Quito School of Art - Clashing Tides of Indigenous and European Culture

By Peter Giovetti

A Catholic priest christened Jose Olmos. His family and friends called him by his indigenous name, Pampite. His mind and heart struggled with the pain of vanquished and oppressed Indians, and his hand glided over wood and canvas with a European master's skill. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, he and his contemporaries broke away from merely making copies of Europe's art and created a style unique to themselves and unique to Quito.

Pampite and others dared to infuse their indigenous heritage and passions into their paintings and sculptures, and by doing so created works that allow a glimpse into the heart of indigenous suffering under Spanish rule. The Quitenian School of Art is an anthropological study of the effects of religious and physical enslavement and the process of acceptance of a zealously missionized religion.

Throughout the Christian world the figure of Christ on the cross represents Christ's suffering for the sins of all mankind. Working with their native woods, artists such as Pampite added to Christ's pain by pouring forth passionate expressions of the pain and suffering of a conquered people. On a single two and a half-foot statue, Christ's flesh is torn away from hips, shoulders, knees and ankles. In places it hangs like the rind of a child's half-peeled orange. His rib cage is torn open exposing raw bone to the air and a stream of blood rushes from his heart. Christ's anguish is clear on his face and looking at the disfigured body makes a person touch his shoulders and hips in unconscious recognition of the pain in the statue.

Figures such as this can be seen in any of Quito's museums that house Colonial art. The Casa de Cultura, Museum of Guasamin, and the Colonial Art Museum house the best collections of Quitenian art. A visit to one of these museums allows a person to walk through the development of Quitenian art and in a sense the development of the area's culture under Spanish rule.

The Quitenian School began without any real substance. The earliest pieces are not very exciting, being dull copies of European masters. A sculpture of Christ on the cross, for example, includes only a cut over his heart and Christ's forehead trickles blood from his crown of thorns.

The reason for the mundaneness of these early figures is clear. The religious art of Quito was initially taught by Franciscan and Dominican monks from Europe. Their indigenous and mestizo students were either new converts or not truly converts to Christianity. The understanding of what they were painting and even more, the passion for the themes in their art had not yet developed. Thus, for over a century the Quitenian students faithfully reproduced copies from pictures that the monks showed them. But as the confidence of the artists increased and Catholicism began to take hold in the New World the stage was set for the birth of a unique Quitenian School of Art.

A little more than a hundred years after the monks first opened their schools, the Quitenian artists finally felt confident enough and had absorbed enough of the new religion to let loose a flood of art that could clearly be called Quitenian. Statues like those of Pampite's began emerging from the art studios and workshops of Quito, and the artists began proudly claiming authorship.

Until the mid-eighteenth Century, Quitenian artists would infuse their art with a passion and pain that Christian art had never experience. As New World colonies began declaring independence and national identities throughout the Latin world emerged, vivid illustrations of pain and suffering subsided, and artists began weaving indigenous symbolism into the traditional Christian themes. Christ is painted wearing a green kilt of the Andes, and the color of his hair and skin darkens. Staffs of sugar cane (a traditional symbol of hope) begin appearing in Christ's hand, and llamas and condors are painted into the background of traditional Christian themes. In a remarkable portrait that exhibits the closeness of indigenous culture to the natural world, the Christ Child is even painted nursing from the Virgin Mary. The changes coincide with the social changes throughout South America as an increasing number of politicians and business leaders begin identifying less and less with the European continent.

Following these developments in Quitenian art allows a person to follow the brutal and unsettling process of development as the waves of two cultures crashed against each other to form the complex Latin identity. The paintings and sculptures of the late 18th and early 19th Centuries exhibit the harmony that indigenous and European culture finally reached and helps give insight into the Latin culture of today.