Our Lady of Bethlehem: An Iconic Image from Cuzco

Ana Girard

A popular religious icon painting of Mary with the infant Jesus in her arms, the Virgin of Bethlehem (Virgen de Belén), is associated with Cuzco workshops of religious icon painters active between the 16th and 18th centuries. The Virgin wears a gold crown of precious stones, and a dark textile decorated with flowers covers her hair. Her heavy, garnet-red vestment is embellished with golden accents and a long garland with numerous white dots that simulate pearls. The infant Jesus, whom she holds at her chest, is wrapped in a similarly patterned red and gold mantle and appears to emerge from her gown. One of the techniques used during the Cuzco Viceroyalty involved applying gold leaf on canvases and painted images to make them more beautiful. This technique is known as “estofado” and is used to imitate brocade or interwoven gold.

The artist of the Menil’s painting is not known, which is the case for many colonial paintings from Peru, but it can be securely attributed to one of the workshops active in Cuzco. It is one of several known examples in museum collections that depict the statue of the Virgin in the Parroquia Nuestra Señora Reina de Belén, or the Parish of Our Lady of Bethlehem in the city of Cuzco. The original statue, made during the 16th century, stands on the retablo behind the main altar of the parish. The sculpture is taken out of the church and processed and venerated during Catholic ceremonies and celebrations. One of the most important is Corpus Christi or Holy Eucharist, which is celebrated in Cuzco during the month of June. The Virgin of Bethlehem is one of several types of Virgins and saints memorialized with a religious mass and festive celebrations with music and dance during Corpus Christi. Devotees process these statues on their shoulders through the streets of Cuzco for the people. In the painting, the Virgin stands on a round metal platform, which references the one used during festival processions to carry the statue.

While based on the sculpture, the Menil’s painting also closely resembles the representation of the Virgin in the late-17th-century painting The Virgin of Bethlehem with Bishop Gaspar de Mollinedo as Donor, which has been attributed by some scholars to the Quechua-Inca painter Basilio de Santa Cruz Pumacallao (1635–1710). This monumental oil painting, which was part of the pictorial religious narrative in the Parroquia Nuestra Señora Reina de Belén, depicts Bishop Manuel de Mollinedo Angulo (1626–1699) petitioning the statue of the Virgin in the foreground. Mollinedo arrived in Cuzco after the major earthquake of 1650, which had severely damaged the church. He reportedly became a major patron of Santa Cruz Pumacallao’s work.

Cuzqueñous, people from Cuzco, consider the Virgin of Bethlehem to be the patroness of the city. Among Peruvians, she is often more endearingly referred to as Mamacha Belén or Mother Bethlehem. She is at the center of a cult of devotees, and her image is of great importance to the city’s religious life and culture. Popular accounts of miracles and divine intervention surround the Virgin of Bethlehem. The monumental painting attributed to Santa Cruz Pumacallao shows two of the best-known leyendas or stories. In the upper-right corner of the painting is a scene narrating the origin of the Virgin of Bethlehem statue. According to the story, in the 16th century three fishermen from Bahía de Callao near Lima, Peru, came upon a floating wood crate. When they opened it, they discovered the wood statue of Virgin and a note that read: “Imagen de Nuestra Señora de Belén para la Ciudad de Cuzco” (Image of Our Lady of Bethlehem for the city of Cuzco). They carried the statue to Cuzco and presented it for placement in the Iglesia de los Reyes, which later changed its name to Parroquia Nuestra Señora Reina de Belén in honor of the Virgin. Another common story, which is depicted in the upper-left corner of the painting, describes the salvation of a humble Cuzco man named Selengue, who had succumbed to vices and disbelief. During a procession of the Virgin, Selengue realized that she was about to tumble off her platform. He quickly intervened to prevent the accident and, through his strength, prevented the Virgin from toppling over. At that moment, an apparition of the Virgin interceded in a horrific vision Selengue had about his final judgement, saving him as a result of his pious action.

The Virgin of Bethlehem, like other Catholic imagery, was introduced after the Spanish conquest. Paintings and sculptures of religious figures served an educational purpose. Bishop Mollinedo and other influential figures came to Cuzco to spread their own religious and artistic values, such as those of the courtly life of Madrid. Spain had its own traditions and festivities related to many of the Virgins that we see in colonial painting from the Andes. The Virgin’s garment is representative of 17th-century imperial fashion in Europe and symbolizes her divine status as Queen of Heaven and Mother of God as well as combining aspects of Inca textiles, jewelry, and weavings in bright colors. Despite the fact that European missionaries coerced the conversion of most, Andean people adapted and surreptitiously reinterpreted Catholic images in their own way. They made them with local materials: dyes derived from plants and minerals, wood, gold, and silver. Quechua- and Aymara-speaking artists added colorful ornamentation indicative of royal Inca attire and festivities. They integrated Inca religious imagery and symbolism into the representations of Catholic saints: they acculturated Catholicism. This is visible in the extensive use of gold leaf in paintings and sculptures, which reflected the divine attributes of Inti, the god Sun. Also, the way in which the virgin figures are shaped almost like mountains shows their association with Mother Earth or Pachamama, and the colorful, highly decorated dresses resemble costumes or capes utilized during indigenous dances and rituals as well as their European models. In the colonies, missionaries and officials allowed these adaptations as long as these images were accepted and incorporated into Andean peoples’ religious life.

The edges of the Menil’s painting have been cut, so part of the platform and the top of the Virgin’s crown are missing. The painting’s condition suggests years of devotional use during the colonial period and later. How large it was originally and the reasons why the painting was cropped are unclear. It is possible the trimming of the canvas occurred during a restoration. Some early Spanish colonial canvases were secured by glue directly to the frame or directly to the front of a stretcher or strainer. Failure of the adhesive could have damaged the edges, necessitating the cutting of portions of the painting. Alternatively, changing the painting’s frame or support might have required cutting edge sections, which would have been difficult to do without damaging the margins of the canvas. It is also possible the painting was cropped while removing it from a sculpted framework in a church, a common fate for paintings included in such settings. Despite the alterations, this iconic image of the Virgin of Bethlehem with gilded embellishments exemplifies the hybrid nature and distinctive imagery of Andean Catholicism that define paintings from the Cuzco school.

Sources Consulted

Allen, Catherine J. “The Incas Have Gone inside: Pattern and Persistence in Andean Iconography.” Res: Anthropology and Aesthetics 42 (September 2002): 180–203, https://doi.org/10.1086/RESv42n1ms20167578.

Katzew, Ilona, and Luisa Elena Alcalá. Contested Visions in the Spanish Colonial World, 252–57. Los Angeles: Los Angeles County Museum of Art; Distributed by Yale University Press, New Haven, CT: 2011., 252–57.

Vargas Ugarte, Ruben, S.J. Historia del Culto de Maria en Iberoamérica y de sus imágenes y santuarios mas celebrados. 3rd ed., Madrid: Talleres gráficos Jura, 1956.

Charles L. Mo, Splendors of the New World: Spanish Colonial Masterworks from the Viceroyalty of Peru (Charlotte, NC: Mint Museum of Art, 1992).

ARCA: Arte Colonial, La Virgen de Belén con el Obispo Gaspar de Mollinedo como Donante, http://artecolonialamericano.az.uniandes.edu.co:8080/artworks/1542.