We begin with a problem: Is it possible to have one essay address the Bible and the arts in Latin America? Engaging art to lead us into this question, I turn to a master work by John August Swanson (b. 1938). Bilingual and bicultural, of Mexican and Swedish parentage, Swanson was born and raised in the ancestral Hispanic land of Los Angeles, California. The Procession (1982) recalls his experience praying with a community at San Xavier del Bac Mission in Tucson, Arizona (established 1692, present church 1783). Although today the connections may elude us, Alta (upper) California and present-day Arizona were annexed by the United States relatively recently with the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo (1848), following the fall of Mexico City to U.S. forces during the Mexican-American War. The term “Latin America,” as Swanson’s person and art show us, dissimulates a complex history.

As the faces of the community of The Procession show, people of Hispanic/Latino ancestry are racially mixed, and their intermingled cultures and backgrounds affect the work of artistic production and reception presenting intricate questions. Additionally, because of its twenty-first-century date, Swanson’s work represents a recent development in the relationship of the Bible with Latin American communities and those of Latino ancestry. The very center of the piece (presented as a circle) is Jesus’s baptism, the beginning of the Gospel of Mark (Mark 1:9–11). Everything else radiates from that center. Key images from the Bible, but not only from the Bible, fill the painting. They are on the walls of the church, the towers, and ceiling, and are carried by the community as they sing in prayer walking toward the viewer. There is a particularity to this rendering of the Bible’s relationship to Latino cultures that also requires exploration.

Finally, there is a definite equivocation of time and place in The Procession: What time period is this? What are these people doing? The painting’s overabundance of colors, faces, and stories makes evident the complexity of speaking about art with religious intentions and subjects in the Latin American setting with its vibrant resonances, quite purposeful and loved, of earlier ages.

Seeking Markers.

As reflected in The Procession, one way to view the task before us is to acknowledge the impossibility of writing one essay about a subject as challenging as the Bible and the arts in Latin America. Instead, what follows will foreground key scholarly questions and offer markers to help provide tools, information, and a path for engaging the particularity of any of the arts traditionally belonging to the Latin American cultural group (or interlaced with them).

In situ.

The desirability of treating works of art in situ (in their original placement) finds resonance with Latino theological scholarship that insists on the contextual nature of all acts of interpretation. Before viewers interpret it, art is already the result of interpretation by contextually situated artists and their communities. In The Procession, the representation of the biblical stories is part of a much larger story, its original placement made visible by the commingling of the art with the people. This is the Christian story, Salvation History, which the community retells as co-protagonists. As is evident in this interplay, the arts are inherently relational and do vital work in the life of individuals and communities.

Latin American Art

The Procession (1982) by John August Swanson. Serigraph, 36 × 24 inches. The Los Angeles artist John August Swanson is noted for his finely detailed, brilliantly colored paintings and original prints. His works are found in the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American History, London’s Tate Gallery, the Vatican Museum’s Collection of Modern Religious Art, and the Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris.

© 2007 by John August Swanson (www.JohnAugustSwanson.com)

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Relationships: The artists.

Although artists are essential to the process of art-making, the arts, as they appeal to religious sensibilities, are often communally produced or anonymous. Although Swanson is the artist behind The Procession, he posits multiple unknown artists as the crafters of the art in the church and carried by the community. All manner of artfulness is depicted in the work. The musicians, singers, liturgical vestments, and architecture are all equally valued and evocative. This is a hallmark of religious art in the Latin American imagination. All of this creativity is not considered “art” but rather identified by the religious functions it performs.

Scholars note that there are multiple instances of artworks in Latin America whose creators are unknown. This suppression of the artist’s identity confers legitimacy on the religious efficacy of the image, often thought of as miraculous or at least worthy of veneration in its connection to the Divine. Sometimes artists have disappeared from the chronicles of an image’s history in service to the community’s devotions. This legacy reminds us that the idea of “artists” as related to religious art is not natural to the region and its cultures.

Relationships: The communities behind the art.

Creative works of religious significance, whether biblical texts or art, serve particular communities, germinating out of the rich soil of how that community understands itself in joy and in sorrow. Appreciating the tapestry of a community’s life and how it relates internally and to other communities through conflicts and organic connections is requisite for understanding art that is inherently communal in serving a religious tradition. When arising out of a Latino setting, art (religious or otherwise) often expresses worldviews that are not individualistic but communally construed.

Relationships: The communities before the art.

This category highlights intended and nonintended receivers who are dynamically changing—themselves the product of multiple influences. Works of creativity, because of their potential depth in signifying and revealing, depend on building relationships with viewers/receivers. Works may have natural receivers who partake in the work’s symbolic system, decode it, and are moved by the work’s entreaties. However, others may be outsiders to a work’s internal dynamics and without intentional cultivation will lack the tools for engaging it and thus short-circuit the process of relationing that is the main function of artistic work. Wakefulness to the shifting nature of art’s receivers highlights the need for an attitude of openness and humility. This is particularly important when approaching the arts of groups that have been repeatedly objectified or pushed to the periphery as exotic or folkloric. As this essay is directed to English-speakers and proceeding from the viewpoint of North American scholarship, I wish to emphasize this point most strongly: we are guilty of centuries of reducing and undervaluing most of Latin America’s religious art.

Relationships: The art itself.

Ultimately, the integrity of creative works mandates they be granted freedom to be themselves, becoming new experiences in the continuum of life within human communities. Acknowledging a work’s integrity as separate from our assessment of it resists the urge to reduce it to illustration, admire it only for its aesthetic qualities, or analyze and critique it by breaking it into parts and missing its insightful wholeness. We honor art by setting the markers that help us identify the convergence of influences that interlace tightly inside it and by querying the functions that it performs within communities.

Art’s active work.

As The Procession and all the miniature paintings within this serigraph show, the arts, when activated by religious impulses, are asking original questions, proposing new interpretations, and engaged in the process of theologizing. As art does important work in relation to a religious tradition, it suggests new ways to interpret and focus a key source or doctrine and often centers our attention on contemporary questions, which we then take back to the tradition’s wisdom for further engagement. For instance, as we look at The Procession, we may juxtapose the beauty of Latino people and their part in salvation history against the community’s suffering in light of recent anti-immigrant laws and the racism these reflect. Christ’s presence among them points to the sinfulness of systems that devalue human dignity. The Bible’s story of redemption and suffering, The Procession reminds us, is our story.

Acercamientos and Interlacing.

The arts, when they are art and not commerce, are never illustrations or embellishments, but new and original “texts” in relationship with a changing community of interpreters. Because of this, I characterize the task of the scholar to be producing acercamientos (from acercar, to bring close). This process of encounter, in which we choose to participate, gathers the tools suggested by the work itself in order to bring it near and appreciate its intricacy. For instance, The Procession requires that we engage biblical scholarship, the history of art during the mission period, the history of the southwestern United States, the particularities of the art form of serigraphy, pastoral practices in present day Arizona, and theological reflection on the tradition of processions in Spain and how these were reimagined in the “new world.”

As this list suggests, the number of strands that can contribute to our ability to acercar a work can be extensive and should be fluid. I propose we discard language referring to the “intersection of religion and art” and replace it with “interlacing.” Artworks are interlaced with a variety of strands in their production and reception. As we relate to them, the multiplicity and open-ended nature of gathering strands should likewise be expansive and ongoing, rather than limited and momentary. As should be clear by now, an intellectually honest relationship with art is a demanding undertaking. When we add to this two other variables, namely the Bible and Latin America, we realize that this is one of the most intricate subjects we could ever want to engage.

Latin America? Exploring the Where.

As The Procession makes apparent, we can begin gathering strands by querying the issue of territorial claims and geography. What exactly do we mean by Latin America? Do we look for works of art produced within a geographic location demarcated on its northern edge by the Rio Grande and on the south by the elegantly curved tip of Tierra del Fuego? Wouldn’t this interfere with our ability to appreciate art’s unifying and enduring function of reaching across times, places, and human groups? The U.S.-Mexico border is a living challenge, crossed by millions seeking a new life, reuniting with families, or toiling just so loved ones somewhere “below the border” may have a meal and a place to lay their heads.

The poor of the world.

The unstable nature of national borders, economic development, repeated conquests, and acute sociopolitical unrest in which the Latino Church of the American continent exists is of vital significance to any study of the reception of the Bible in this region. As the eminent Peruvian theologian Gustavo Gutiérrez explains: “because God is identified with the poor of the world, God’s face and action are hidden in them. The Lord hides his presence in history, and at the same time reveals it, in the life and suffering, the struggles, the death, and the hopes of the condemned of the earth” (1991, p. 90).

Nationalism, racism, exploitation, opportunism, economic elitism, and other generators of suffering make the polemics around borders (not just between the United States and its neighbor to the south, but even among and within “Latin American” countries themselves) a site where God’s consoling face and accompaniment is painted, carved, and sung about, because it is desired.


The porosity, anguish, and continuous aliveness of the borders with their cycles of subjugation demand artworks that function to express solidarity and resistance. Because of this, the religious function of the Bible in Latin American arts finds its most complete expression in the Passion of Christ. Often misinterpreted as the Spaniard’s way to present conquered native populations with images that would make them docile (an interpretation that disregards the earlier history of Passion Plays, rituals, and images in Spain and much of Europe), the reception and creativity accorded to the biblical retelling of the Passion in the Latin American continent is a complex phenomenon. In it we glimpse the role of Jesucristo and his friends (the communion of saints) in accompanying the community in their pain and helping them resist subjugation. Without acknowledging what Latino theologians call the region’s painfully “noninnocent” history and present situation, the complexity of the Latin American interpretation of the biblical witness remains misunderstood and inaccessible.


If we reduce Latin America to the region south of the present border, we dissimulate the suffering of generations and we do so by being ahistorical. The addition of a historical strand helps us see that a vast amount of territory today called the United States was indeed most assuredly Latin America. To sustain a claim to the legitimacy of interpreting the region only in relation to the present border would mean disregarding all Christian religious buildings (like San Xavier del Bac) and rituals, music, and iconography that began in earnest in the northern part of the continent with the first conquest after Juan Ponce de León’s arrival in Florida in 1513. The territories explored or settled by the Spanish stretch from present-day North Carolina, across to California, and all the way up the Pacific Northwest (1775). During almost 200 years, the Spanish sent expeditions and settlers to areas that today constitute 19 of the states in the United States.

Most significantly, the legacy of Spanish exploration and settling of the central and southern parts of the American continent today is represented in 21 other countries. Additionally, the other Iberian power, the Portuguese, settled the rich lands of Brazil. The common and admittedly painful foundation laid by the encounter of the peoples of the region with the Iberian empires inexorably connects most of the continent (with the exception of parts of the eastern United States and Canada). The arts, especially those with religious significance, make this abundantly clear.

The Latin Americans? Exploring the Who.

The way the Christian proclamation of new life in Christ has been interpreted creatively in Latin America begins with the arrival of the colonial powers of the Iberian Peninsula. The conquerors and evangelizers were primarily the Spanish (but also the Portuguese), and their initial efforts predate the start of what became the Protestant Reformation (Luther, 1517; Council of Trent, 1545).

The intermingled many.

The inordinate territorial vastness of this region leads us to an awareness of the dizzying variety of peoples inhabiting these lands. Creative work is the primary cultural product of human groups—the nucleus where what is most unique about a people is expressed and activated. When human societies are young, these arts tend to center on religious subjects. Attempts to determine if humans inhabited a site invariably begin with searching for instances of creativity. Whether in the single hole made through shells for a ceremonial necklace or in the red and black lines of ancient cave paintings, creativity is intimate as well as communal, performative as well as instructive, undeniably embedded with multiple functions. Artfulness also appears to be a fundamental feature of our humanity.

The way the Bible is reimagined in the arts of Latino communities is not as a universally valid abstraction but intricately tied to particular human groups and specific religious functions. Appropriately, we cannot speak about one group called Latin Americans, nor can we speak about one way of being creatively religious. Any attempt to approach the arts of Latin America must deal with the complex uniqueness of particular regions and grapple with the distinctly Latin American racial mixing that resulted in mestizaje (Indigenous and Iberian) and mulatez (African and Iberian), along with a vast number of racial variants brought by other immigrant groups.

The humans inhabiting the American continent begin their story in the migrations eastward from Africa, through the Fertile Crescent, inland across the continent of Asia, crossing into North America, and then heading south. By the time they encounter the Iberians in 1492, there may have been as many as 350 major tribal groups in these regions. The most accomplished of these left plentiful evidence of their facility with what we call “the arts,” which in their case functioned to record history, mediate with deities, interpret and influence nature, solidify identity, build political power, and embellish their surroundings.

The empires of the Aztecs (Mexico, encountered in 1519), Mayas (Yucatan, encountered in 1527), and Incas (Peru, encountered in 1532), along with a host of other groups, are part of the parentage of the cultural mestizaje that birthed a new kind of Christian artfulness in what far from a “New World” was a very ancient world coming into contact with a new reality. These empires were themselves the product of complicated conquests and mixings. Later, the violent uprooting of African communities as new slaves were brought to American lands after the decimation of the native populations added a crucial element to the identity of the peoples we would eventually call Latin Americans. African cultures and religious traditions, so radically different from those that the Spaniards had mistakenly called “Indians” and from the invading Iberians, are prominently represented in the layered complexity of Latin American creative arts as these express religious identities.

Latin America during Which Time? Exploring the When.

As the traditional designations of “Old World” and “New World” make clear, there is a complex time element attached to any exploration of the cultural production of this region. As noted, a number of organized groups (from nomads to highly accomplished civilizations) were present prior to 1492. Therefore, to look at the question of time is to realize that the world of “America” has gone through multiple convulsive changes. These changes leave their mark in a particularly powerful way in that cultural barometer that is the arts.

The first peoples.

The Latin American context requires awareness that the many groups constituting the communities behind the art and those from which and to which artists speak had (and have) fluid identities. Variety and constant change is apparent in the first peoples of the continent, as they conquered or formed alliances, absorbed religious ideas, and developed increasingly sophisticated ways to creatively express their relationships with the divine. As is evident in the material culture these groups left behind, they had well-established and complex religious systems. Sometimes these views on the divine–human encounter may only be accessible to us through theoretical constructions based precisely on the fruits of their creativity. However, many religious understandings also perdure in their descendants and in their creatively layered religious cultures.

The Iberians.

Far from a “pure” racial/cultural group, the invading explorers were a product of complex cultural, ethnic, and religious mixing. About 35 generations before Cristóbal Colón (Christopher Columbus) set sail from the Iberian Peninsula, an invading force from North Africa under the leadership of the Muslim general Tariq ibn Ziyad and political leadership of Abd al-Rahman defeated the Visigoth king and quickly controlled most of Spain. Los Moros (the Moors) ruled the land for the next seven centuries, being finally defeated by the forces of Isabel and Fernando, los Reyes Católicos (the Catholic monarchs). The fabled city of Granada fell the same year Colón set sail.

The centuries of Islamic Spain had several features that influenced the Christianity that reached the American continent. First was the unusual level of collaboration between Muslims, Christians, and Jews, especially in the areas of scholarship and culture. This was a first mestizaje through which new language, music, literary styles, and aesthetics were born. Similar mixings would occur throughout the American continent. Although sometimes subject to humiliating restrictions, Christians and Jews were allowed to practice their religion, were not segregated, and were free to hold jobs and contribute to society. As time passed, however, the relationship deteriorated drastically and Islamic authority splintered, allowing for the fall of Toledo to the Christian Reconquista (reconquest) in 1085. Although it took several centuries, this marked the beginning of the end for Islamic Spain.

Interlacing the Religious Functions of Art and the Latin American Family Tree.

Highlighting the multiple strands of colliding cultures we can see the major influences that animate the imagination of the people of the “New World.” I will here identify some strands that may prove productive and connect these to three creative activities as examples, and invitations, to further study.

Three ways the arts function religiously.

Although it may appear problematic to reduce art’s functions in relation to religious traditions to just three, these macro functions demonstrate some “universal” characteristics. By this I mean that they can be detected at work in religious traditions in multiple cultures, and in a number of different religions. This expansiveness is necessary because Latin American creativity has embedded within it multiple religious identities beyond the Christian tradition. Creative material religion, owing to the plasticity endemic to interpretation and symbolism can often absorb, reinterpret or place in productive relationship what doctrines and ecclesial authorities never would.

First function: To pass along the religious tradition.

Works of art that fulfill the function of passing along the biblical tradition must of necessity come from iconophile (image-loving) communities. This makes evident a limitation inherent in the uniqueness of Protestantism in Latin America. After a few failed attempts, Protestantism finally arrived in the nineteenth century from the North Atlantic (Britain and then the United States). The first missionaries, who mainly ministered to small expatriate congregations, were encouraged by the newly independent political forces seeking to undermine the Catholic Church’s power, which they understood to be tied to colonial Spain. As the Argentinean scholar Jerónimo José Granados explains, far from the European Protestantism that supported great religious art, Latin America’s Protestantism was born from North American churches that were “in their majority pietist and Puritan” (2003, p. 316). The need for Protestants to define themselves as not Catholic or often as anti-Catholic to undermine Catholic influence resulted in a strict iconoclasm. Consequently, Latin American works of art expressive of the biblical tradition will be for the most part passing along the Catholic view of the tradition, at least until the mid-twentieth century, when ecumenical collaboration was officially encouraged by the Second Vatican Council (1962–1965).

Second function: To wrestle with theological questions.

This function makes evident the other side of the Protestant/Catholic divide. The Protestant emphasis on sola scriptura first developed by Martin Luther (1483–1546) and other early Reformers has made adherence to the Bible and biblical literacy a powerful symbol of Protestant identity. As a reaction, its purposeful neglect (with notable exceptions) became a mark of Catholic identity. Despite early collaborations between Protestant Bible societies and Franciscan missionaries, Latin American Catholics were encouraged to avoid engaging scripture on their own unless provided with detailed instructions on biblical interpretation from the official church. Because of this, we note that the range of iconographic, ritual, and other creative expressions of the biblical witness in the Latin American context is limited.

Prior to Vatican II and the phenomenal growth in biblical literacy among Catholics that followed, only two biblical traditions that accompanied the Iberians to America were routinely represented in art: the Infancy Narratives and the Passion. Latin American artists wrestle with how to make these traditions their own, seeking new ways to understand the faith as they put Christ’s life in fruitful relationship with their daily challenges, but it is a decidedly limited range.

Most of the community’s creativity was/is poured into Jesus, his mother Mary (whose maternal presence abundantly permeates all Latin American artistic regions), and their friends, the saints. Miraculous stories and creatively blended traditions around Mary and the saints support identity and communal cohesion but are not biblically based.

Third function: Facilitating experiences of awe and wonder.

This category resonates strongly with the multiple religious forebears of Latin American Catholicism and Indigenous, Muslim, Jewish, and African art. The facilitation of awe and wonder, which often entails performativity, heightened emotional engagement, and a self-conscious sensuality, gives Latin American religious art its most enduring quality and attraction while simultaneously opening it up to charges of paganism and idolatry. In terms of the reforms initiated by the Second Vatican Council, this category is the most difficult to negotiate and painful, especially for Latino communities residing in the United States, until recently a notably iconoclastic culture with a significant anti-Catholic history.

The wholesale removal of statues, the limitations placed on public worship and popular religious practices, and the initial misreading of many Latin American theologians (since corrected) that popular religion should be replaced by an “educated and rational” faith was distressing for many Latino Catholics. Today, the appreciation for the complexity and efficacious role of popular religious practices and arts, as well as the recognition of the uniqueness of Latino cultural expressions, have returned this function of inspiring awe and effectively moving the human heart to a central place, not only within Catholic Christianity, but also in many Protestant churches.

Additionally, reflection on interreligious dialogue and the Catholic position since Vatican II that other religions participate in the search for divine encounter and “often reflect a ray of that Truth which enlightens all [people]” (Nostra Aetate 2) should help frame the blended nature of Latino religious arts and practices in a positive light as a model for interreligious seeking and global consciousness.

Encountering the Art, I: Blood, Sacrifice, Resistance, and Empire.

Spanish Christianity existed in a world that had been at war for generations. Unlike other parts of Christendom, where young men set off for war against the Muslims in the far-off Holy Land, Spanish Catholics lived under the rule of Islam for 700 years. The myth of the Reconquista (today understood as a largely manufactured legend) asserted that there had been a sustained Catholic military resistance to Islamic rule since the eighth century. The stress on the duty to sacrifice life and treasure for the Catholic faith helped unify the armies of Isabel and Fernando. It was the alliance of their two kingdoms and the linking of the proclamation of the gospel with military might that finally vanquished los Moros through a heavily militarized Christianity in the tradition of imperial Christianity going all the way back to fourth-century Rome under Emperor Constantine.

The major civilizations the Spaniards encountered coincided to a surprising degree with this worldview. The Aztec, the Inca, and the Maya were theocratic societies where the might of religious fervor was also activated for political gain and cultural cohesion. The role of sacrifice—in the case of the Aztecs of enemies and in some of the other cultures also of children—was articulated as a religious necessity. As had happened in Spain, when the Islamic rulers presented a more benign alternative to the brutality of the Visigoths engendering little resistance, the Spaniards appeared to some of the other tribal groups as a less bloodthirsty alternative to the civilizations they were fighting. The conquest happened swiftly and with few men; the problem was that they were all conquered.

Latin American Art

Ecce Homo (John 19:4–5). Artist unknown, School of Alto Peru (ca. 1775–1800). Oil on panel, 37½ × 22 inches (framed).

Fundación Arte Sacro/Colección Antonio y Lola Roig Ferré

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In terms of the way these strands make themselves present in the religious arts, we can look to Ecce Homo (Behold the Man). This oil-on-wood panel is an anonymous piece painted in Alto Peru (present-day Bolivia). In this devotional work, made for a side altar or private chapel, we encounter one of the favorite biblical subjects of European art reinterpreted in the context of the complicated reality of Spain’s colonies. We could argue that this artwork transmits a key biblical text, wrestles with Christ’s relationship to the situation of the Andean people, and enthralls the viewer with wonderment at its captivating beauty.

The painting depicts the moment when Jesus is presented before the crowds in Jerusalem after being beaten, mocked, and symbolically “crowned” with thorns, given a reed or a staff, and clothed in either a purple or scarlet robe, depending on the evangelist (Matt 27:26–30; Mark 15:15–19; John 19:1–5). There are many artistic versions, but the most oft-repeated rendition is of Jesus as the single subject, also referred to as “head of Christ” or “Christ crowned with thorns.” In the European works (too many to mention but well worth comparing), Jesus is defeated. Usually depicted looking down in resigned meditation and prayerfulness or up toward the Father with pleading eyes, Jesus is meant to evoke compassion from the viewer and lead to a contemplative state of prayer. The work from Latin America follows the iconography and symbols of the established type (coloring, cloak, reed/staff, crown, rope). It was evidently produced in a workshop set up to train artists for the church in the New World, but it is markedly different from the European versions. Recalling the constant confrontation with warriors and rulers who claimed to be religiously motivated, this Jesus stands by the side of the conquered and enacts a theology of acompañamiento (accompaniment).

First, Jesus looks straight at the viewer. The Christ locks eyes in a fixed stare with the supplicant who has come seeking him. Seen up close, his eyes are defiant, bewildered, and full of tears. Second, and also significantly different from European renditions, is the amount of realistic looking wounds Jesus bears on his body. He is not emaciated, and the size of his neck clues us as to his warrior-like musculature. Jesucristo has an open wound from a blow to the left side of his face, which is realistically bruised and black and blue. The same is true for the wounds on his torso, which accurately depict the effects of scourging with a whip with metal tips on the end. Finally, the reed Jesus holds is sugarcane (brought from Spain and then, because of its success, made one of the principal crops of Latin America). This timeless work manages to bring together the biblical retelling of Jesus’s trial and humiliation, with a defiant stance of resistance against the state, while also stressing the life-giving nature of his blood and the saving efficacy of his sacrificial love.

The intricate Holy Week processions, Passion plays, and festivals of medieval Spain take on a different look in the Americas. As we imagine ourselves participants in the Holy Week scene above, we recognize the dramatic passing on of the Passion narratives, and certainly the function of producing overwhelming wonderment and an effective encounter with mystery, but what of the function of wrestling with theological questions? CEHILA posits in its landmark investigative work that such instances of popular religion are not a passive form of transmission of Spanish Catholicism. They stress that these practices are not mestizaje understood as just the indiscriminate mixing of elements of two religious traditions. Rather, they argue, in a way similar to how mestizaje is understood in the Latino Church of the United States, that Latin America’s popular religion is an entirely original activity of theologizing in a new way and wrestling with the tensions and convergences of multiple religious worldviews.

Encountering the Art, II: Personhood, Poverty, Persistence, and Paradise.

As Catholic Christianity reached America, the Spanish Church had to deal with a disconcerting new reality. First, the discovery of a fourth continent devastated the Trinitarian understanding of the known world. Second, believing the Bible historically accurate that the Apostles had preached to all nations, how was it that these people had never heard the gospel? Were they even people? These questions were compounded by witnessing baffling practices, many of which seemed barbaric to the Spaniards but somehow existed within highly organized societies. All of these discoveries affected the way Spanish Christianity would need to understand itself.

Latin American Art

Good Friday procession during Holy Week, Guatemala City, 2006.

Photo courtesy Eduardo Fernandez, SJ

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The debates about the “humanity” of the inhabitants of the New World, mixed with the questions of commerce, split the Christian Church in the Americas into two churches. We have already seen the version aligned with empire and power: What is the other?

In 1511 the Dominican Antonio de Montesinos preached on la Isla de Española (today Haiti/Santo Domingo). During his sermon, the priest denounced the practices of his fellow Spaniards as causing the death of thousands of human beings they had designated as their property. This, he told them, made them pagans, not Christians. This prophetic side of the Church grew in strength with the untiring denunciations of fellow Dominican Bartolomé de Las Casas and wound its way through the centuries to our own time through committed Christians like Archbishop Oscar Romero (1917–1980) of El Salvador. This is the side of the church that now has implausibly ascended to a place where its voice may be heard around the world. In 2013 the Argentinian Jorge Mario Bergoglio became the first Latin American pope in history, taking on the name of Francis and proclaiming the church of the poor.

The recovery and study of the Bible’s complexity encouraged by Vatican II flowered jointly with a new “liberation theology” in Latin America arising from this church of the poor. As a consequence, the Bible became the central text around which comunidades de base (base communities) gather. Meeting in the homes of neighbors, they engage biblical texts in relation to daily life, bringing insight to their lives and to the biblical texts. Their contributions are particularly valued today because the region’s scholars discern in the Bible God’s unambiguous preferential option for the poor and also point out that the texts are written from the perspective of the poor and marginal.

Paraíso (2007) is a contemporary cuadro (a term used for a painting and the geometrical figure of a fabric square) that encapsulates much about the way the Bible exists creatively today in many Latino communities. The work deconstructs a number of preconceptions. First, using works made by very poor women who live in the shantytowns outside of Lima, globalization has made possible a cooperative micro-business working with a nonprofit ministry of religious women in the United States. Second, the art is made of fabric through intricate sewing, a type of work commonly referred to as “folk art.” However, as a collection of these cuadros travels the world and is received with honor in galleries and museums, we note that many of the “art” objects filling our museums were also once works of everyday creativity. Third, the work presents an original interpretation of the idea of Paradise from the Genesis stories. In the tradition of the cuadros, as a comunidad the women artists work, pray, and reflect together. They also write a short statement about the work, which is placed inside a small pocket on the back (most often the writing is phonetic and lacking in punctuation).

In this work by Veronica Principe we see the creation myths from Genesis transmitted, and the beauty of encountering the cuadro’s intricacy makes us marvel at such an enterprise of beauty-making. Beyond this, we see the wrestling of the poor, who, far from defeated, carry a memory of paradise as belonging to their present. The animals, indigenous to the countryside of Peru, where most of these economic refugees once lived, are lovingly reproduced. The women’s memory combines with hope for such a world again. The Christocentric view of faith is also apparent in the rendition of God (upper left) as an image of Christ. Adam and Eve frolic around the garden, tenderly relating to each other and the animals. Even in the last moment (bottom right), as the angel with the flaming sword stands above them, the first lovers of history are surrounded by flowers and sheltered under palm trees. The serpent and the tree of good and evil at the center of the cuadro do not cast a tragic pall over paradise, they are just part of the human story. Finally, the work’s source is biblical and lacks any of the divisive cues that so plague Protestants and Catholics in Latin America. It is ecumenically expansive in its scope, overcoming both iconoclasm and scripturaphobia. With this cuadro and its image of paradise, we discern the long journey of both Latin American communities and of the Bible to finally meet each other, pointing beautifully into the future.

Latin American Art

Paraíso (Paradise; cf. Gen 1:20–31; 2:7–10; 2:15—3:24) by Veronica Principe, a member of the Arpilleria (textile workshop) “El arte manos Anconchinas.” 2007, mixed fabric, 19 ¼ × 17 ½ inches.

Courtesy Cecilia González-Andrieu

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We return to the problem posited at the start: Is it possible to have one essay address the Bible and the arts in Latin America? The question explodes into impossibility if we attempt to account for twentieth-century and contemporary art. Vitally prophetic art denouncing oppression has flourished in multiple ways in the region, and although not always explicitly biblical, the layers of centuries of Christian imagination can be glimpsed at work in them. There is also the art that recovers, reinterprets, and celebrates in new ways the five centuries of artistic exploration into the journey and relationship between human and divine and its in-breaking in the Latin American imagination. Two other “movements” can also be discerned today. One is art that is purposefully mocking of religious subjects as these are equated with the colonial project. A second is art that culturally embraces religious symbolism as a marker of a particular Latino/a identity while severing that symbol from its religious antecedent.

To single out exemplary modern or postmodern art with biblical significance in the Latin American world is a task better left to the reader with the aid of the tools discussed above. The multiple nations and ethnic groups involved would each likely proclaim some of their community’s art as the most exemplary, and this is fitting. To single out one group while neglecting others would introduce a hierarchy of values to Latin American creative works that a theological aesthetic acercamiento purposefully resists. Great creative works, like great religious texts, are embraced and preserved by particular communities in which they function for the community’s own good. This is the wonder reserved for future generations: they will have eyes with which to look back at our just-concluded century and the dawning of this one. From their vantage point they will have a fresh perspective on the creativity that marked these times, as communities across the hemisphere of the American lands sought always-new ways to form a relationship to the Bible through creativity.



  • Alcalá, Luisa Elena. “The Image and Its Maker: The Problem of Authorship in Relation to Miraculous Images in Spanish America.” In Sacred Spain: Art and Belief in the Spanish World, pp. 55–74. Indianapolis, Ind.: Indianapolis Museum of Art, 2009.
  • Berru Davis, Rebecca. “Picturing Paradise: Imagination, Beauty, and Women’s Lives in a Peruvian Shantytown.” In She Who Imagines: Feminist Theological Aesthetics, edited by Laurie M. Cassidy and Maureen H. O’Connell, pp. 145–160. Collegeville, Minn.: Liturgical Press, 2012.
  • Dussel, Enrique. “Sobre la historia de la teologia en America Latina” [About the History of Theology in Latin America]. In Lectura Teológica del Tiempo Latinoamericano (A Theological Reading of Latin American Time), edited by Carmelo Alvarez and Pablo Leggett, pp. 149–194. San José, Costa Rica: Seminario Biblico Latinoamericano, 1979.
  • Dussel, Enrique, ed. The Church in Latin America: 1492–1992. Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis, 1992. This translated collection of detailed essays provides Dussel’s comprehensive and organized introduction to broad periods in Latin American history and moves to very specific research such as Juan Schobinger’s look at “The Amerindian Religions” and Moises Sandoval’s “The Church among the Hispanics in the United States.”
  • Elizondo, Virgilio P. The Future Is Mestizo: Life Where Cultures Meet. Rev. ed. Boulder: University Press of Colorado, 2000.
  • Garcia-Rivera, Alejandro. The Community of the Beautiful: A Theological Aesthetics. Collegeville, Minn.: Liturgical Press, 1999.
  • Garcia-Rivera, Alejandro. A Wounded Innocence: Sketches for a Theology of Art. Collegeville, Minn.: Liturgical Press, 2003.
  • Gerstenberger, Erhard S. “Latin America.” In The Blackwell Companion to the Bible and Culture, edited by John F. A. Sawyer, pp. 217–231. Oxford: Blackwell, 2006.
  • González, Justo. Mañana: Christian Theology from a Hispanic Perspective. Nashville, Tenn.: Abingdon, 1990. Because this encyclopedia wishes to be useful to English-speaking researchers and students, I include here the work of U.S. Latino/a theologians who provide a cultural and language bridge.
  • González, Justo, and Ondina E. González. Christianity in Latin America: A History. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2008.
  • González-Andrieu, Cecilia “Ecce Homo.” In Encounters of Faith: Art and Devotion in Latin America, edited by Alejandro García-Rivera and Mia M. Mochizuki, pp. 144–148. Berkeley, Calif.: Jesuit School of Theology of Santa Clara University, 2010. This volume, which includes a number of color plates, illustrates the scarcity of images with direct biblical resonances in art from the Latin American region during the colonial period. Of 42 images, mainly of paintings, only 9 (5 of them simply of Christ) could be said to have some direct connection to the Bible.
  • González-Andrieu, Cecilia. Bridge to Wonder: Art as a Gospel of Beauty. Waco, Tex.: Baylor University Press, 2012.
  • Granados, Jerónimo José. “Lutero y el arte: Una perspectiva latinoamericana” [Luther and Art: A Latin American Perspective]. Cuadernos de Teología 22 (2003): 309–319.
  • Gutiérrez, Gustavo. The God of Life. Translated by Matthew J. O’Connell. Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis, 1991.
  • Historia General de la Iglesia en América Latina. Vol. 6: América Central. Salamanca, Spain: Ediciones Sigueme, 1981. The possibility of reading the history of the church in Latin America as told by Latin America’s finest scholars and compiled in nine volumes by CEHILA (Comisión de Estudios de la Iglesia en América Latina; Commission for the Study of the Church in Latin America), argues strongly for the development of Spanish-language proficiency in scholars wanting to work with the arts of this region.
  • Hussain, Amir. “A Muslim Perspective on Interfaith Dialogue with Christians.” Review and Expositor: A Consortium Baptist Theological Journal 105, no. 1 (2008): 53–66.
  • Matovina, Timothy M., and Gerald E. Poyo, eds. Presente!: U.S. Latino Catholics from Colonial Origins to the Present. Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis, 2000. This collection of primary texts from the history of Latino Catholics in what is now the United States provides the texture and nuances for a more comprehensive understanding of what the Latin American church looks like when understood as connected in an enduring way across the hemisphere.
  • Rojas Mix, Miguel. “Mestizaje de imagines y culturas: Claves para hablar de un arte latinoamericano” [Mestizaje of Images and Cultures: Keys for Speaking about Latin American Art]. 2012. miguelrojasmix.net/wp/?p=853.
  • Sobrino, Jon. Christ the Liberator: A View from the Victims. Translated by Paul Burns and Francis McDonagh. Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis, 2001.

Further Reading

  • Durand, Jorge, and Douglas S. Massey. Miracles on the Border: Retablos of Mexican Migrants to the United States. Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1995.
  • Lara, Jaime. City, Temple, Stage: Eschatological Architecture and Liturgical Theatrics in New Spain. Notre Dame, Ind.: University of Notre Dame Press, 2004.
  • Lara, Jaime. Christian Text for Aztecs: Art and Liturgy in Colonial Mexico. Notre Dame, Ind.: University of Notre Dame Press, 2008. These two fascinating volumes by Lara lead readers through an in-depth understanding of images, rituals, church history, and the complexity of the indigenous religious understandings. They also provide comprehensive bibliographies.
  • Lynch, John. New Worlds: A Religious History of Latin America. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2012. This far-reaching book, which must cover a vast amount of territory, provides a succinct and contemporary introduction for English-speakers to the complexity of the religious phenomenon in Latin America.
  • Mauldin, Barbara. Folk Art of the Andes. Santa Fe: Museum of New Mexico Press, 2011. Although Latino/a scholars might object to the designation “folk art” for a number of the works in this volume, it contains an impressive number of pieces from the Andean region (Venezuela, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia, Chile, and Argentina). Notable is the preponderance of art with religious subjects. The introduction self-consciously includes mention that only two museums in the United States actually have a curator who is dedicated to “Latin American folk art.”

Cecilia González-Andrieu