Cristóbal de Villalpando Has Come to New York

Saturday, August 5, 2017

At the very back of the first floor in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, you will find yourself transported to the late seventeenth century, or perhaps even earlier than that, to a time more mythical and full of light.

Until October 15, that is.

Cristóbal de Villalpando became such a visionary in the early Latin American world that he was rewarded as an an officer in the Mexico City painters’ guild. He is known for his use of luminescence and fluidity in his detailed paintings of early Christianity. From Adam and Eve to the rise of Jesus Christ, Villalpando gave his brush to his own interpretation of the Bible. Many artists following him emulated his work in contrasts of light and color, as well as his magnified detail to demonstrate both tension and grandeur. While much of his work has been lost to the demon of time, what was preserved is now, for a brief period, housed inside the Met.

The work for which he is best known is also his earliest masterpiece, from 1683: Moses and the Brazen Serpent and the Transfiguration of Jesus. This 28-foot-tall treasure juxtaposes two different stories of the Bible that had never before been connected, which was often the case with many of Villalpando’s paintings. This particular piece weaves together the story of the bronze serpent Moses held to save those deemed worthy against the fiery serpents sent by God to punish those who spoke against them, and the story of Jesus becoming glorified in front of his apostles. It was unprecedented that these two events be bridged together in such a way, and thus shows the ingenuity of Villalpando’s work. This piece has always rested on the wall of a Puebla Cathedral chapel, but now it’s displayed at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, along with ten other pieces by Villalpando, many of which have never before been housed in the United States.

The recently discovered Adoration of the Magi is on display as well, and Villalpando depicts the glory of Jesus and Mary by their luminous, glowing faces as opposed to the gift-bearing Wise Men. You will also find Holy Name of Mary, which was acquired from the Museum of the Basilica of Guadalupe in which Villalpando interprets Mary as the new ark as she carries Jesus in her womb.

From the Museum of El Carmen in Mexico City, the 1670’s Agony in the Garden presents Jesus praying the Garden of Gethsemane, with an angel holding a golden chalice. Villalpando paints the angel with radiant light and disturbed clothing to symbolize the tension in the moment as Jesus accepts his fate. He uses this attention to light again in The Immaculate Conception from the 1680’s, keeping the sun hidden but still dazzling behind the Virgin Mary as she stands surrounded by angels. This was a subject he liked to paint frequently, as the Virgin Mary fascinated him. One of his later pieces is also on display at the Met, titled Tree of Life. He again utilizes his talent for coupling previously unrelated aspects of the Bible by painting Adam and Eve kneeling at a cross, which is adorned with two medallions of Christ and the Virgin Mary. Above them stand the archangels, and below them is the serpent that will be their folly. This work was once an altarpiece for the former College of Guadalupe de Zacatecas, and now it is with us in New York.

Cristóbal de Villalpando: Mexican Painter of the Baroque is open at The Met until October 15. The gateway to centuries past is waiting.


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by Debbie BancroftPhotographed by Griffin Lipson and Hunter Abrams/