This small painting contains one of the only known depictions of Black, enslaved figures from the Spanish Caribbean during the colonial era (1492–1898). As both a depiction of the Holy Family and a portrait of a nun, how do we interpret this image and the relationships between the figures within it? And what do we know about the artist?
The artist José Campeche created hundreds of works throughout his career in late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century Puerto Rico. He drafted designs for building projects administered by the Spanish colonial government and the Catholic Church, and he painted dozens of portraits for the highest-ranking members of San Juan society, including bishops, governors, their wives, military officers, and the criollo elite. The majority of Campeche’s paintings, however, were religious paintings of saints and the Virgin Mary commissioned by private patrons and churches across Puerto Rico and the greater Spanish Caribbean.
One painting that demonstrates Campeche’s talents both as a painter of religious subjects and as a portrait artist is his Exvoto de la Sagrada Familia (Exvoto of the Holy Family). Exvoto means “from a vow made,” or, “in gratitude, devotion,” and such images are highly personal expressions of an individual’s faith and experiences. They commemorate and express gratitude for the miraculous intervention of a saint in the prevention of a near-disaster, accident, or illness, or in the safeguarding of someone from injury or loss.
At the bottom left of this work, a nun of the Carmelite order and three Black, enslaved figures (two females and one male, somewhat young) kneel in prayer, all gazing upwards towards a celestial gathering of the Holy Family and the Holy Trinity. The Virgin Mary, Anne, Joseph, and Joachim sit on either side of Christ, who is depicted as a young boy. The young Christ looks upward toward to the Holy Spirit, represented as a dove, and God the Father at the apex of the triangular composition. The pillowy clouds upon which the Holy Family sit, illuminated by subtle pink light and replete with putti (cherubs), bisect the composition horizontally into two sections, the heavenly realm (featuring the holy figures) and the terrestrial realm, where the nun and the enslaved individuals kneel on a hard, gridded tile floor.
A portrait of a nun
This work was likely commissioned by the unidentified nun featured in the painting and would have hung in the Carmelite convent on Calle del Cristo in San Juan where she lived. Based on the small size of the work, merely ten by eight inches, it was presumably designed for personal devotion.
Rather than being presented with extravagant clothing, jewelry, and other material objects to indicate her wealth or taste, which can be seen in other examples of female portraiture by Campeche, the nun is portrayed as a figure of piety and devotion to the causes of her order. She wears only a simple black and white nun’s habit over a brown tunic, which covers her hair and frames her face as she gazes reverently towards the Holy Family above. She worshipfully kneels on the tiled floor below the heavenly scene, and she raises her hands in a gesture of prayer or offering.
In addition to being a portrait of the nun, this image is considered to be an exvoto. Exvoto paintings were particularly popular during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries across Latin America and Europe. These images usually possess inscriptions that detail the event that transpired and inspired the creation of the work, provide depictions of a saint’s intervention (including representations of the individual or individuals offering thanks), and were left as offerings to the saint at shrines or churches.
Another exvoto painting by Campeche, El Salvamento de Don Ramón Power (The Salvation of Don Ramón Power), possesses the characteristics commonly expected from this kind of painting. The artist painted this exvoto sometime between 1788 and 1790 for the Power family in gratitude to the Virgin of Bethlehem for her intercession on the behalf of their son, Ramón Power, who nearly drowned in a shipwreck on his way to Spain. The inscription across the bottom conveys that a raging storm overtook the frigate carrying the boy, and in the process of evacuating to the rescue boat, he fell into the ocean. The painting captures the moment Ramón was saved, and two figures are pictured in the act of pulling him from the tumultuous, surging water. The intensity of this scene is communicated through the strain of the rescuer’s arm muscles and the crashing waves that threaten to overturn the small, overburdened boat. The exvoto hung in the Chapel of the Virgin of Bethlehem in the Dominican Convent church in San Juan as a way for the Power family and the San Juan community to commemorate and remember this historical event.
For his Exvoto de la Sagrada Familia, however, Campeche provides no inscription of dedication or thanksgiving on this work, so we do not know the nun’s or the enslaved individual’s exact identities, nor do we know the exact reason for the commission of this painting. 
The enslaved figures
Within the painting, the nun is prominently positioned in front of the three enslaved figures, who carry baskets of flowers as offerings to the saints in their arms. They appear proportionately smaller than the nun, and they are slightly crowded into the work, overlapping one another, on the left in the compact space between the border of the canvas and the nun’s body. While the potential darkening of the surface of the work over time should be kept in mind, it additionally seems that the nun’s face is illuminated while the enslaved individuals are recessed into the shadows.
The figures’ placement in this scene closely corresponds to numerous portraits of white individuals from across Europe and the Americas created during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. These paintings include enslaved people or servants in the background or along the edges of compositions as symbols of the central sitter’s status, wealth, and/or occupation.
The specific positioning of the enslaved figures in relation to the nun in this portrait could suggest her role in their conversion to Catholicism, which was mandated by Spanish colonial policy and supported by the religious orders of the island. Moreover, enslaved people who sought refuge in Puerto Rico during the eighteenth century could secure their freedom through a process referred to as buscar el bautismo (in search of Baptism). In this process, enslaved escapees from non-Spanish territories who came to Puerto Rico and who were also willing to convert to Catholicism could be freed upon their baptism after one year of labor for a “good Christian who commits himself to instructing him in the rudiments of the faith.” 
Presented in this manner, the enslaved figures possibly appear in this work as a demonstration of the nun’s dedication, or even as her offerings, to the Catholic Church. They are, in a sense, shown as members of the Church family, hinted at through the inclusion of the Holy Family within the scene. As a small devotional piece, this work would have been a highly personal reminder of the blessings of salvation and of the nun’s work with the enslaved population in San Juan, which grew during this time in Puerto Rico to support the island’s growing plantation economy at the beginning of the nineteenth century.
Marriage and the enslaved population in Puerto Rico
The inclusion of the enslaved figures in this scene against the celestial depiction of the Holy Family could have additional underlying connotations related to contemporary concerns about marriage and the enslaved population. Towards the end of the eighteenth century, civil and religious authorities actively promoted marriage among the enslaved population in Puerto Rico to limit “informal unions” and to decrease the number of children born outside of church-ordained marriages.  Moreover, the control of interracial marriage tightened during this time as slavery became more crucial to the island’s economy over the course of the nineteenth century. As the enslaved population rose, so too did the fear of heightened miscegenation between “whites” and “blacks” on the island, which led to the increased enforcement of laws against such unions.  Reconsidered in this light, the divine couplings of the Holy Family pictured in the work, including Mary and Joseph, Anne and Joachim, and even the nun and her celibate devotion to a relationship with Christ, model marriage behaviors and practices that the Church and government advocated for within the enslaved community.
Slavery, the Church, and Campeche’s father
Beyond the notion that these enslaved figures may represent members of the general San Juan community, they could have been owned by the Carmelite convent itself — a common practice for religious institutions in the Spanish American world. When historian Arturo Dávila attempted to identify the nun and enslaved figures in this painting, he discovered four enslaved individuals, three female and one male, listed in the Book of the Dead at the Carmelite convent between the years of 1802 and 1842, which indicates the ownership of enslaved laborers by the convent itself. 
This possibility reveals a potential personal parallel for Campeche, as his father, Tomás Rivafrecha y Campeche, was Black and had been the enslaved property of a canon of the Cathedral in San Juan prior to securing his freedom through coartación, or self-paid manumission. Campeche himself, while not enslaved, was both a person of color, termed a “mulatto” as the son of a Black father and white mother, and a devoted servant of the Church. He was a tertiary layman in the Dominican order, and he was an active participant in church functions at the Cathedral and for the Dominican, Franciscan, and Carmelite communities in San Juan.
These biographical details raise questions about Campeche’s personal relationship with this work as a free man of color, living in a slave society, whose own father had been enslaved by a church leader, and who was heavily involved with the activities of various religious institutions on the island. What would the representation of Black bodies in this devotional work have meant for him? While any hypothesis that could be presented here would be mere conjecture, it would not be unreasonable to assume that Campeche could have seen something of himself in the Black figures in the painting, whose labor and devotion were offered in faith and in support of the Church.
 The Exvoto de la Sagrada Familia does not have the customary text or description associated with an exvoto. The work is small, and there is no original inscription that has been covered or removed that we know about. Presumably, the posture of the nun and enslaved figures, kneeling in thankful prayer, and the knowledge that Campeche created other exvotos during his lifetime led the earliest researchers who analyzed this work to label it as such.
 Ángel López Cantos, Miguel Enríquez: corsario boricua del siglo XVIII (San Juan, P.R.: Ediciones Puerto, 1994), p. 109. Stark, “Preparing for the Afterlife,” p. 516.  David M. Stark, “Marriage Strategies among the Eighteenth Century Puerto Rican Slave Population: Demographic Evidence from the Pre-Plantation Period,” Caribbean Studies 29, no. 2 (1996): p. 198.  Arturo V. Dávila, “José Campeche y Sus Hermanos En El Convento de Las Carmelitas,” Revista Del Instituto de Cultura Puertorriqueña, no. 2 (1959): p. 15.
Luisa Elena Alcalá, “Imagen e historia: La representatción del milagro en la pintura colonial,” in Los siglos de oro en los virreinatos de América: 1550-1700, ed. Museo de América (Madrid: Sociedad Estatal, 1999), pp. 107–125
Clara Bargellini, “Presence and Narrative in the Ex-Votos of New Spain,” in Ex Voto: Votive Giving Across Cultures, ed. Ittai Weinryb (New York City: Bard Graduate Center, University of Chicago Press, 2016).
Arturo V. Dávila, Campeche: Mito y Realidad (San Juan, P.R.: Museo de Arte de Puerto Rico, 2010).
Frank Graziano, Miraculous Images and Votive Offerings in Mexico (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016).
Agnes Lugo-Ortiz, “Between Violence and Redemption: Slave Portraiture in Early Plantation Cuba,” in Slave Portraiture in the Atlantic World, eds. Agnes Lugo-Ortiz and Angela Rosenthal (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013).
Verena Stolcke (Martinez-Alier), Marriage, Class and Colour in Nineteenth-Century Cuba: A Study of Racial Attitudes and Sexual Values in a Slave Society (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1989).
René Taylor, José Campeche and His Time, 1751–1809 (Ponce, P.R.: Museo de Arte de Ponce, 1988).
Emily K. Thames, “Empire, Race, and Agency in the Work of José Campeche, Artist and Subject in Late Spanish Colonial Puerto Rico (1751-1809)” (Ph.D., Florida State University, 2022).
Teodoro Vidal, Jose Campeche, Retratista De Una Epoca (San Juan, P.R.: Ediciones Alba, 2005).