Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
June 15, 2018
Ananda Cohen Suarez Heaven, Hell, and Everything in Between: Murals of the Colonial Andes Recovering Languages and Literacies of the Americas. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2016. 304 pp.; 25 color ills.; 74 b/w ills. Paperback $29.95 (9781477309551)

The vast area of the Andes was home to extraordinary cultures that produced ritual imagery for millennia before the arrival of the Spanish and continued with new subjects and significance under the dictates of the Catholic Church. Easel paintings by indigenous artists from Cuzco, once the capital of the Inca empire, have received considerable attention along with other Precolumbian and colonial ceramics, metallurgy, architecture, and textiles from the city and its environs, Changes in artistic production follow the course of cultural, social, political, and religious action through numerous administrative systems, culminating with the Spanish in the sixteenth century. However, there is another, often neglected but distinctive type of artistic creation that can also provide insight into the methodology of the Catholic Church to convert the native people: church murals used as visual strategies. In her book, Heaven, Hell, and Everything in Between, Ananda Cohen Suarez delivers the first comprehensive discussion of the role of murals to go beyond a symbolic and didactic means of evangelization to reveal a system of complex meaning specific to the rural areas where they were produced. Using eight remote churches and chapels in pueblos de indios in the countryside within one hundred miles of Cuzco, known for their remarkable murals as case studies, Cohen Saurez presents us with an all-encompassing view that covers over two hundred years. She takes excellent art historical interpretations of Christian iconography into new territories of social discourse to offer a description of the murals within the context of sacred architectural space. Key to the understanding of Precolumbian rituals, especially as related to the Inca, the idea of adorning the walls of temples, tombs, and palaces with painted symbols and filling them with offerings ranging from mummies to sacred artifacts, including textiles and ceramics with specific symbolic designs, cannot be ignored in relation to these colonial artworks, as the artists would certainly revere such traditions as the new churches were built and decorated. While forced to address the churches’ demands for the construction of Spanish-styled architecture and adornment, each church in her case study represented a specific community that required subjects of local significance to be understood and successful. It is through this multidisciplinary strategy of localization that Cohen Suarez presents a comprehensive study that brings together unique interpretations of archaeological and art history, archival research, and early documents to enhance the descriptions of each church and its location, community history, and traditions. Although many of these murals are tourist destinations, their full significance is never appreciated as much as their decorative details: “Amazing in such remote areas and by local people way out here!” is too often repeated, much to the frustration of art historians working in the area who prefer to delve deeper into the extraordinary artistry and sometimes mysterious content. 

The book begins with an introduction that places Cohen Suarez’s subject within its historical and traditional context and makes note that murals belong to an “uninterrupted visual tradition” originating long before the Spanish arrival of 1532 (5). She links the colonial murals of her study to this historical lineage, while recognizing that most of them do not directly reference Precolumbian imagery—which in the Andes tends to be abstract—but use a similar conceptual approach regarding sacred space, to place a Christian lesson within the realm of participation and activation familiar to the people. The book is structured to focus on one or more specific church mural programs to analyze their styles and iconography and compare their subject matter as it relates to the communities they serve. Although few artists are documented mural painters, the author has done considerable research in order to give them credit for their work and explain their influences and career trajectories. With emphasis on visual narratives that introduce specificity in time and place as interpreted by the artists, each church depicts a biblical story that brings attention to a subject that had referential significance for them and the people.

The first chapter uses archaeological and art historical sources to introduce Andean painting traditions and materials as it tracks broad stylistic variations and pays tribute to cultural antecedents often neglected in discussions of colonial art that tend to favor European sources. It is an admirable defense of colonial artists and their unique abilities for interpretation—both stylistic and technical—that appears in recent scholarship but is still often eclipsed by a Eurocentric approach. Cohen Suarez’s approach to the murals is appreciated and overdue. This respect for the indigenous artists establishes the studies done by the author as emerging from a “bottom-up” perspective that puts the community first. The chapter on textile designs and their significance and how cloth was integrated into the murals goes far in elucidating the role of textiles and their sacredness to the indigenous peoples and how they can be subsumed into mural designs by the Spanish with their own agenda to “simultaneously overlap, contradict, and redefine one another” (85). Perhaps the best known of the Andean churches, recognized for its extraordinary and complex murals and considered the “Sistine Chapel” of the Andes, the Church of San Pedro Apóstal de Andahuaylillas may be a model for Cohen Saurez’s multifaceted investigation, which draws associations between the concerns of church officials and the necessity to communicate different messages depending on the viewer’s cultural position. It is most telling that the realized murals could be used not only for religious edification, but to promote false doctrine as well as influence its subjects. Her conclusion is that each church approaches its mural program within associative cultural constructs. The role of priests in approving content is but one of the well-researched approaches used to enrich her account of the time period. In what should be a continuation of this research, further discussion of the role of the church and how it directs the artists would be a valuable addition. One can only ask how much the priests understood the subliminal messages that were incorporated in artistic references and responses to a particular theme, such as the water/river as sacred pacarina (place of origin), pilgrimages to the apus (spirits), the sacredness of cloth, etc. To elucidate these themes, she chose the baptism of Christ, heaven and hell, the Last Judgment, and earthly violence/divine justice with their layered meanings to demonstrate how “murals can articulate community values and collective histories that extend far beyond their expected parameter of religious meaning” (127). These analyses successfully provide the basis for the book’s premise that the “murals demonstrate the social, political, and art historical relevance of colonial Andean mural painting” (183) and are a valuable contribution to Andean studies. 

Carol Damian
Professor, Department of Art and Art History, Florida International University