Arts & Theater

Crocker exhibit is a revelation of colonial art

“Our Lady of the Rosary of Pomata” by a Bolivian artist
“Our Lady of the Rosary of Pomata” by a Bolivian artist Philadelphia Museum of Art

Richly colored paintings, some adorned with gold, of the Virgin Mary and the archangels Michael and Gabriel in elaborate robes await you in “Highest Heaven: Spanish and Portuguese Colonial Art From the Roberta and Richard Huber Collection” on view at Crocker Art Museum through Jan. 22.

The Hubers discovered the art of colonial South America in 1962 when Richard Huber was relocated for his banking work to Buenos Aires, Argentina. Their love for art from the Spanish colonial period grew as they lived in other areas of South America and in Asia, where Spain and Portugal had colonies.

Organized by the San Antonio Museum of Art, the exhibition features more than 100 fascinating works ranging from large paintings to painted furniture, silver liturgical objects and sculptures in wood and ivory. Examining the intermingling of European and indigenous South American cultures in the 17th and 18th centuries, “Highest Heaven” is composed of artworks, mostly religious in nature, from churches and private dwellings.

Informative wall texts and labels for the works are printed in both English and Spanish, said Crocker curator William Breazeale, who hopes the splendid works on view will inspire the museum’s broad and diverse audience as they did South American viewers in past centuries.

The show begins with “Portrait of the Countess of Monteblanco and Montemar,” a fashionable painting, attributed to the Peruvian artist Cristobal Lozano, of an elite member of Peruvian society in a flowered silk dress dripping with lace. Wearing finely worked jewelry of silver and gold, the sources of Peru’s wealth, she strikes an elegant pose as she steadily regards the viewer with a self-assured gaze.

Organized thematically, the show is divided into four sections: angels and archangels, the life of Christ, the Virgin Mary, and saints. A large and dramatic painting of the archangel St. Michael, Defender of the Faith, vanquishing the devil confronts you at the beginning of the first section. Michael is garbed in rich clothing that reflects the use of European engravings as models as well as the robust import of European textiles. The fire-mouthed devil he spears is as disgusting as a creature from a Boschian painting of Hell. More native in feeling is a gaily painted structure with four angels on its doors that reminds one of Mexican folk art.

The intermingling of cultures is also apparent in a charming Bolivian painting “Rest on the Flight Into Egypt” in the section devoted to the life of Christ. In it, a loving father cuddles the Christ Child while a helpful Mary, wearing a Bolivian hat and shawl, washes a swaddling cloth in a landscape whose flora and fauna are specifically South American. A pair of primitively painted putti frolicking near the wash tub are a nod to European antecedents, but the scene is vibrantly South American, as is a small Bolivian polychromed wood sculpture of Christ on the Cross wearing a silver skirt..

Numerous works depict events in the life of Christ, including an Indo-Portuguese ivory sculpture, “Christ Child as Salvator Mundi (Savior of the World)”; a painting by an unknown artist, “Christ Crucified With Adoring Saints”; and “Christ Descending Into Hell,” an imposing large painting by a Peruvian artist.

The Virgin Mary, mother of Christ, appears frequently in sacred South American art, often dressed in dazzling gowns, an image borrowed from European customs of adorning statues of the Virgin in sumptuous gowns on feast days. The section of the show devoted to her literally glows, an effect created in some works by the application of gilding to the bottom layer of a painting that is revealed by scratching away the top glazes.

Wearing a triangular gown and holding a doll-like Christ Child, Mary, stiff as a statue, appears in all her splendor in “Our Lady of Candlemas,” by a Bolivian painter. A livelier Mary takes center stage in “Our Lady of the Rosary of Pomata,” also by a Bolivian artist. Here she is encircled by an arch garlanded with roses, plumes on her head and the head of the infant Christ, a pert and welcoming smile on her face. It evokes the gaiety of a South American feast day celebration.

The last section of the show is devoted to saints, beginning with a small, silver and wood bust of St. Augustine that doubles as a reliquary and an action-packed painting of St. Barbara fleeing as her father grabs her by the hair in an attempt to behead her for her refusal to give up her faith. One of the oddest works is an ivory carving of a sleeping St. John the Baptist from the Portuguese colony of Goa in India that bears an uncanny resemblance to Chinese women’s doctor dolls.

“Highest Heaven” is a rich display, full of aesthetically, culturally, and historically interesting works that, as Brazeale notes, “will be a revelation to those who see it.”

I second that.

Highest Heaven: Spanish and Portuguese Colonial Art

When: Through Jan. 22. 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday-Sunday; 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. Thursday. Closed Christmas and New Year’s Day.

Where: Crocker Art Museum, 216 O St., Sacramento

Cost: $5-$10, Free for members and children 6 and younger. Every third Saturday of the month is “Pay What You Wish Sunday.”

Information: 916-808-7000.