisi. The portrait was painted by an anonymous artist toward the end of the 19th Century. In May of 1524, Martin de Valencia led twelve Franciscans off a ship at Vera Cruz. Because they arrived just after the fall of the Aztec Empire, the Franciscan Order were able to "get in on the ground floor." The Dominicans, Augustinians, and other religious orders did not show up until some years later. In fact, the Franciscans had already started the New World's first evangelization project in 1500 when they built their mission on the island of Santo Domingo (today's Dominican Republic). Thus, before they ever set foot in Nueva España, the Franciscans already had almost a quarter century's experience evangelizing indigenous people of the New World. Consequently, a very large proportion of the churches, convents, and other religious facilities built in the 16th Century were associated with the Franciscan Order.

Typical habit of a Franciscan friar. In 1570, the Franciscans established themselves in San Luis Potosí and, once again, they were the pathfinders for all other religious orders. The Augustinians arrived in 1599, the Juaninos (Hospitaller Order of St. John of God) in 1607, the Jesuits in 1621, the Mercedarios in 1628, and the Carmelites in 1743. The Dominicans didn't show up until the beginning of the 20th Century. As wave after wave of friars arrived, 16th Century historian Gonzalo Fernandez Olviedo wrote "It seems to me that these lands are flooded with friars; but none are greying, all being less than thirty years old. I pray to God that they are capable of serving Him."

Habit worn by the Mercedarios. The Orden de Mercedarios (The Royal Military Order of Our Lady of Mercy and the Redemption of Captives) was founded in 1218, at the height of the Crusades. At that time many Christians were held captive by the Muslims. From the earliest days of Spanish involvement in the New World, even before the discovery and conquest of Nueva España, the various Orders had profound differences of opinion about the nature of indigenous people. Even within particular Orders there were disputes. Some thought the native people were soulless beasts, not even human, and fit only for slavery. Others thought they possessed human souls but had the minds of children, with only a limited ability to reason. A few, such as the Bartolome de las Casas in Chiapas and Vasco de Quiroga in Michoacan, thought the New World's original inhabitants were fully human and, as such, had rights that should be protected from greedy and rapacious conquistadors. Unfortunately, the view of native soullessness fit all too nicely with the interests of gold-hungry Spaniards, eager for slaves to work their mines and other projects. This was also how many of the great churches, cathedrals, and convents of the 16th and 17th Centuries were built.

A finely embroidered 18th Century chasuble, along with a chalice used in the Eurcharist. A chasuble is an outer vestment, worn only during the ceremony of the Eurcharist (also known as Communion). The chalice, seen on the pedestal to the right, will be used to hold wine for the ceremony. Chasubles originated as ancient Roman outer garments. Over the millennia, they were gradually transformed into a garment worn in one of the most important Catholic rituals. While this garment may have been imported from Spain, it might also have been crafted locally. Indigenous women were--and still are--highly skilled at embroidery.

A wood sculpture carved using the estofado technique. This sculpture of a Doctor of the Church was carved at the end of the 17th or the beginning of the 18th Century.  Wood was the most common material for colonial sculpture, and estofado was the most common method of carving it. The process was complicated, but a key part involved the application of paint made from gold leaf which helped preserve the wood. This piece may once have been part of a tall wooden retablo standing behind an altar.

San Joaquin and Santa Anna, dressed as if they were royalty. These figures were crafted sometime in the last third of the 19th Century. According to Catholic tradition, Joaquin and Anna were the parents of the Virgin Mary. However, there is no mention of either of them in the Bible, and their feast day was not included in the official Roman Catholic calendar until 1584. The date for the feast migrated around over the centuries until 1969, when it was finally set for July 26. The creator of the statues apparently considered royal clothing appropriate for of the parents of the Virgin Mary. Although the Virreinato ended in 1821, a number of displays from later periods are included in the exhibits.

Clothing styles across the centuries

Fashionable dress of 18th Century Nueva España.  The society of the Virreinato was organized as a rigid caste system. Those at the top were all born in Spain, and known as peninsulares. They filled all the key political and military posts of Nueva España. Those who had Spanish parents, but were born in the New World, were called criollos. Many criollos became immensely rich through mining, commercial interests, and great haciendas. However, for 300 years a glass ceiling separated them from the posts at the top. Under this system, the callowest youth from the mother country outranked a mature criollo, regardless of his great estates and years of experience. Over time, the criollos chafed at the unfairness and sheer lack of sense behind this system. Many of the criollos who supported the insurgency during the War of Independence (1810-1821) were not particularly interested in creating a socially just society. Their first priority was removing the barriers that separated them from the lucrative top posts. From the point of view of the non-Spanish mestizos, indigenous people, or black slaves, the triumph of the criollos over the peninsulares was simply a case of "here comes the new boss, same as the old boss."

An early 19th Century mother and her daughter. The first European women to arrive in the New World came on the third voyage of Colombus. Throughout the 16th Century, there were Spanish women in Nueva España, but only a few at first. During this early period, Spanish men created the mestizo class through cohabitation, casual contact, or even outright rape of indigenous women. However, by the beginning of the 17th Century, European women had become well-established in colonial society. Like men, they were either peninsulares or criollos. During the Virreinato, women were considered the property of their fathers, initially, and later their husbands. Depending on her marital status, either the father or the husband had the right to kill her if she brought shame upon the family. Interestingly, in terms of controlling property, single women had far more rights than those who married.

This 19th Century wedding dress looks quite modern. Despite all the restrictions, women sometimes became powerful "silent partners" in their father's or husband's business affairs. Women who never married, or became widows, sometimes ran the family business or hacienda on their own. Occasionally, women who showed great intellectual promise were allowed to develop those gifts. Such a person was Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz, an intellectual, poet, and 17th Century feminist. At an early age, she was taken under the wing of the Viceroy's family. While living in the palace, she studied philosophy, science and poetry. Sor Juana eventually became a nun, but her feminist writings about the double standard between men and women deeply angered Church authorities. She was forced to do penance, which included giving up her 4000 book library. Sor Juana died a tragic figure during an epidemic in 1695, but her fame did not die with her. Her life, writings, and poetry are still studied today and the 200 peso bill of Mexican currency contains a serene portrait of this early feminist.

Spanish homes in Nueva España

Finely carved furniture such as this would have graced the Virreinato's salons. When the Spanish arrived, only the Aztec elite possessed any significant amount of furniture. This was made in the equipale style, with leather and wood strips. Equipale is still highly popular in Mexico today, and my home in Ajijic is furnished with it. The colonial homes of the 16th Century were fairly austere, containing mainly rough-cut benches, tables and stools. In the 17th and 18th centuries, the growing wealth of the Spanish inhabitants allowed them to import furniture from Spain, and to employ indigenous artisans to make furniture locally in the European style. People tend to emulate the styles of those they see as their social betters. The peninsulares, with their supreme positions, set the style, and that was of the Mother Country. The criollos copied them and the mestizos followed suit, if they could afford it.

Blue and white china from the Far East. This plate is from the last third of the 18th Century. Dishware like this arrived on the treasure galleons that sailed a regular round-trip route between Manila, in the Philippines, and Acapulco, on the southwest coast of Nueva España. The dishware originated in China and was among the many luxury items collected from all over the Far East. Manila was the collection point, and thus was a key base for the world-wide Spanish trade network. After arriving in Acapulco, many of these luxury items were carried by pack-mules cross-country to Vera Cruz, and then to Spain. However, some of the items were sold to local merchants who then offered them for resale to furnish the Spanish homes of Nueva España. The Manila/Acapulco treasure galleons were preyed upon by the many pirates who rampaged over the oceans during the 16th, 17th, and 18th Centuries. England's Sir Francis Drake was one of the most famous of these. The Spanish, of course, thought him thoroughly infamous. In modern terms, Drake's exploits would look quite a bit like terrorism, so perhaps the Spanish were right.

Silver ware such as this was used to set the tables of colonial mansions. Although mining centers such as Zacatecas and Guanajuato produced immense amounts of silver, it was generally sent to Spain in the form of ingots. Spanish artisans in the Mother Country would manufacture silver items for sale in Spain, Europe, or for shipment back to the markets of Nueva España. Most forms of colonial manufacturing were severely restricted. From the home country's point of view, the purpose of the colonies was two-fold: first, to supply raw materials, and second, to provide markets for goods the home country manufactured from those materials. In the end, the restrictions fomented resentment, inhibited the development of Nueva España's economy, and produced considerable smuggling to feed a lively black market.

Various objects familiar to colonial homes. On the lower left is a high-relief, crystal bowl. Above it sits an object called a "porta veladora." I am not sure of its function, but the name implies that it was used to carry candles. On the upper right are a glass fruit bowl and a silver candlestick. At the bottom center is an ink blotter used to soak up excess ink from writing with a quill pen.

A sturdy, iron-bound chest ensured that possessions remained secure while traveling. Notice the painted scene on the inside of the lid. Carriages with matched horses like those portrayed would have been common sights on the streets of San Luis Potosí. The chest is made from wood and covered with leather. It was strengthened with iron rivets and fittings and has a large circular lock on the front. The chest was crafted in the last third of the 18th Century.

A brass bed is bracketed with carved wood nightstands topped with white marble. Colonial beds often seem a bit short to me, but then people were shorter then too. I have visited many ruins of old haciendas and, among the rubble, found beds and nightstands very similar to these.

Metalwork in Nueva España

Oil lamps and a padlock with keys. The lamps appear to be made from pewter or tin, while the lock is clearly made of finely wrought iron. Metal work was still at a very early stage among the indigenous groups when the Spanish arrived. The Aztecs possessed a limited number of metal objects, mostly gold jewelry and some copper items like bells. The most advanced metal-working was found in the Tarascan Empire, just west of the Aztec Empire. The Tarascans maintained their independence from the Aztecs in good part through their possession of copper weapons and tools. They were on the verge of a Bronze Age but, before they had a chance to make this leap, their society was destroyed by Spanish steel.

Finely crafted bridles and spurs were the mark of Spanish elite. The Spaniard was the Man on Horseback who dominated all about him. Because of military necessity, the Spanish brought blacksmiths along from the earliest days of the Conquest. They were needed to make and repair weapons, armor, equipment for horses, and every sort of tool. Over time, their skills were passed along to their mestizo descendants and to indigenous craftsmen. The ironworkers of Nueva España adopted the customs of Old Spain, including the Medieval associations of craftsmen called gremios. The gremio associations developed to ensure the quality of the various crafts produced and to protect the interests of the craftsmen. Gremios still exist as worker associations in Mexico today, but their function is more to organize worker support for various religious fiestas.

An old balance scale. Balance scales were invented to measure weights for purposes of trade. The earliest balance scales discovered date back to 2000 BC and were found in the Indus River Valley. The balance principle for weighing objects was not supplanted until 1770, when British inventor Richard Salter invented the spring scale. In the late 20th Century, digital scales began to replace the spring scale. However, scales based on the old balance principle can still be found in modern gyms and doctors' offices.

This completes Part 7 of my San Luis Potosí series. I hope you enjoyed this posting and that you take the time to visit the Museo Virreinato if you come to San Luis Potosí. If you would like to comment or leave a question, please do so in the Comments section below, or email me directly.

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Hasta luego, Jim