From the Philippines to Flanders in the Ochavo Chapel, Puebla

Gilding from the Rosario Chapel in Puebla, similar to the Ochavo Chapel.

Sitting in a spacious but sparsely furnished living room somewhere between Puebla and Cholula, chatting with three Germans, a Dutchman, and a Mexican, the subject of China came up. As we all marveled and prognosticated about its size, its culture, its history, and its role in the world economy, my thoughts turned to the 16th century (as, I suppose, is not particularly uncommon for me). The artist that forms the subject of my research, the Basque émigré to New Spain Baltasar de Echave Orio (1548? – 1623), would not have been a stranger to groupings of a similarly international flavor. His coterie would have included other Spaniards like the poet Bernardo de Balbuena, the German publisher Enrico Martínez (Heinrich Martin), and perhaps Creole intellectuals like Baltasar Dorantes de Carranza. And China was on their minds too. In Chapter III of his encomiastic ode to the viceregal capital, Grandeza Mexicana (1603), Balbuena makes consistent reference to the Chinese goods offered in the market of Mexico City. For Balbuena, the New Spanish capital was a “pueblo ilustre y rico, en que se pierde el deseo de más mundo.”[1]

For me, this is one of the most fascinating aspects of viceregal Mexico – the potential for its citizens to perceive themselves globally. A particularly striking manifestation of this global outlook is the Ochavo Chapel[2] at the Puebla Cathedral. Built in the 1680’s, the Chapel of the Holy Spirit gets its nickname, Ochavo, from its octagonal plan. A tall column of space with a reduced footprint, three of its walls house enormous and resplendent altarpieces. Each comprises a structure of gilded wood tangled into a thicket, suspending within its vines a panoply of precious objects. There are small oil paintings on wood and canvas made in Mexico, and painted copper plates imported from Flanders depicting religious scenes. Feather mosaics dot the walls, as do bits of bone set within opulent reliquaries, and one altarpiece is crowned by a sculpture of the Crucifixion made in ivory and likely imported from the Philippines.  In this agglomeration of objects the old (copper paintings in the early 16th c. style of Joachim Patinir) and the new (coppers by Juan Tinoco made in the late 17th century to complete the space) stand side by side. Quetzal feathers cozy up to Roman relics and Asian ivory.

Clara Bargellini refers to the Ochavo as an “American Kunstkammer.”[3] The carefully arranged group of objects certainly warrants this description. But I like to think about it as an exhilarating global multimedia space. Quetzal feathers quickly lose their iridescence, and copper plates their luster, and when I visited the only illumination was natural light, but it was not a difficult mental leap to imagine the candleholders occupied, emitting a flickering light multiplying off the vast and varied reflective surfaces, imbuing the space with a sense of movement. The objects at the upper reaches of the space forego their iconographic legibility. A copper of the Annunciation becomes a precious jewel of pure reflective color from across an ocean. For me, it was an ancestor of the LCD screens of Times Square – a moving multimedia spectacle whose real power is not in your actual ability to read the news coming in from Singapore.

It is a visual instance of the sentiment revealed in the following lines by Bernardo de Balbuena describing the market in Mexico City, written over a century and a half prior:

“La plata del Pirú, de Chile el oro

viene a parar aqui y de Terrenate

el clavo fino y canela de Tidoro

De Cambray telas, de Quinsay rescate,

de Sicilia coral, de Siria nardo,

de Arabia encienso, de Ormuz granate

diamantes de la India, y del gallardo

Scita balajes y esmeraldas finas,

De Goa marfil, de Siam ébano pardo

De España lo major, de Filipinas

la nata, de Macón lo mas precioso,

de ambas Javas riquezas peregrinas;”[4]

Both the Ochavo Chapel and Grandeza Mexicana show the sophistication and spectacle of global vision in the 16th and 17th century, pressed into service to glorify an earthly city, or a sacred space. However, the exuberance for the non-European, for “clavo fino y canela” or for Quetzal feather mosaics, seems at odds with the strict orthodoxy of works by painters like Echave. Is the control of the Inquisition and imposition of the rules for painting prescribed by the Council of Trent[5] enough to account for the conservatism of New Spanish painting? Particularly at a time when Europe saw an expansion of so-called “profane[6]” elements in religious painting? How can we think about a painting like the Martyrdom of St. Pontian, with an oblique reference to a vaguely “eastern-looking” carpet, as coming from the same moment as the lines from Balbuena? I hope to tackle some of these questions in my next and last blog post, which will deal with Echave’s style in European, western, and global contexts.

Posted by Brett Lazer – PhD Candidate in Art History at the Institute of Fine Arts, NYU


[1] Bernardo de Balbuena, Grandeza Mexicana, Mexico: Editorial Porrúa, 2001.

[2] I was unable to take pictures, as the Chapel is normally closed to the public.

[3] Clara Bargellini, “La pintura sobre lámina de cobre en los virreinatos de Nueva España y del Peru,” Anales del Instituto de Investigaciones Estéticas, Vol. XXI, nos. 74-74 (Spring-Autumn, 1999), p. 79-98

[4] Balbuena, Grandeza Mexicana.

[5] Lasting from 1545-63, the Council of Trent was the major organ of the Counter-Reformation church. It affirmed the importance of using images in preaching the faith, and provided strict guidelines for their proper execution and dissemination.

[6] E.g. depictions of lush still lifes in the foregrounds of versions of Christ in the House of Mary and Martha by the Flemish painter Pieter Aertsen or the Spaniard Diego Velázquez.

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