Colonial Brazil

The Passionflower in Latin American Art

A passionflower

A passionflower

Earlier this week I noticed, by sheer happenstance, that there are passionflowers growing next to the parking garage of my local library! I was thrilled at this discovery: I’ve never seen a passionflower in person before, but every year I teach my students about them. The passionflower was very familiar to many indigenous people located within Spanish and Portuguese territories during the colonial era, and Jesuit missionaries therefore decided to use this flower as a symbolic tool to teach indigenous people about the Passion of Christ:

  • The ten petals reference the ten apostles, excluding Judas (who betrayed Christ) and Peter (who denied Christ)
  • The pointed tips of the leaves were said to represent the Holy Lance, which pierced Christ’s side
  • The spiral tendrils of the flower (not shown in photo above, but can be seen HERE) were compared to the lash of Christ’s scourging
  • The radial filiments (shown above in violet) were seen as a representation of the crown of thorns
  • Three stigmas (in center of flower) represent three nails. Five anthers (underneath stigmas, in green) represent the five wounds that Christ received. (He received four imprints from the nails and one from the lance.)1

These flowers are very distinctive in appearance, and it makes sense to me that the Jesuits would incorporate this imagery into their artwork as well, so that the symbol could be used for didactic purposes within a more formal setting. So, for the past few years I have been on a quest to compile representations of passionflowers in Jesuit art and architectural decoration, primarily from the seven reductions (missions) located in Brazil and Paraguay. This has been difficult to do, due to the comparatively few extant examples of art from the missions in general, as well as the condition of such surviving objects. An entry on Wikipedia claims that the “flor de maracujá” (passionflower) was one of the most well-known decorative motifs in the missions, but I have yet to find a primary source or clear examples of digital examples online to support this claim (although I would like to think it is correct!). Here are some examples, however, that I think may be representations of passionflowers from Jesuit churches and/or missions:

  • Detail above a pilaster at Jesús de Tavarangüé (now in Itapua, Paraguay)
  • “Large stone flowers” (“grandees flores de pedra”) are described as having decorated the pilasters found within the living quarters on the reduction for the indigenous people
  • Perhaps passionflowers are located on the retable from São Lourenço in Niterói, but I’d like to see higher resolution images of the flowers to make sure.
Detail of doorway at San Ignacio Mini, Argentina, 1727

Detail of doorway at San Ignacio Mini, Argentina, 1727

Gauvin Bailey discusses the carving of a passionflower on the Jesuit reduction church of San Iganacio Mini in Argentina. He doesn’t specify where this passionflower is located or its appearance in this particular source, but I wonder if he may be referring to the stylized flowers in the lower corners of the carved doorway panel shown above (the blossoms bell out from the tails of the fantastic winged figures).

Apart from the Jesuits, passionflowers also captured the attention of other artists. Often the passionflower is used in a religious (and perhaps sometimes moralizing) context, but it also appears in secular contexts as well. Here are some other representations of the passionflower in Latin American art:

Detail of fresco mural from monastery of San Salvador at Malinalco, Mexico, 16th-18th century

Detail of fresco mural, lower cloister wall from monastery of San Salvador at Malinalco, Mexico, 16th-18th century

Scholar Jeanette Favrot Peterson believes that the flower represented above is a stylized version of the passionflower from a fresco mural wall in the Augustinian monastery of San Salvador at Malinalco, Mexico.2

Detail of doorway at San Ignacio Mini, Argentina, 1727


Our Lady of Mercy with Saints of the Order, 18th century. Archivo Museo de la Merced, Santiago

Our Lady of Mercy with Saints of the Order, 18th century. Archivo Museo de la Merced, Santiago

In a fascinating argument, Camila Mardones Bravo argues that this representation of Our Lady of Mercy (Virgen de la Merced) is depicted as emerging from a hybrid flower that contains characteristics of two separate flowers: the rose and the passionflower.

Albert Eckhout, detail from "Still Life with Watermelons, Pineapple and Other Fruit," 1640

Albert Eckhout, detail from “Still Life with Watermelons, Pineapple and Other Fruit,” 1640

The Dutch painter Albert Eckhout depicted the passionflower a few times in the paintings he created during his time in Brazil, including the one above from Still Life with Watermelons, Pineapple and Other Fruit (detail shown above). In this context, it appears that he is just scientifically presenting the passionflower as an example of the flora of Brazil. Eckhout is also thought by some to be responsible for similarly-scientific representations of Brazilian life, and he may have even been responsible for the depiction of the passionflower in Willem Piso and Georg Marcgraf’s Natural History of Brazil (see below):3

Albert Eckhout (?), ‘Passion fruit’ in "Historia naturalis Brasiliae…," by Willem Piso and Georg Margraf, 1648

Albert Eckhout (?), ‘Passion fruit’ in “Historia naturalis Brasiliae…,” by Willem Piso and Georg Margraf, 1648

In other visual contexts though, apart from these scientific representations, I think that Eckhout may have been including the passionflower as an allusion to sin and suffering. The passionflower also appears in his ethnographic portraits of a Tapuya and mameluke woman, with the flower prominently appearing in the basket held by the mameluke and on the tree to the left of the Tapuya woman.

I think that the inclusion of the passionflower in these two contexts needs more consideration, and possibly more research. On one hand, Eckhout may be recognizing the importance of the passionflower (and more specifically, the passionfruit) within indigenous cultures for medicinal and sedative properties, as well as food. Eckhout also may be celebrating and highlighting the local flora within these works of art. However, I also wonder if there may be some sort of moralizing message in connection with these flowers, since there are symbolic ways in which these women are cast in a negative light (as uncivilized and/or savage, for example).4  Of course, there are overwhelmingly positive connotations with the passionflower itself (in its connection to Christ), so I wonder if these flowers also could have served as symbol of the civilizing influence of the (Christian) Dutch on these indigenous groups.5

On a side note, I wanted to mention that the passionflower continued to be important in Brazilian culture after the colonial era. In 1938 the poet Alfonso de Guimaraens, a Mineiro, wrote the poem “A Passiflora” which compares a devout person’s soul to a passionflower.

Are you familiar with any representations of the passionflower in Latin American art? If you know of any more, please share! This post is really more of a “post-it” than a post; I feel like there is much more research that can be done on this topic!

1 The symbolic connections between the passionflower and the Passion of Christ are discussed by several authors from the colonial Baroque period, including Juan Eusibio Nieremberg. See Evonne Levy and Kenneth Mills, eds., Lexikon of the Hispanic Baroque: Transatlantic Exchange and Tranformation (Austin, Texas: University of Texas Press, 2014), p. 299. Available online HERE.

2 Jeanette Favrot Peterson, The Paradise Garden Murals of Malinalco: Utopia and Empire of Sixteenth-Century Mexico (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2014), 87-89. Available online HERE.

3 Amy Buono,  “Interpretative Ingredients: Formulating Art and Natural History in Early Modern Brazil,” in Journal of Art Historiography 11 (December 2014): 1.

4Rebecca Parker Brienen, Visions of Savage Paradise: Albert Eckhout, Dutch Painter in Colonial Brazil (Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2006), 120-127, 162-168.

5 About fifteen years after Eckhout painted these works of art, Antonio de León Pinelo wrote a book El paraíso en el Nuevo Mundo (1656) in which he claimed the passionfruit must have been the forbidden fruit in the Garden of Eden. He writes, “For what greater proof that this was the fruit of sin, and that caused the punishment, which found in His flower the most precious signs of forgiveness?”) “¿Pues qué mayor prueba de que esta fruta fue la del pecado, y la que ocasionó el castigo, que hallarse en su Flor las más presisas señales del perdón?” (citation found HERE). I wonder if there were other connotations that carried over to Europe before Pinelo’s writing, and perhaps if any other symbolic associations with this flower (both associated with sin and forgiveness) could be applied to Eckhout’s work.


Technology and Triumphal Arch Parallels: Dürer and Debombourg

Baptiste Debombourg, Triumphal Arch, 2001. Cardboard boxes, glue, strings, scotch tape. Height 5.3 m (approx 17.38 feet)

This morning one of my students shared with me a Tumblr page with images of Debombourg’s Triumphal Arch, which is largely comprised of cardboard boxes. My student commented that this disposable monument reminded him of the temporary triumphal arches that we discussed in our class on colonial Brazilian art.1 I am curious as to whether Debombourg recycled used boxes for his construction. If he did, I think this would be an interesting contrast between our environmentally-conscious society and the colonial conquerors who initially perceived Latin America to be a land of abundant, limitless resources.

Anyhow, by coincidence, later this morning I came across another triumphal arch in the new art history textbook that I am reading (edited by Kim W. Woods). The text discusses the monumental arch that Dürer created for Emperor Maximilian (see below). This huge arch was printed on paper using 192 woodblocks, and was intended to be a wall decoration, kind of like a substitute for a tapestry or wall painting.

Albrecht Dürer, "Arch of Emperor Maximilian," 1515-17, colored woodcut. 357 x 295 cm (approx. 11.7' x 9.67')

Although these two arches are very different for a lot of reasons, I can’t help but think about how these arches have some interesting similarities. The both are created on a monumental scale. They both are “constructed” works of art, either with physical boxes or with the woodblocks which comprised Dürer’s final print. Even the small print on some Debombourg’s boxes has an interesting parallel with Dürer’s print: the latter has complicated Latin inscriptions which would have been hard to read, not to mention the complex compositions which would have been equally difficult to view.2

Curiously, both works of art have an interesting element of “reproducibility.” Dürer’s arch was originally printed in 700 sets, and later was reissued in more than 300 sets by one Archduke Ferdinand, one of Maximilian’s grandson.3 Ferdinand’s son Charles, in turn, also reissued sets of the arch. Dürer was able to reproduce his work through the relatively-new technological invention of the printing press. Likewise, Debombourg’s arch has been similarly “reproduced” over and over through blogs, tweets, and Tumblr “likes” (for starters, just look at the list on the Tumblr site that I included above).

It is interesting to think about how the Internet has assumed a “reproducibility function” for art, a function which for a long time was partially the responsibility of the printing press. Artists no longer become famous through distributing physical copies (i.e. prints) of their art. Instead, artists and viewers can place images on the Internet, and let those images (or the links to those images) reproduce themselves. Lately, when I have visited a museum gallery, I have been struck by how many people (including myself) are taking images of art with their cellphone cameras. It is phenomenal to consider how many works of art are “reproduced” via digital images each day.

Considering the widespread fame which Dürer achieved in his lifetime with physical copies of his prints, one can only imagine what mind-boggling fame he might have achieved if he lived in the Internet age. And I would bet that Dürer would have relished every moment of it.

1 Although we don’t have examples of temporary triumphal arches from Brazil, there are some descriptions that exist in documents. We can learn a little about how temporary triumphal arches appeared in Latin America by looking at a Spanish American painting of a viceroy “entrada.” Look on the far right side of Melchor Pérez Holguín’s, “The Entrance of the Viceroy Morcillo into Potosí,” 1716.

2 Kim W. Woods, ed., “Art and Visual Culture, 1100-1600: Medieval and Renaissance,” (London: Tate Publishing), 181-82.

3 Ibid., 181.

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Eckhout’s Eight Brazilian Portraits

Modified (slightly cropped) depictions of Eckhout's series of eight figures (c. 1641). Top row (L-R): "Tapuya Man," "African Man," "Tupi Man," "Mulatto Man." Bottom row (L-R): "Tapuya Woman," "African Woman," "Tupi Woman," "Mameluke Woman." Oil on canvas. Each painting is approximately 8'9" x 5'4" (about 274 x 167 cm). Click on collage to see paintings in greater detail.

I am just about to finish teaching a course on colonial art in Brazil. At the beginning of the course, my students and I explored the brief period in the 17th century when the Dutch were located in northern Brazil (1624-1654). We explored how the Dutch artist Albert Eckhout depicted the flora, fauna and people of Brazil – and then we discussed how Europeans developed misconceptions about Brazil, based on how other European artists appropriated the imagery from Eckhout’s original works of art.1

Eckhout, "Tapuya Woman," 1641

I particularly like Eckhout’s series that depicts people from eight types of minority groups found in colonial Brazil (shown above). I’ve had an affinity for these ethnographic paintings since graduate school, when I wrote a paper on Eckhout.  For one thing, I think these paintings are an interesting contrast with the “casta” paintings that were created in Spanish America during the colonial period. Eckhout’s paintings also have historical value as well: this series contains the only available representations of the Tapuyas (Tarairius), a group which had died out by the beginning of the nineteenth century. Due to Eckhout’s portraits, we have some visual information about the physical aspects and material culture for this specific Amerindian group (see above).2

We don’t know where these paintings were originally located. I personally like the argument that these portraits originally were intended to be displayed in Brazil, probably at governor Johan Maurits’ Vrijburg Palace in Mauritsstad (now Recife). Although there are no seventeenth-century documents to support this theory, I like the visual analysis that has been explored by Rebecca Parker Brienen to support this theory.3 In fact, this is the argument that I explored with my students earlier in the quarter.

In order to be objective, though, I have been keeping up with some other scholarship on these paintings. Such theories and analyses are discussed in the fabulous book, Albert Eckhout: A Dutch Artist in Brazil.4 I wanted to recap some of the ideas that interest me:

  • Some scholars suggest that these paintings were never created in Brazil, but were based on compositions and drawings that Eckhout had made while in Brazil. This argument is partially made because the large-scale canvases are in good condition, as opposed to the still life paintings by Eckhout which were transported in the seventeenth-century. However, it is unclear as to whether the still life paintings were damaged when they were moved from the Netherlands to Denmark (in 1654), or in an earlier transport from Brazil to Europe (p. 32).
  • The spelling of Eckhout’s name in the series “signatures” differs from documents signed by Eckhout, which suggests that someone else added the signatures. Verified documents are signed by “Albert Eeckhout” but these paintings are signed as “Albert Æckhout” (p. 110). The questionable nature of the signature is supported because the painting of the mameluke is unfinished (see cashew fruit in lower right corner), but still bears a signature and date. Additionally, these questionable signatures explicitly state that the paintings were made in Brazil, which is unusual (p. 32). It is thought that the signatures may have been added when these paintings were presented to the Danish monarch Friedrich III (a distant cousin of Johan Maurits) in 1654 (p. 124).
  • It is important to note that the series of paintings were not shown as an ensemble in the Mauritshuis (the European house of Johan Maurits) after Maurits returned in the Netherlands in 1644. There would not have been enough wall space for these large portraits, due to either fireplaces or rhythmic partitioning of the wall (p. 35).
  • It has been suggested that Eckhout’s series might have been cartoons for tapestries. We know that other paintings by Eckhout were intended to be used for tapestries, including at least eight paintings that Maurits gave to Louis XIV. (p. 35-36).

I think it’s good to be familiar with the other ideas that exist about this portrait series; I might cover more of these points with students when I teach this same course again. But personally, I think that Rebecca Parker Brienen still gives a pretty solid argument for why these paintings were intended to be created in Vrijburg Palace (in Brazil). At least, it’s the best (and most comprehensive) argument I have yet to see. The Buvelot text even mentions that “the uncertainty about the original purpose of the paintings makes it difficult to arrive at an in-depth interpretation, especially where the figure pieces are concerned.”5 Until more convincing in-depth interpretations and theories are presented, I’m going to have my art history students continue to explore Brienen’s argument.

1 See discussion about misconceptions and the European usage of Eckhout’s imagery in Virginie Spenlé, “‘Savagery’ and ‘Civilization': Dutch Brazil in the Kunst- and Wunderkammer,” in JHNA 3, no. 2 (2011). Available online here:

2 Quentin Buvelot, ed., Albert Eckhout: A Dutch Artist in Brazil (Zwolle: Waanders Publishers, 2004), 66.

3 Rebecca Parker Brienen, Visions of Savage Paradise: Albert Eckhout, Court Painter in Colonial Dutch Brazil (Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2006), 181-199.

4 See Buvelot, 32-36. See also a specific chapter in the Buvelot text: Florike Egmond and Peter Mason, “Albert E(e)ckhout, Court Painter,” in Albert Eckhout: A Dutch Artist in Brazil (The Hague: Mauritshuis, 2004), 109–27, esp. 110.

5 Ibid., 35. This text was before the 2006 publication by Brienen, but the text does cite earlier publications by Brienen.


“Masculine” Civil Architecture in Colonial Brazil

This quarter I am lucky enough to teach a course on Brazilian colonial art. There are hardly any undergraduate courses in the United States that touch on Brazilian art, and I feel really lucky to work at a university that encourages students to expand their interests to include various global topics.

This week I am going to be presenting to my students some of my own research and thoughts on the civil architecture that was constructed in colonial Brazil. Through my own observations, I have noticed that a lot of the civil architecture is constructed with columns and pilasters from the Doric order (an architectural style that developed in ancient Greece).

Example of the Doric order with the plain, unadorned capital, as it appears on both columns and pilasters (rectangular columns embedded into a wall).

I think that this popularity of the Doric order especially interesting, since the Doric order has long been associated as a “masculine architectural style.” In fact, the Roman historian Vitruvius compared the Doric order to the proportions of a man. In his influential writing, On Architecture, Vitruvius explained that the proportions of a man’s foot (in relation to the man’s height) were used to form the Doric order. In contrast, Vitruvius continues to explain that the Ionic order resembles a female, and the Corinthian order can be compared to a slender virgin.1

So, what does this have to do with civil architecture in Brazil? I think that the usage of the Doric order might have had symbolic significance for the European colonists, some of whom probably were familiar with Vitruvius’ text. This “masculine” Doric order would have been in opposition to the Latin American soil, which was considered to have intrinsically female attributes. Annette Kolodny has explored how European colonizers viewed the Americas as having essentially female attributes (“land as woman”), and compared described the American continent to a virgin (“Virgin Beauties”).2 If the American land embodies the qualities that are already interpreted to be part of the Ionic (female) and Corinthian (virgin) orders, then perhaps the Doric order seemed like better point of visual contrast for colonial architecture. But I think that the Doric order is associated with much more than a mere visual contrast to the land. In a way, the rigid, masculine Doric order of the invading colonizers can be interpreted as a masculine European domination over the female Americas.

Muncipal Building (Casa de Camara), Salvador, Brazil, 17th century. Restored in 1960s

This theme of architectural domination and conquest can be extended outside gender binaries, too. Previous scholars, such as Gauvin Bailey, have discussed how the classical characteristics of Latin American architecture could have been used to associate the Spanish and Portuguese with the greatness of the Greek and Roman empires. As colonizers and conquerors of the Americas, the Portuguese and Spanish were building their New World empires, following in the footsteps of their classical predecessors.Therefore, by association, government buildings could embody authority, conquest, and domination. I feel like all of those characteristics can be seen in the Municipal Building of Salvador (see image above). The classical features such as the Doric capitals, Doric pilasters and arcade all reference the glory of previous empires. I also get a sense of domination from the low-lying, horizontal structure itself: the horizontal emphasis suggests that building wants to cover (or dominate) as much surface area of colonial land as possible.

Antonio Landi, Governor's Palace at Belém do Pará, Brazil, 1771. Landi was an Italian architect who moved to Brazil in the middle of his life. Since Landi worked as a professor of architecture in Bologna, I'm fairly certain that he was familiar with Vitruvius' "masculine" interpretation of the Doric order

I also think that Doric capitals also embody a sense of authority, since it is the most austere and rigid of the classical orders. This rigidity is especially apparent to me in the Governor’s Palace at Belém do Pará (see above), where Doric-like features (suggestive of pilasters) are decorated with quoining. The rigid, rectangular quality of the quoining reinforces the strength and rigidity of the structure (and therefore the governor, by extension). Did you notice that this is another horizontal, low-lying structure that dominates as much surface area as possible?

Any other thoughts on the Doric order and colonial conquest? Civic architecture in Brazil is a very under-explored topic in scholarly research, and I’m always up for generating more conversation!

1 See Vitruvius’ “On Architecture,” (1st century BC). Text from Chapter 1 (which mentions the Greek orders) is found here.

2 For more information on the Americas being interpreted as female (or as a woman), see Annette Kolodny, “The Lay of the Land: Metaphor as Experience and History in American Life and Letters”(Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1975), p. 4-7.

3 Gauvin Alexander Bailey, “Art of Colonial Latin America” (London: Phaidon, 2005), 43.


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This blog focuses on making Western art history accessible and interesting to all types of audiences: art historians, students, and anyone else who is curious about art. Alberti’s Window is maintained by Monica Bowen, an art historian and professor.