Miguel Cabrera, painter of Guadalupe

The stories of History

By Jesús Ibarra

Miguel Cabrera was a painter in México,  “New Spain,” known for being one of the greatest exponents of the Baroque style during the viceregal period. He was born in Oaxaca in 1695. The identities of his parents are not known, but it is known that his godparents were mulattoes. The Marian theme, specifically the Virgin of Guadalupe, features heavily in much of his work. From May to September Banamex presents, through Fomento Cultural Banamex, a selection of 25 works by Miguel Cabrera and other artists of New Spain who distinguished themselves in the second half of the 18th century by painting devotional works. The show is titled “Escenas Marianas de Miguel Cabrera” (Marian Scenes by Miguel Cabrera) and will be held at Casa del Mayorazgo de la Canal, on Canal street.

“Marian Scenes” depicts the influences of study conducted between 1751 and 1753 by Cabrera on the ayate (cloak) of Juan Diego with the image of the Virgin of Guadalupe, which had aroused great interest among the painters of the time. In 1756 Cabrera published a treatise with the title Maravilla Americana y conjunto de raras maravillas observadas en la prodigiosa imagen de nuestra señora de Guadalupe de México (“American wonder and group of rare wonders seen in the prodigious image of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Mexico”). It consists of eight paragraphs in which Cabrera highlights the qualities and artistic merits of the Guadalupe canvas and includes the views of artists such as José de Ibarra (Cabrera’s teacher), Manuel Osorio, Juan Patricio Morlette Ruiz (native of San Miguel), Francisco Antonio Vallejo, Jose de Alcíbar and Jose Ventura Arnáez. Work by some of them can also be seen in the exhibition.

“Escenas Marianas” includes a Guadalupe painted by Cabrera himself; representations of the four apparitions of the Virgin to Juan Diego, also by Cabrera; four paintings of various Marian devotions, made ​​respectively by José de Ibarra, Juan Patricio Morlette Ruiz, Francisco Vallejo and Jose Antonio Páez; a leaflet including two paintings by Cabrera, depicting the marriage of the Virgin and the Annunciation; and a series of 14 oil paintings by Cabrera representing different stages in the life of the Virgin, including an Immaculate Conception.

Iconographic elements

Local historian Graciela Cruz, director of the Casa del Mayorazgo de la Canal, said some of the common features that distinguish the artistic currents of the Baroque are that figures are more delineated, the color palette reduced and the points of light focused on the faces of the images. She also explained the iconography of some of the works. “The Immaculate Conception” by Juan Patricio Morlette includes classic elements of Marian iconography such as the moon under her feet and stars crowning her head. “La Dolorosa” (Lady of Sorrows), by José Paez, includes symbolism associated with the Passion of Christ such as Saint Veronica and the seven daggers that represent the seven sorrows of the Virgin; the “Virgen del Apocalipsis” (Virgin of the Apocalypse), by José de Ibarra, shares iconographic features of the Immaculate Conception, such as the 12 stars that crown her. Cruz explained that Guadalupe (of whom two paintings are on display, Cabrera’s and another by Francisco Antonio Vallejo) also bear iconographic elements of the immaculate conception such as the moon on which she stands and the rays that crown her; her hands rest on her pregnant belly. Another iconographic element that draws attention is found in “Betrothal of the Virgin” by Cabrera (part of a diptych from the Church of La Profesa in Mexico City); the tunic worn by the rabbi who marries Joseph and Mary is decorated with human eyes, representing the divine omnipresence of God.

Maravilla Americana

According to Cruz, Miguel Cabrera wrote the treatise known as the Maravilla Americana after extensive examination of a copy of the original Guadalupe canvas made on waxed paper, which served as a template for other images of Guadalupe painted for principal churches in New Spain, works that are known as “touched by the original.”  In San Miguel, we have such a painting like the Guadalupe by Miguel Cabrera, which is on one side of the altar in the Oratorio.

In his Maravilla Americana, Cabrera makes the following analysis: in the first paragraph he says that the ayate or canvas on which Guadalupe is painted is formed by two equal pieces joined by a very thin and fragile cotton thread, unable to resist any stress. However, Cabrera says, the thread has withstood “for more than two centuries the natural force of the weight or struts of the two canvases, heavy by their nature.”

According to Cabrera, the fabric on which the image is printed is a coarse cloth commonly called pita, which Indians wove from native palms, and with which they made their cloth, called aytl in their natural language, or ayate in Spanish.

In the third paragraph,  the artist states that the canvas lacks sizing, as was noted in the statement of a previous analysis done in 1666, which indicated that the colors show through onto the back of the cloth. Cabrera reiterates that if it had sizing it would be impossible to see the colors on the back of the canvas.

The artist describes in the fourth paragraph the drawing of Guadalupe as “unique and perfectly finished, obviously wonderful, with a beautiful and graceful symmetry.”  He claims that the Virgin is represented as a girl of 14, as she is described in the story of her appearances to Juan Diego.

The fifth paragraph states that the image of the Virgin is made with four different types of paint: the face and hands are painted in oil; the tunic, angel and clouds that serve as a border in tempera; the mantle in watercolor;

and the field on which the rays fall and end in thickly applied tempera. For Cabrera, this is a “wonderful combination, never seen before.”

In the sixth paragraph, Cabrera mentions that the gold that adorns the image, although at first glance seeming superimposed, is so well incorporated into the fabric that it seems to be part of the fabric itself; he comments that these features can only be seen in a supernatural image.

In the seventh paragraph, Cabrera responds to criticisms that had been made about the image, among which are that the Virgin’s left leg is shorter than the right, which the artist considers to be due to the perspective given by the movement and attitude of the Virgin; the hands of the Virgin are disproportionate to her body, which the painter refutes by saying that the hands have the same measure as the face; that the right shoulder lacks symmetry, which he refutes by saying that he carefully measured and concluded that the proportions of the shoulders maintain the correct symmetry.

In the last paragraph, he describes the image in detail and concludes by mentioning the proportions and beauty of the face, ensuring it includes “beauty, softness and enhancement” and highlights the beauty of her eyes, nose and mouth.

The complete Maravilla Americana can be consulted online (in Old Spanish) at http://www.cervantesvirtual.com/servlet/SirveObras/01593963102364951882257/index.htm.


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