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.”
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 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.