Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
January 21, 2022
Maya Stanfield-Mazzi Clothing the New World Church: Liturgical Textiles of Spanish America, 1520–1820 Notre Dame, IN: Notre Dame Press, 2021. 432 pp.; 186 ills. Cloth $50.00 (9780268108052)

Any art historian who has conducted field research at early modern churches in Latin America and the southwestern United States knows that ecclesiastical textiles constitute an important portion of the Spanish colonial patrimony preserved in such sites. Yet these pieces are for the most part underappreciated and understudied, with very few scholarly works throwing light on their technical, aesthetic, and functional qualities. Maya Stanfield-Mazzi’s Clothing the New World Church provides the first in-depth and hemispheric study of such pieces, a good portion of which reveal the ways in which Native American ideas and practices intertwined with European crafts and beliefs. In five generous chapters dealing with different types of textiles extensively used in churches across the Americas—silks, embroideries, featherwork, tapestries, and cotton cloths (both painted and laced)—the author provides not only an overview of the richness and diversity of the liturgical textiles produced and consumed during the early modern period, but also offers detailed discussions of pieces that despite their unique qualities have often been left out from larger discussions of contemporaneous artistic production.

The importance of textiles in the Americas as agents of cultural negotiation and resistance in the colonial period has certainly been long recognized in the academic and museum fields, especially in a number of exhibitions installed over the last decades, including Converging Cultures: Art and Identity in Spanish America (Brooklyn Museum, 1996); The Colonial Andes: Tapestries and Silverwork, 1530–1830 (Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2004); Tesoros/Treasures/Tesouros: The Arts in Latin America, 1492–1820 (Philadelphia Museum of Art, 2005); The Arts of the Missions of Northern New Spain (multiple venues, Mexico and the United States, 2009); Interwoven Globe (Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2013); and Made in the Americas (Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, 2015). These exhibitions featured a number of outstanding textiles from the Spanish colonial world, but most of them were of a secular nature and their appearance was limited in comparison with paintings and sculptures. Tapestries and carpets from the early modern period, in particular, have been recently reassessed for the ways in which they combined iconographic and technical elements from disparate sources in order to cater to diverse audiences across the globe. Also, the trade networks between Asia and the Americas after the Spanish conquest of the Philippines—networks that furnished a variety of luxurious commodities among which silks stood out—have concentrated the attention of a number of scholars studying diverse regions of the early modern Spanish world (such as Dana Leibsohn, working on colonial Mexico, and José Luis Gasch-Tomás, focusing on early modern Andalucía).

Another recent line of scholarship has been concerned with the materials and substances needed to produce and color a variety of textiles and garments of crucial importance in the Spanish colonial world. Feathers, in particular, have been the focus of various exhibitions in both Europe and the Americas, such as El vuelo de las imágenes: Arte plumario en Mexico y Europa (Images take flight: Feather art in Mexico and Europe) at the Museo Nacional de Arte (MUNAL) in Mexico City (2011), and Plumes: Visions de l’Amerique précolombienne (Feathers: Visions of the pre-Columbian Americas) at the Musée du quai Branly–Jacques Chirac (2016–17). They have also been the central concern of a number of recent scholarly publications, including several essays by Alessandra Russo and Amy Buono on Mexican and Brazilian featherwork, respectively. Various scholars have also examined the global circulation and consumption of diverse pigments and dyestuffs produced in the Americas, as in Elena Phipps’s various publications on cochineal and diverse types of dyes and Gabriela Siracusano’s research on pigments in the colonial Andes, as well as the various studies contained in the special issue “Art and Trade in the Age of Global Encounters, 1492–1800,” coedited by Mari-Tere Alvarez and Charlene Villaseñor Black for the Journal of Interdisciplinary History (2015). Stanfield-Mazzi not only makes good use of most of these previous studies to delve into the particular technical aspects and consumption patterns of a variety of textiles made for the Spanish colonial church, but also uncovers new sources and cases.

From cover to cover, Clothing the New World Church is a model of clarity and cogency. The introduction, for instance, uses a seventeenth-century Peruvian painting that features a Mass for the Dead to define and illustrate the types of vestments and ornaments commonly employed during the liturgy, providing the Spanish terms that were used in period documents in both the Americas and Spain, along with their English equivalents (a glossary of liturgical and textile terms is also included at the end of the book). Throughout the chapters, moreover, the author introduces a series of diagrams that explain in detail the various techniques featured in the book. Each chapter also presents careful discussions of the process of creation for each type of textile—from the sourcing of the raw material to the final manufactured good—as well as considerations about the artisanal organizations and trade networks involved. In addition, most chapters advance groupings and periodizations that allow for a more cohesive understanding of the various examples presented.

There are several welcome surprises throughout the book. For instance, the first chapter, dealing with silks, explains not only the patterns of importation of European and Asian products, but also the few cases of local silk production in Mexico. When discussing embroideries in chapter 2, the author dispels the commonly held assumption that fine embroidered works in the colonial Americas were produced by nuns—instead, she shows that this industry was not only secular, but also male dominated, even though the participation of certain female embroiderers has been documented. In general, Stanfield-Mazzi is particularly attentive to the gender and ethnic dynamics in place in each textile industry. The author is primarily concerned, in fact, with instances in which materials, techniques, or motifs reveal a long-standing Native American tradition or various forms of Indigenous participation, and she devotes the last three chapters to such processes of amalgamation and accommodation.

In the chapter dealing with featherwork, for instance, the author carefully examines the functions and meanings of feathers in preconquest Mexico, before engaging with a variety of liturgical pieces that were produced during the Hispanic period. Even though featherwork has attracted a lot of attention in recent years, Stanfield-Mazzi focuses on works that have not been fully discussed and proposes ways to discern their possible origins in exact locations in Mexico. The last chapter, on painted cotton, brings to light a series of striking Passion cloths produced in Chachapoyas, Peru—which, I must confess, I had never seen illustrated or discussed—and places them within a larger global context (256–58).

The careful documentation and variety of examples that Stanfield-Mazzi presents in her book makes it clear that she has carried out extensive archival and field research in numerous Latin American sites, of course, but also in Europe and North America, often giving the same weight to Indigenous sources and ecclesiastical records. To be sure, the field of liturgical textiles is a thorny one, as most surviving examples and collections are neither easy to access nor well documented and/or cataloged, and it is often difficult to associate specific textual references with known examples. The author, nonetheless, is fully conversant with the diverse types of materials and techniques used in the production of textiles in the early modern period, and also with the sources that document them, and she provides a clear path to navigate these difficult waters.

Clothing the New World Church is by no means comprehensive: it mostly focuses on outstanding traditions that emerged in Mexico and Peru, the regions of the Americas that have been so far more thoroughly studied. Nonetheless, the book provides an excellent foundation for future research dealing with religious textiles in other regions of the Spanish colonial world. For instance, I could not help but wonder if the tocuyo textiles used in the Passion cloths from Chachapoyas were somehow related to those produced in the town of El Tocuyo in the province of Venezuela—cloths that starting in the sixteenth century circulated throughout South America, the Caribbean, and Europe, as Ermila Troconis de Veracoechea has shown in her Historia de El Tocuyo colonial: Período histórico, 1545–1810 (Universidad Central de Venezuela, 1984). Perhaps future systematic research, inspired by Stanfield-Mazzi’s work, will throw further light on such intracolonial connections.

Mónica Domínguez Torres
Associate Professor, Department of Art History, University of Delaware