Monday, August 08, 2011

The Intricacies of Art, Religion, and Rebellion in Colonial Panama

Every act of rebellion expresses a nostalgia for innocence and an appeal to the essence of being.
Albert Camus

My family moved to Nicaragua—from Los Angeles—when I was eleven. Unable to afford the steep tuition of the American-Nicaraguan School, my parents enrolled me in the Colegio Salesiano San Juan Bosco instead, an all-boys Catholic school in the city of Granada.

Beginning the day I uttered my first word, I think, my mother and paternal grandmother made sure that I became well-indoctrinated in the precepts of Catholicism. Yet, in spite of their diligent groundwork, I wasn’t prepared for the demanding experience that awaited me: all students in my new school were obligated to attend mass every morning before the beginning of classes.

Notwithstanding my youth, I had considerable respect for Catholic rituals, but, at the same time, there was only so much worship that I—a restless boy on the verge of adolescence—could tolerate. It’s not surprising, then, that before long I started to succumb to perilous boredom during the daily services. To alleviate these bouts that could potentially lead to trouble, I’d stare at the religious images and at the intricate, quasi-gothic artwork inside of the school’s chapel.

Without a doubt, my fascination with religious art began back then. To this day I find the interior of Catholic churches, particularly the iconography—that is, the pictorial use of symbols to invoke the stories behind the images—spellbinding. What’s more, my experiences in Catholicism have become an integral part of my craft: in every novel I’ve published so far the Church and its teachings have played key roles.

It should not come as a surprise, then, that on a recent trip to the provinces of Coclé, Herrera, and Los Santos—in the Republic of Panamá, where my wife and I live—we spent much of our vacation time visiting colonial church buildings. Our first stop was in Natá. The historical gem in the center of the town was built in 1522. It remains the oldest church on the American mainland to be still in use.

Throughout our church tour I indulged myself, taking as many photographs as possible of the religious artwork within the buildings. One of the leitmotivs I found mesmerizing was the portrayal of cherubs on altar columns. Historical records of the Spanish Colonial era describe that master artisans were brought to the New World to oversee the design and construction of temples. To help spread the faith, the more artistically-inclined among the indigenous were trained—some unwillingly, of course—to conduct the bulk of the labor. For the interior artwork, the master artisan taught the natives how to carve and create the countless countenances that adorn these churches.

A common feature of this work, as well as an interesting outcome, is that in many temples the more graceful cherubs have indigenous features with long, flowing tresses and beatific, kindly expressions.

On the other hand, the cherubs of European features often are rather sinister in appearance.

Or, in the more extreme cases, their tongues are distorted, sometimes even forked, implying that in the estimation of the artist, or artists, Spaniards were incapable of speaking the truth.

What is clear upon considering these acts of rebellion is that the indigenous artists counted with the complicity of the master artisan. What’s more, it seems inconceivable that such items could be included so close to the heart of worship space without the approval, albeit tacit, of the parish priest, who more than likely pretended to look the other way. The seditious artwork within colonial churches suggests that the parties involved—the native artists, the master artisan, and the clergyman—had an unspoken agreement that the indigenous laborers could leave a historical trace to tell future generations that their submission to the mighty sword and cross that lay behind Spanish authority would never be complete.