These graceful brocade clad warrior angels, plumed and winged, testify of the hybrid art in the high Andes: an extraordinary imaginative fusion of Inca and of Catholic religion, inspired by Dutch drill engravings.
Colonial Indian paintings of Catholic martial angels, so-called “Angeles Arcabuceros”, were for centuries very popular in large parts of the Western side of South America, that is the former Peruvian Viceroyalty (1542 – 1824).
Spanish Zurbaran-like androgynous angels wearing sumptuously painted 17th century costumes of the Andean aristocracy were represented in poses inspired by Dutch early 17th century engravings of Jacob de Gheyn II with large harquebus-guns.
Paintings with these mysterious, but charming celestial-aristocratic-military angels had been created in the second half of the 17th century for missionizing purposes in the New World. Soon they became very popular over a large part of the Andes until today.
About the Cuzco School
Situated at a height of 3.400 m in the Andes mountain range in Peru, Cuzco was the ancient capital of the Inca Empire until its conquest by the Spaniards in 1534.
Apparently Cuzco became the first town in the Americas where European artistic techniques, especially of painting, were being taught. The main purpose of this Christian, Catholic school of painting was to teach the Bible to the local Indian population, so that it could more easily be converted to Christianity.
Colonial, Spanish painters (some were Jesuit missionaries) specialised in religious painting, who had travelled to the Viceroyalty of Peru, learned indigenous Indian (Quechua) and mestizo artists how to create didactic-dogmatic Catholic paintings.
The result: a mix of artistic elements borrowed from both cultures, the European and the Inca:
- the European elements not only included the Spanish Mannerist style, but also influences of Italian and of Flemish painting, and of Flemish and Dutch engravings;
- Inca painting, in ceramics and in murals, had above all been geometric and abstract.
The best-known Quechua artists form the Cuzco School from the 17th century period are Diego Quispe Tito (1611 – 1681) and Basilio Santa Cruz Pumacallao (1635 – 1710):
- Diego Quispe Tito worked in a Mannerist style, strongly influenced by Flemish engravings (by Adriaen Collaert). He was the son of an Inca nobleman. Typical elements within his large paintings are angels, birds and the use of gilding;
- Basilio Santa Cruz Pumacallao worked in a more modern, Baroque style, influenced by Spanish paintings from the collection of the local bishop, Manuel de Mollinedo.
By the end of the 17th century indigenous artists had left the Cuzco Painter’s Guild. In their new style they assimilated more local elements and Inca subjects. These painters could be found in Peru, in and around Cuzco, in the Callao and in the Puno province, but also on the other side of Lake Titicaca in Bolivia. Especially the representations of angels became very popular in large parts of the Peruvian Viceroyalty, not only in present-day Peru, but also in Bolivia and in the N. of Argentina.
About our painting
Catholics believe that angels are celestial beings who serve as intermediaries and messengers between heaven and earth, hence their wings.
Some angels, the martial angels like the Archangel Michael, were traditionally depicted with a “Roman” military uniform and a sword (for example in the famous painting by Guido Reni circa 1636 in the Santa Maria della Concezione church in Rome).
Circa 1680, the 17th century indigenous Cuzco painter Basilio Santa Cruz Pumacallao was the inventor of the so-called “angeles arcabuceros”: martial angels with an arquebus (an early muzzle-loaded long gun) instead of a sword. Their extravagant clothing was inspired by that of contemporary Andean noblemen. The plumes, adorning the European hats, are an Inca signifier of holy and royal status.
These angels reminded of the full-length female martyr saints painted by the famous Spanish Baroque painter Francisco de Zurbaran (1598 -1664) and by his workshop, of which many were exported to the New World.
As to the poses of Santa Cruz’ angels, these were indebted to engravings from “The exercise of Arms” (“Wapenhandelingen van Roers, Musketten ende Spiesen” = “Arms drill with arquebus, musket and pike”) by the Dutch engraver of Flemish origin Jacob de Gheyn II (Antwerp circa 1565 – 1629 The Hague). That book, published in Dutch and also in English in 1607, and later also in German and in French, holds over 100 engravings with soldiers holding their weapons in very diverse poses. It was a tactical book for officers and under-officers.
Martial angels wearing the most lavish attire became a favourite subject of the Cuzco School, at first because they reminded of Inca winged deities. Apocryphal accounts of Biblical angels (such as the Book of Enoch) seem to have been particularly popular in S. America. Missionaries redirected the veneration of Inca sacred beings and celestial phenomena into acceptable Christian substitutes. Although the Council of Trent (1545–1563) had condemned all angelic depictions and names but those of Michael, Gabriel, and Raphael in the mid-sixteenth century, this ban was observed neither in the Viceroyalty of Peru nor in Baroque Spain.
Since the first half of the 18th century and also during the 19th century the popularity of paintings with martial angels had spread over important parts of the Viceroyalty of Peru, that is over much of the W. part of South America. I found groups of “angeles arcabuceros” also outside Peru, in other South American countries.
Over 600 km S. of Cuzco, in the small town of Calamarca, near La Paz in present-day Bolivia, hang on the walls of a small church 35 paintings, two series of angels by the so-called Master of Calamarca. Some date these paintings to the 2nd half of the 17th century, others to the first quarter (before 1728) or even to the first half of the 18th century. The first series represents martial angels, the second one the seven (female) Archangels of Palermo holding flowers or wheat.
These paintings are attributed by some to José Lopez de los Rios, a painter who was active on the shores of Lake Titicaca in Carabuco, Bolivia.
At 1.000 km S. of La Paz (that is 1.600 km S. of Cuzco), in the N. of Argentina, in the small village of Uquia in the province of Jujuy near Humahuaca, the late 17th century colonial church of San Francisco de Paula, is decorated with nine (originally there must have been ten) “Angeles Arcabuceros”, which can be traced back here to the middle of the 18th century, but might date from the 17th century.
In some cases the names of these celestial musketeers have been painted on the canvasses: Gabriel, Laeiel, Letiel, Uriel, Asiel, Aspiel, Eliel, Oziel, Hosiel, Rafael, Yeriel, etc.
Whys should you buy this pair of paintings?
Because these charming, elegant celestial-aristocratic-military angels with their broad ballooning sleeves and intricate gilt embroidery, remind you that there is more to South American painting than just Fernando Botero.