Visual Images: Magical Realism & The New World Baroque

Monsters & Martyrs:
García Márquez's Baroque Iconography

Lois Parkinson Zamora
University of Houston

Passions of the Soul | El barroco gabrielino | Notes

My subject today is what I will call el barroco gabrielino—the baroque of García Márquez—and more particularly, his Baroque characters. To approach this subject, we will look at several visual representations of the Baroque self in seventeenth-century and eighteenth-century Europe and Latin America, eventually to arrive at García Márquez's fiction. My first section, on Baroque portraiture, I call "The Passions of the Soul."

The Passions of the Soul

Baroque portraiture depicts the birth of the modern self. "The passions of the soul" is Descartes' phrase, and it is cited by John Rupert Martin in his definitive art historical study to suggest the growing investment of Baroque art in the representation of interiority. [1] Martin points to the seemingly paradoxical Baroque use of flesh-and-blood realism to suggest the internal instability of the self, an instability recognizably modern in its doubts and indeterminacies. The creative tension between Baroque naturalism—what I have just called "flesh-and-blood realism—on the one hand, and this new interiority on the other, reflects a dawning awareness of the ambiguous relations between subject and object, mind and body, self and world—in short, the dawning dislocations of ser y parecer (being and seeming). This tension has its sources in the new science and philosophy of sensation and impression, and is present in the best Baroque art in all media: in Montaigne's essays, Velázquez's paintings, and Cervantes' novel, where this Baroque tension between substance and spirit is embodied in his tragicomic duo, Sancho Panza and Don Quixote. You will, perhaps, already be thinking of García Márquez's parody of this Baroque ambiguity in his repeating generations of José Arcadios—all embodied male energy—and his Aurelianos—all disembodied mind. But we are getting ahead of ourselves.

Back to the historical, European Baroque. Consider, for a moment, Michel Montaigne's essays, published between 1580 and 1588; they present an early and extended contemplation of the Baroque self—its instability, its fickleness, the sheer unreliability of its modes of expression. Montaigne constantly reminds us that whatever self-knowledge he achieves will be mediated by self-representation; the self must represent itself to itself in an ongoing, unstable, and often frustrating process. The physical specificity of Montaigne's descriptions (his long disquisition on his kidney stones, for instance, or his detailed descriptions of vehicles, "cannibals," physiognomy, his forms of work and leisure)—this physical specificity does not mitigate the vagaries of the self. On the contrary, such concretions only serve to heighten his sense of the massy, messy multiplicity of the single self, whom he endlessly explores and revises.

Figure 1: Diego Velázquez, "Las Meninas" (l656)

It is just such con/fusion of subject and object, even as the self is presented utterly naturalistically, that has made Velázquez's "Las meninas" the defining example of secular Spanish Baroque painting. (Fig 1.) Here, Velázquez paints himself painting. Such circular self-representation also characterizes the monarchs whom he ostensibly paints but whom we see only as reflected mirror images at the back of the salon. This oscillation between the interior and exterior of the canvas doubles the oscillation between subject and object, painter and painted. Here, as in Montaigne, Baroque subjectivity refuses any clear demarcation between mind and matter, appearance and reality, and focuses, rather, on the ways in which mind and matter may be mediated—their relations adjudicated—through representation, whether verbal or visual.

Figure 2: Diego Velázquez, "The Toilet of Venus"

Velázquez's elusive play of reflections in "The Toilette of Venus" (Fig. 2) is as Borgesian as it is Baroque, but unlike the insubstantial wraiths that people Borges' fiction, Velázquez's figures are densely physical.

And what about Baroque religious art? It is, essentially, the art of portraiture. The cast of religious personages is enormous—this painting is by the seventeenth-century Mexican painter José Juárez.

Figure 3: José Juárez, "St. Augustine and Angel"

and indeed, when angels and archangels are added in, the representation of selves is virtually endless.

Figure 4: Luis Juárez, "The Placing of the Cassock on San Ildefonso by the Virgin."

This example is by the father of the painter whom we just saw. Luis Juárez is the first of four generations of Mexican Baroque artists who worked during the first half of the seventeenth century. The innumerable portraits of Christ and the holy family, the saints and martyrs, the clergy and selected believers (usually those who commissioned the painting) depict an emotional landscape as surely as they also portray the theological environments of these figures.

Figure 5: Miguel Cabrera, "The Virgin of the Apocalypse" (18th century)

The desire to communicate the ineffable in tangible, visible, physical form impels what we may think of as the transcendental naturalism of the Baroque, an aesthetic that serves the new interiority, fusing material and mental meanings in visual metaphors that often veer toward allegory or emblem.

Figure 6: Caravaggio, The Magdalene (1596)

Let's return to Europe. Consider Caravaggio's portrait of Mary Magdalene (1596), which conforms to my generalization about the transcendental naturalism of the Baroque, and also to the demotic agenda of Baroque religious art. Though Caravaggio was hardly a Catholic propagandist, his art nonetheless responds to the Counter Reformation prescription—codified in the twenty-fifth decree of the Council of Trent—that its viewers should identify with the saints and learn from their sanctity. The informality of Caravaggio's Magdalene makes her as accessible to viewers as their own sister or daughter; she is vulnerable, simple, asleep. Along with St. Sebastian, the Baroque martyr whose languid body, pierced by arrows, provided the pretext for countless sensuous representations of the male nude, the Magdalene epitomizes the Baroque combination of eroticism and otherworldiness, and likewise provides the pretext for innumerable portraits of radiant female flesh. [2]

Figure 7: Philippe de Champaigne, "Repentant Magdalene" (17th century)

Such sensuousness was reserved for her alone among female saints—this in a painting by Philippe de Champaigne, French 17th century. The biblical account describes the Magdalene as a prostitute (though "courtesan" might better communicate her status—rich brocades and satins often complement her flesh), and the life of erotic pleasure that preceded her conversion is inevitably the subtext for the scenes of penance (also erotic) that so often serve as the setting for her portraits. Here she is in the "wilderness" to which she repaired, according to legend, after Christ's death. Note that she is "visualizing" Christ on the cross, a point to which I will return. Unlike most artists of the time, Caravaggio does not portray his Magdalene in the penitential wilderness; rather, he makes her an emblem of the peace that follows confession, repentance and absolution.

But how do we know that Caravaggio's sleeping figure is Mary Magdalene? Look again at Caravaggio's "La Magdalena".

Figure 8: Detail, "La Magdalena"

Beside her, scattered on the floor, are irregular pearls. These pearls recall one of the possible etymologies of the word Baroque—from barròco in Portuguese, barrueco or berrueco in Spanish, meaning wart or lump or excrescence, and by extension "irregular pearl." But more to the point here, these pearls are Mary Magdalene's iconographic "attributes"—that is, the prescribed visual details that identify a saint in a painting or mural or sculpture. Others of the Magdalene's attributes are the vessel containing the perfumed oil with which she is supposed to have anointed Christ's feet, after washing them with her tears; her long, loose hair—often blonde or auburn—with which she dried them is also conventional in virtually all of her representations. [3]

The seventeenth-century consumers of these images were well accustomed to "reading" this visual lexicon: strands of pearls would immediately have recalled the Magdalene's former life of luxury, and when the strands are broken and the pearls scattered, they become symbols of her tears and her liberation. One might think that any strand of precious stones would suffice to communicate these narrative details and moral content, but the symbolic charge of pearls is richer yet: the Magdalene's pearls originate in imperfection, in the transfiguration of an infirmity or abnormality—a bit of grit—inside the oyster. [4] The shimmering, unstable reflection of these pearls in the oil provides a dynamic interplay of attributes and underlines Caravaggio's Baroque allegory of the volatility of substance and spirit. Figure 9 is by the seventeenth-century Spanish artist, Alonso del Arco, who portrays the Magdalene at the very moment of her ecstatic conversion, tearing off her pearls, the symbol of her former life, which fall to the floor to become the symbol of her future life. A kind of "before" and "after" at once:

Figure 9: Alonso del Arco, "Mary Magdalene Removing her Jewelry"

Figure 10: Alonso del Arco, detail

And another, more literal "before and after" by the 18th century Mexican painter Juan Correa (Figure 11) shows Mary Magdalene on the left in her former life a luxury, and on the middle right in the distance in her life of penance. Note the picture of the suitor in the corner of her mirror on the left, indicating her life as a prostitute, with the conventional pearls on the floor, and on the right, the formal gardens that "morph" into the "wilderness" appropriate to any and all saintly penitents.

Figure 11: Juan Correa, "The Conversion of St. Mary Magdalene"

Thus the contested theological issues of conversion and penance conjoin in the figure of the Magdalene, and her attribute of the pearls—a visual narrative device—will serve to illustrate the allegorical associations of Baroque religious portraiture. We will return to the figure of Mary Magdalene when we reach García Márquez's novel Of Love and Other Demons.

Figure 12: Gian Lorenzo Bernini, "The Transverberation of Santa Teresa"

Of course, the Baroque epitome of mystical incorporation is Santa Teresa of Avila (1515-1582), founder of the reformed order of the Carmelites, indefatigable administrator and exemplary mystic, beatified in 1614. Gian Lorenzo Bernini's visualization of Santa Teresa engages her own metaphor for her ecstasy—the dart of God's word piercing her heart; she is sculpted in marble, a medium that heightens the Baroque paradox of solid sensuousness and transported spirit. If Santa Teresa is the epitome of mystical incorporation, this work is the epitome of European Baroque sculpture; it was created in the exact middle of the 17th century, between 1645 and 1652.

To remind ourselves of the great revolution in taste that is the Baroque, compare the dynamism, the instability, the interiority of this work to its Renaissance analogue, Michelangelo's David—the epitome of Renaissance sculpture. This example of contained corporeality was created 140 years before Bernini's Santa Teresa, in 1506. The passions of the soul operate in Bernini's Santa Teresa in ways not-yet- dreamed-of in Michelangelo's David.

The ontology and ideology of the Baroque image is rooted in seventeenth-century Counter Reformation Europe—a time when the Catholic Church was responding to Protestant attacks on a number of fronts, including iconoclasm. Reformers in northern Europe were destroying Catholic paintings, altars, and entire churches, and the Catholic Church answered these "opponents of images" by reaffirming the legitimacy of visual images in Catholic practice and reiterating their correct use. Visual images, far from being obstacles to worship, as the Protestants contended, were understood by the Counter Reformation as a means of visualizing the invisible, as a conduit to the divine. Divinity is not visible, of course, but the activity of visualizing divinity became Counter Reformation policy.

Figure 13: Carlos Clemente López, "St. John Nepomuk"

This is, in fact, an 18th century Mexican painting by Carlos Clemente López, a portrait of St. John Nepomuk—San Juan Nepomuceno—who visualizes Christ's physical suffering, the better to appreciate its metaphysical dimensions. The realistic depiction of the body brings the beholder into mystical communion with disembodied spirit. Notice the vivid red blood that streams down Christ's arm and side.

This form of realism, with its transcendental content, was brought wholesale to Latin America in the seventeenth century, and was produced in richly transculturated forms during the entire colonial period—the Baroque extends far longer in Latin America than in Europe—well into the last half of the 18th century, as this painting by Clemente López attests. But even in the very earliest European constructions in New Spain, scenes of physical suffering and spiritual transcendence covered the walls.

Figure 14: Juan Tinoco, "The Lactation of St. Cajetan."

Figure 14, painted by the 18th century Mexican painter Juan Tinoco suggests that the academic Baroque had flowered fully in the New World. We see Mary giving her milk to the swooning saint: the utter physicality of the divine is never in question, whether it is in academic painting or popular modes of expression.

Figure 15: Anonymous, Peru, Virgen de la leche

In this 17th century Peruvian painting of the Virgin de la leche (Virgin of milk), the physicality of spirit is at issue: mystery and magic are inscribed in and on the human body.

It is at this time that martyrdom, in all its grisly somatic detail, becomes a fascination (and a political agenda) during this period, as does Christ's bodily suffering, an emphasis that continues in much of Latin American to this day. Christ is, of course, the epitome of all martyrs, so Christ's blood becomes a central trope in Baroque religious portraiture. The sacrament of the Eucharist was under siege by the Protestants, who had dismissed the doctrine of transubstantiation in favor of the doctrine of symbolization: the bread and wine are symbolic of Christ's body and blood, but they do not become the body and blood. All the more reason to emphasize, in Catholic contexts, its salvific efficacy.

This Baroque corporealization of spirit or, inversely, this spiritualization of corporeality—in short, this emphasis on the relation of physical phenomena to spiritual experience is characteristic of the Baroque.

Figure 16: Miguel Cabrera, "The Allegory of the Precious Blood of Christ"

17, 18: Cristos Sangrantes (Bleeding Christs)

Passions of the Soul | El barroco gabrielino | Notes