A LACMA exhibit, now in its final days, reveals the depths of devotion and the heights of artistic achievement in Catholic New Spain

Mexico produced some very impressive Christian art during the 18th century, and a traveling exhibition currently at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) is here to remind Angelenos why. 

Featuring more than 100 works on loan from south of the border, “Pinxit Mexico” (“Painted in Mexico”) offers a look at Mexico’s 18th-century artistic culture while still under the Spanish crown. 

The 1700s in New Spain were a time when the Catholic faith and its institutions flourished under the Spanish crown and spread to new lands, including California. 

The expansion of that Faith meant there were more Catholic churches, convents and universities to paint. By the 1700s, Mexican artists were organizing themselves into academies to help keep up with the demand from thriving religious orders and institutions. They were also drawing plenty of attention for themselves from across the Atlantic.  

There are scenes from the Gospels and the lives of the saints throughout the exhibit, but elements and styles specific to the New World find their way into just about every work of art. Subjects include characters of mixed Native American and African descent, the Virgin of Guadalupe and views of colonial Mexico City. 

The works are in LA thanks to a collaboration between LACMA and Fomento Cultural Banamex, A.C., in Mexico City. “Pinxit Mexico” will be at LACMA until March 18, before it moves to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, where it will be on display from late April until July 2018.

‘The Virgin of Guadalupe, Christ Carrying the Cross, Saints, and Souls in Purgatory’  (1770-80) — José de Páez​

One of three paintings by José de Páez in “Pinxit Mexico” that depict souls in purgatory, this one was commissioned for an altar in Mexico City dedicated to them. Souls of different social standings — royal, clerical, peasant and indigenous — all look to Christ and the Virgin of Guadalupe for salvation.

‘Christ After the Flagellation’ (1760-70) — Francisco Antonio Vallejo

This jarring painting is worthy of serious Lenten meditation. A bloodied Jesus Christ is shown on the floor in search of his clothes after the scourging at the pillar. Meanwhile, a woman representing the Christian soul is joined by angels who struggle to contemplate the grisly torture endured for the sake of her sins. 

‘Apotheosis of the Eucharist’ (1723) — Juan Rodríguez Juárez 

The exultation of the Blessed Sacrament to the pinnacle of this imposing, oval-shaped oil painting reflects the importance of the Eucharist for Mexican artists like Juan Rodríguez Juárez, whose own career was reaching new heights in the 1720s. He and his brother Nicolás were regarded as the leading artists of their time by their Mexican contemporaries. The prominence of Sts. Francis and Clare of Assisi in the painting is a nod to the important role that Franciscans played in the evangelization of New Spain.