“From Colonial Mexico, a Towering Vision of Grace” was the headline for the New York Times rave review of the exhibit “Cristóbal de Villalpando: Mexican Painter of the Baroque,” which opened late in July and closes this Sunday. The main attraction is a monumental altarpiece, Moses and the Brazen Serpent and the Transfiguration of Jesus (1683), on loan from the city of Pueblo’s cathedral. Praising de Villalpando’s technical mastery and imaginative daring, the reviewer concluded by suggesting that the artist’s “gaze extended as far as paradise.”
That is quite a recommendation, especially coming from a newspaper many consider to be allergic to religion. A few days ago I was finally able to see the exhibit for myself. The Times reviewer was right about the initial impression made by the Transfiguration piece. It hangs in the courtyard of the Lehman Wing at the back of the museum, illuminated by a good deal of natural light from above. As you make your way toward it through the Medieval Sculpture Hall, you can see the painting from a considerable distance, filling up the wide doorway to the Lehman Collection. And what you see are only the brilliant whites, yellows, and reds of the top half of the painting where the transfigured Christ reigns supreme, accompanied by the somewhat obsequious Moses and Elijah. The bottom half of the vast canvas is best seen from below by descending the stairs to what is the basement floor. It is a cacophonous scene, showing the plague of snakes sent by God to punish the Israelites for complaining and doubting his promises. But that’s not all that’s going on. As the Bible tells us, God seemed to regret this unseemly show of petulance and instructed Moses, here outfitted in some flashy armor, to erect a bronze sculpture of a fiery serpent. Moses urged his fellow Jews to look at the sculpture, which would save them from the poisonous snakes. (Remember, God’s contradictory ways are not our contradictory ways.) A scriptural passage in Latin, carried by an angel in Villalpando’s painting, proclaims that the bronze serpent is a prefiguration of Christ. Thus these two seemingly disparate biblical events are joined together by the painter’s alleged genius, evidently with some exegetical instruction from the learned bishop who commissioned the altarpiece.
Good to know.