Serpents engulf a crowd of Israelites punished for speaking out against God. Their faces twist in agony as they writhe in the dirt and cry out in despair.
A winged serpent wrapped around a wooden post draws the eye up to three Apostles marveling at the feet of an ethereal Jesus. Flanking the Son of God are Moses and Elias, who sternly warn of his forthcoming crucifixion.
A cross to Jesus’ left-hand side looms threateningly in the margins, foreshadowing history’s most infamous death.
Completed in 1683, Cristóbal de Villalpando’s (ca. 1649–1714) towering altarpiece presents the unusual juxtaposition of Old and New Testament tales: Moses and the brazen serpent in the lower half, the transfiguration of Jesus above.
Villalpando’s magnificent depiction is skilled, emotive, and luminous; but it was his transcendence of conceptual traditions that truly distinguished him from his peers. And he knew this, as he signed his magnum opus with “Villalpando inventor.”
Until this summer, the mesmerizing 28-foot-tall Moses and the Brazen Serpent and the Transfiguration of Jesus had never left Mexico City. It remained inside a Puebla chapel as a hidden tour de force, while Baroque giants from Europe went down in history.
Thanks to a solo show at the Met, Villalpando is finally getting some merited recognition.
He completed Moses and the Brazen Serpent and the Transfiguration of Jesus when he was only 30-something years old, likely inspired by local elders (he was perhaps a student of Baroque Spanish painter Baltasar de Echave Rioja) and prints by Flemish artist Peter Paul Rubens that circulated the viceroyalty of New Spain. (The particular connection between Villalpando and Rubens goes beyond a similar aesthetic—Rubens, as the New York Times points out, also lived under Spanish rule in Antwerp).
According to the museum’s exhibition overview, the artist was indeed “celebrated in his lifetime, rewarded with prestigious commissions, and honored as an officer of the Mexico City painters’ guild.” While little else is known about Villalpando’s life, the Mexican painter’s work speaks for itself—and it’s a lot to take in.
The paintings that accompany Villalpando’s altarpiece display typical qualities of Baroque art; bursting with expression, texture, and melodrama. Yet the artist’s palette is noticeably lighter than that of his European counterparts.
“Ten additional paintings by Villalpando will demonstrate his intense striving as an inventor; his great originality and skill; his ability to convey complex subject matter; and his capacity to envision the divine,” the Met explains.
While several supporting artworks featured in Cristóbal de Villalpando: Mexican Painter of the Baroque pale in comparison to the monumental grandeur of the survey’s newly-restored highlight, the exhibition showcases Villalpando’s masterly eye and technical improvement as he advanced to become who the Met considers “one of the most innovative and accomplished artists in the entire Spanish world.”
Cristóbal de Villalpando: Mexican Painter of the Baroque is a comparatively small exhibition, but a landmark survey regardless. “Not since 2001, when the interior of the Guggenheim was painted black to offset a masterpiece of the Brazilian Baroque, has a Latin American altarpiece of such scale and importance come to New York,” notes the New York Times.
In bringing Villalpando to our attention, the Met has finally (however temporarily) shifted our gaze away from Europe, where it has been held stagnantly for far too long.
Cristóbal de Villalpando: Mexican Painter of the Baroque is on view at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1000 5th Avenue, New York, NY 10028 until October 15, 2017.