Brazilian Baroque

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.


Cathedral of Brasília as Postmodern

This past week I finished teaching a course on Brazilian Baroque art. On the last day of class, my students and I looked at examples of modern and contemporary Brazilian art. Taking many cues from Leopoldo Castedo’s book The Baroque Prevalence in Brazilian Art (1964), we discussed how Baroque stylistic characteristics can be observed in the Brazilian art that was produced in the 20th century.

Castedo’s book was written to highlight some of the continuities between Baroque stylistic characteristics and the modern architecture created in the new city of Brasília (the work of Lúcio Costa and Oscar Niemeyer). Castedo discusses this Baroque style as part of Brazil’s national identity. He asserts that the modernist architecture in Brasília is also inherently “Brazilian,” since he finds continuity between this 20th century style and that of the Baroque. Castedo’s Baroque (and therefore “Brazilian”) characteristics include a discussion of ideas such as audacity, intimacy, drama, and a tendency toward representing “the curve” in art.1

Oscar Niemeyer, Brasília Cathedral, 1962. Image courtesy Xdonat via Wikipedia.

One of the structures that my students and I discussed extensively was the Brasília Cathedral by Oscar Niemeyer (see above). This structure, along with many of the other major structures in Brasília, were built by Niemeyer. (There are some great video clips discussing the history of Brasília and some of the problems that arose by creating this modernist city from scratch. I highly recommend watching “Brasilia, Brazil: BBC World Wonders” and the Brasilia segment from “The Shock of the New” with Robert Hughes.)

It’s easy to see how this cathedral fits within the aims of the modernist architectural style that was popular in the mid-20th century. The lines of the architectural buttresses are clean and precise. The white color is visually-striking, yet also self-effacing. I think that the same can be said for the large windows which are placed in-between the buttresses: these windows are supposed to contribute to the self-effacing, neutral, and even “invisible” aspects of the structure.2

One of the things that I think is so interesting about this cathedral, though, is that the modernist aesthetic intended by Niemeyer has been completely altered. Perhaps this shouldn’t be surprising today, since we live in a postmodern world (which acknowledges context, surroundings, and place) instead of a modernist world (in which structures and works of art are self-contained). And the shift from a modern to a postmodern structure wasn’t too hard to do: the windows simply needed a little bit of color.

Oscar Niemeyer, Brasília Cathedral, 1962. Windows were painted in 1990 by Marianne Peretti.

So, that’s what happened. The windows of the cathedral were stained in 1990, which I think completely altered the “feel” and aesthetic of this structure. This building can no longer function as a neutral, modernist structure. The windows draw too much attention to the architecture (and even the architectural framework) of the structure to maintain the aesthetic that Niemeyer originally planned. Instead, I think that the colored windows have turned the interior of the building into a postmodern space. The lines and colors highlight the architecture and setting, so that the visitor is continually aware of his/her setting and context.

Do I think that the colored windows are a bad thing? No, not necessarily. I think the colors and designs are pretty. And, in many ways, I think that the stained glass windows are much more appropriate in today’s postmodern world. But I do think it’s interesting how the modernist aesthetic (and the original intention of the architect) was changed with just a little bit of color.

1 See Leopoldo Castedo, The Baroque Prevalence in Brazilian Art, (New York: Charles Frank Publications, 1964). For one discussion on the “love of the curve,” see p. 118.

2 This idea of “invisible” architecture as part of the modernist movement has been explored by scholars, including Panayotis Tournikiotis, who discussed how modernist “architecture is a synthesis of visual and invisible elements.” I think this idea is also easily explained with the “white cube” modernist gallery space, which is intended to be neutral and highlight the works on display (instead of drawing attention to the architecture and surroundings).


Painter + Sculptor Collaboration (and a Little about Luisa Roldán)

I thought I’d keep on the theme of polychrome sculpture this week, given my earlier post on painted classical sculpture.  Recently I’ve wondered whether classical artists would sculpt and paint their works, or if the work was divided between specialized painters and sculptors. Consequently, I began to think of polychrome baroque sculpture in Spain, Portugal, and Brazil; such sculpture is often painted (by a specialized painter) after the physical piece is created by a sculptor. (As a graduate student, my research on Brazilian art included the Passion sculptures at Bom Jesus dos Matozinhos (Congonhas do Campo), which were sculpted by Aleijadinho but later painted by Manoel da Costa Ataíde).

One striking example of painter and sculptor collaboration is St. Gines de la Jara (c. 1692, shown above). This work was sculpted by Spanish Baroque sculptor Luisa Roldán and then painted by Tomás de los Arcos (Roldán’s brother-in-law).  Arcos did an amazing job creating lifelike appearance of veins on St. Gines de la Jara’s hands, using a technique called “encarnacion.” The technique involves applying thin layers of glue and gesso.  Arcos then painted layers of beige and blue oil paint to suggest veins. (You can see a great detail of the veins and hand here. Also, you can learn more about this sculpture here, since it is the centerpiece of an ongoing Getty exhibition about Luisa Roldán.)

Does anyone know more information about the Spanish/Portuguese tradition of having painters and sculptors collaborate?  Off the top of my head, I would guess that this practice may have come out of the medieval tradition of wooden sculpture, but I couldn’t say for sure.  So much medieval sculpture was created by anonymous artists; it’s probably difficult (or perhaps impossible) to know if medieval painters and sculptors collaborated on three-dimensional work.  Perhaps medieval artists were trained to both paint and sculpt, and there was no need for collaboration?

On a side note, I’m glad that my friend Shelley recently introduced me to Luisa Roldán (who is affectionately nicknamed “La Roldana,” on the right is her presumed portrait by Antonio Rotondo, 1862).  I’d never even heard of La Roldana until a few weeks ago, but I immediately feel in love with her because 1) she’s a Baroque sculptor, 2) she’s Spanish (and Spanish sculpture often reminds me of the wooden baroque sculpture from Portugal and Brazil) and 3) she’s a woman.

Like many other female artists from the Renaissance and Baroque eras, Roldán’s father (Pedro Roldán) was also an artist. Roldán was an extremely successful artist (a great feat in the male-dominated profession) and worked as the court sculptor for Charles II.  (In fact, St. Gines de la Jara was probably a royal commission.)  Roldán was quite famous and successful during her lifetime, but seems to be relatively obscure today. Sigh – I wish she was discussed more in art history textbooks.


The Artist Had Never Seen a [Insert Animal] Before

It’s always interesting to see how an artist depicts an animal that he/she has never seen. Vasari writes that Paolo Uccello wanted to depict a chameleon his Four Seasons, but since the artist had never seen a chameleon, he opted to draw a camel instead.1 I guess you can kind of see Uccello’s logic in picking a camel, since camaleonte and camello are similar words in Italian (the two words are a little similar in English, too). I wish that Uccello’s Four Seasons still existed; I’d love to see what that chameleon/camel looked like.

Durer attempted to depict a rhinoceros, even though he had never seen one. He really didn’t do too bad of a job (see woodcut print The Rhinoceros (1515) on the right), although the armor-like plates are a little funny. Durer became interested in the rhino after seeing a sketch and reading descriptions in a letter from Lisbon.2 The year that Durer made this print, 1515, was a big year for rhinoceroses in Europe. Both the king of Spain and king of Portugal were trying to win the favor of the pope by giving him rhinoceroses. The pope apparently liked the West African rhino (the gift from Spain) best, which allegedly answers why the pope gave more New World territory to Spain.3 I bet that Durer was trying to maximize on the interest in rhinoceroses during this year, since woodcut prints can be widely distributed, popularized, etc.

There are other animal depictions which I think are amusing. When writing my thesis, I would often chuckle at Aleijadinho’s depiction of a lion. Since the Brazilian artist had never seen a lion before, he sculpted this one with the face of a monkey:

Aleijadinho, detail of lion next to the prophet Daniel, 1800-1805

And you have to love Aleijadinho’s great attempt at a whale. I especially love the whale’s two spouts (kind of like nostrils, I guess) and fins:

Aleijadinho, detail of whale next to the prophet Jonah, 1800-1805

Aleijadinho, side-view of Jonah’s whale, 1800-1805

Medieval bestiaries are full of creative depictions of animals. I particularly like this depiction of a crocodile and this depiction of an elephant (check out those tusks and horse-like flanks!).

I know there are lots of other interesting/creative/bizarre depictions of creatures that have resulted from the artist never seeing the actual animal. What ones do you know? Do you have a favorite? Let’s see who can give the most bizarre example…

1 Giorgio Vasari, The Lives of the Artists, translation by Julia Conway Bondanella and Peter Bondanella (London: Oxford University Press, 1991), 82.

2 “The Rhinoceros,” in Web Gallery of Art, available from , accessed 5 November 2009.

3 Hemanta Mishra, Bruce Babbitt, Jim Ottaway, Jr., The Soul of the Rhino (Guilman, Connecticut: Lyons Press, 2008), 137. Available online here.


Phrygian Caps in Art

Yesterday I was reading about Delacroix’s Liberty Leading the People (1831) and started to think about the Phrygian cap that Liberty is wearing. The Phrygian cap is a soft, conical, red cap was traditionally worn in ancient Phrygia (modern day Turkey). In ancient Greek art, these caps were used as headdresses for people from the Orient. Eventually, the Phrygian cap developed into a symbol of freedom and liberty – they were worn by emancipated slaves in ancient Rome. In the eighteenth century, the Phrygian cap became popular with the French revolutionaries and subsequently was known as the “cap of liberty.” (The Phrygian cap has even been used as part of the official seal for the United States Senate.) This is a detail of Liberty wearing a Phrygian cap in Delacroix’s painting:

This cap made me think of my thesis, in which I argue that Aleijadinho’s Prophets (1800-1805) composition is laced with abolitionist sentiment. I briefly mentioned that the clothing of the prophet Amos could allude to abolition (it is possible that Afro-Brazilian capoeiristas wore similar outfits at the time the sculpture was created), but I didn’t consider Amos’ cap until now:

I wonder if this cap could have been influenced by the Phrygian cap. Part of my thesis ties in these statues to the political/revolutionary sentiment of the day, since these statues were created relatively soon after the 1789 French Revolution. Could Aleijadinho have been influenced by the Phrygian cap of the French revolutionaries? At first glance, it seems to me like Amos’ hat might be too long to be a Phrygian cap. I’m curious about looking at my photo archives, though, to see if I can see his cap in better detail. Interestingly, people have written about how the “turbans” of Aleijadinho’s Prophets seem to be influenced by Turkish costume (which perhaps could be a connection to Phrygia instead?).

It will be interesting to follow up on this idea and see if it leads anywhere. In the meantime, though, here are a couple of other depictions of Phrygian caps in art:

The Three Magi (Balthasar, Melchior, and Gaspar), mosaic at Sant’Appollinare Nuovo (6th century); Ravenna, Italy
(In this instance, the Phrygian cap indicates the that the wise men are from the Orient, not that they are emancipated slaves!)

Berthel Thorvaldsen, Ganymede Waters Zeus as an Eagle (1817)

Joseph Chinard, The Republic (1794)

Anonymous, Louis XVI of France Wearing a Phrygian Cap, 1792 (Library of Congress)


Email Subscription



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.