Provenance: Private Collection, New York (ca. 1950- until 2012)
This unusual depiction of the Virgin Mary at prayer follows a specific icono-graphical type known as Nuestra Señora de la Soledad (Our Lady of Solitude). The Señora de la Soledad was venerated throughout the Spanish Colonial world. Perhaps the most famous icon of this kind is the miraculous painting in the church of San Roque in Cavite City in the Philippines, where the Señora de la Soledad served as protectress of the city and was invoked to bless the ships known as the Manila galleons that carried goods to the Spanish colonies in the Americas. However, images of the Virgin in this guise could be found throughout Central and South America, most commonly in Mexico and Peru, where our painting originated.
This work, like many painted representations of the Señora de la Soledad, represents a sculpted depiction of the Virgin set atop an altar. Dressed in an austere white tunic and black cowl—giving her the appearance of a nun—with a rosary tied around her waist (or rather the sculpture’s waist), the Virgin is shown kneeling on a bright white altar cloth decorated with subtle lacework. The sculpture is surrounded by an especially elaborate aureole and is framed by a decorative red curtain, seemingly pulled aside and tied off to reveal the holy image. The Virgin is flanked by two lit candles dripping with wax, and two small vases filled with vibrant red and soft pink flowers are set in front of her as a votive offering, which gives the sculpture the appearance of an object of public devotion in a sacred space.
Depictions of the sorrowful Virgin Mary derive from scenes of the Pietà, in which she is shown in lamentation over the dead body of Christ. As a result of the growing practice of devotional meditation addressed specifically to the Virgin in the 16th and 17th century, representations of the Virgin alone in despair (sometimes accompanied by symbols of Christ’s Passion) became increasingly popular. Interestingly, few sculptures of the Virgin Mary kneeling in this position were ever produced or venerated in the New World. Spanish Colonial paintings of the Señora de la Soledad were likely based on a celebrated sculpture of this subject made in 1564 by Gaspar Becerra for the convent of Nuestra Señora de la Victoria in Madrid, a work destroyed in 1936 during the Spanish civil war. Images of the sculpture by Becerra circulated in the Spanish colonies through engravings, and possibly also in painted copies exported from Spain, which lead to the spread of this imagery and the production of paintings of this kind in Colonial workshops. Although Becerra’s sculpture was not considered a miracle-working image, the Señora de la Soledad was highly venerated in Spain and came to be so in the Spanish Americas as well. Paintings like this one provided a solemn image that would have undoubtedly inspired meditation and devotion in churches and in private homes alike.
Rogelio Ruiz Gomar has written of the phenomenon of such works in discussing a Mexican treatment of the Virgin of Solitude (by Nicolás Rodríguez Juárez in the Davenport Museum of Art):
Like their colleagues in Spain, painters in viceregal Mexico were frequently asked to make faithful reproductions of especially venerated religious images – chiefly of Christ or the Virgin Mary. The desire to own good copies of these images was often triggered when the original was a painting (like the thousands of copies of the Virgin of Guadalupe, for instance) but even more so when it was a sculpture. Since painters were called upon to reproduce, with the greatest possible fidelity, not only the sculpture itself but also the context in which it was venerated, they were virtually obliged to incorporate elements incidental to the image, such as the pedestal that served as its base, the candelabras or flower vases that framed it, or the jewels and drapes that decorated it. Shown thus in their liturgical and devotional context, the images were translated into authentic trompe l’oeils of the divine. Yet, it was simply the desire to give viewers access to an efficacious substitute, rather than the desire to deceive, that lay behind this insistence on reproducing the image on its altar, in all its details and three-dimensionality, so that viewers contemplating it might think—and feel—they were in the “presence of the actual effigy represented and, therefore, could participate in its prodigious emanation.”
Our painting strives less for verisimilitude than for a more stylized and decorative treatment of the subject, one consonant with the ornamental preferences of the arts in Cuzco.