The Colonial Andes Tapestries and Silverwork, 1530–1830

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In one gallery, large silver altar coverings can be seen. In the next, three large lateth-century paintings of the annual Corpus Christi procession in Cuzco feature multi-tiered silver-clad altars being carried through the streets; one of these paintings is actually framed in slices from just such an altar cover. Initially, these richly patterned tapestries, heavily tooled silver trays, coffers and religious objects and statues may seem familiarly European. But they soon distinguish themselves in all sorts of ways: in the profuse and vigorous foliate ornamentation especially in the silver pieces that create a sometimes overwhelming surface energy; in depictions of figures in traditional Incan dress; and in incongruous details like the fine white-on-dark patterns on tapestry that were inspired by European lace, which the Incas loved.

Plus there is a kind of abandon, even a casualness, in the silverwork, as well as a scale and density that suggest how abundant the metal was. Exhibit A on this score are two ornate lifesize sculptures of pelicans with gemstone eyes -- extremely tangible symbols of the Eucharist. Above all, there is the concentrated fineness of the Incan tapestries, whose perfection often has what amounts to a devotional quality.

They are double sided, which is to say their backs are as finished as their fronts; their color transitions are interlocked -- a sophisticated, labor-intensive technique that results in unusually tight, smooth surfaces. The Incan civilization, while less than years old at the time of the conquest, represented the culmination of more than three millenniums of progress by successive, merging and sometimes warring Andean empires and kingdoms, the earliest of which date back to the time of the first Egyptians. Weaving, having preceded ceramics in the Andes cultures by about 1, years usually it was the other way around , enjoyed an unequaled centrality.

The Incan textiles, which were woven from memory rather than from drawings, even in colonial times, served purposes more political than religious: they were primarily garments worn by the ruling elite, from the king to the royal emissaries who circulated among the empire's far-flung villages and cities.

The boldly geometric style of the men's poncho-like tunics were especially heraldic. Dominated by black-and-white checkerboard patterns, they were instantly recognizable in a culture that never developed a written language, and announced the representatives and the stability of the empire like flags or coats of arms. The importance of textiles is evident in the gallery of preconquest material at the beginning of the show.

Colonial Andes : Tapestries and Silverwork, ExLibrary | eBay

Also included here is a small Incan silver votive figure completely outfitted in miniature garments that is thought to represent a child, in this case prepared for sacrifice; infant Jesus figures in churches got the same sartorial treatment, as reflected by several tiny tunics included in the show. Partly because their contrasting colors make them easy to read, the tapestries show the hybrid nature of colonial culture most clearly. Especially notable is the Incan ability to adapt and subvert outside motifs and techniques in ways that consciously or unconsciously make their own presence felt.

In much the same way, their nature-centered faith reshaped Catholicism into what one writer in the show's excellent catalog calls "a local religion. In some cases Incan weavers' penchant for abstraction clarified imported motifs. In the two tapestries whose juxtaposition in the show's second gallery is a high point, the repeating hexagonal lozenges of Hispanic-Moorish carpets are reduced to an interplay of lines that create an acute, pulsating rhythm. But the Incas, who frequently detailed their checkered tunics and banded mantles with tiny schematized depictions of insects, plants and animals, easily took to more specific forms of representation.

Design Inspiration

Among the women's mantles is one from Lake Titicaca with the traditional edge-to-edge bands of abstract pattern. But instead of dividing blank fields of color, the bands alternate with expanses of flora, fauna and figures that include four depictions of Eve emerging from Adam's rib. The same theme is tackled in a tapestry from the southern Andes, in which the image has the scale of a European painting and the bands have been replaced by concentric, framelike borders filled with foliate patterns.


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Still, a sampling of Andean animals -- oddly disgruntled looking -- crowds the scene, and Adam has the handlebar mustache of a conquistador. You previously purchased this article through ReadCube. Institutional Login. Log in to Wiley Online Library.

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