Juan Pedro López, Our Lady of Guidance

Juan Pedro López, Our Lady of Guidance, c. 1765–70, oil on canvas, Caracas, Venezuela, 41.325 x 26.5 inches, with original frame by Domingo Gutiérrez (Collection of the Carl & Marilynn Thoma Foundation); speakers: Dr. Lauren Kilroy-Ewbank and Dr. Kathryn Santner

Thoma Foundation Logo

[0:00] [music]

Dr. Lauren Kilroy-Ewbank: [0:06] We’re here in Chicago at the Carl & Marilynn Thoma Foundation, looking at a painting of the Virgin and Child from 18th-century Venezuela. It’s made by one of the most well-known artists, Juan Pedro López.

[0:17] The Virgin Mary is wearing a very elaborate dress as well as a mantle. Both of them are blue, but the mantle is this beautiful turquoise that is ornamented with golden embroidery.

[0:28] Likewise, the dress that’s in this much paler blue is decorated with flowers and more gold embroidery. Around the collar of the dress, there are gems that have been fastened to it, and maybe pearls. The dress also has lace sleeves.

[0:42] Her face is framed by this delicately painted veil. You can see individual brushstrokes that gives it this sense of its translucency. Holding the veil to her face is a very elaborate golden frame that also has different gems and pearls fastened to it.

Dr. Santner: [0:58] In her arms, she cradles the Christ Child, who holds his fingers in a position of benediction, and in his left arm cradles a globus cruciger. Like the Virgin, he’s dressed in contemporary fashions, wearing a three-piece suit and stockings, all richly embroidered with gold thread, and black shoes with buckles.

Dr. Kilroy-Ewbank: [1:18] In her other hand, she’s holding a golden scepter, the top of which has this sunburst pattern that seems to pick up the rays of light that create the halo around Christ’s head. Look at the crown that’s being placed on her head by two putti or cherubs that are flanking either side of her.

[1:35] She is a queen of heaven. The crown is encrusted with gemstones. It’s topped by a small cross.

Dr. Santner: [1:43] We see the two of them standing together in a carved wooden niche that would have formed part of the main altar or retablo of a church. Beneath her feet, we see the platform that she’s standing on. All indications that we’re looking at a statue.

Dr. Kilroy-Ewbank: [1:59] This is actually a painting of a miraculous statue.

Dr. Santner: [2:02] In 1688, a ship’s captain named Juan Delgado and his crew were traveling from Veracruz in Mexico to Maracaibo on the coast of Venezuela, and they became aware of an enemy ship. Worried for their safety and the integrity of their cargo, they appealed to Saint Rita, patroness of lost causes. Saint Rita guided them to safety, but in the process they became lost in a fog.

[2:29] In the sea, they discovered a box floating. Inside the box was this statue of Our Lady of Guidance, who brought them safely to harbor in La Guaira. Upon arriving in Caracas, the statue was given to the archbishop. A few years later, it was placed in the church of San Mauricio.

Dr. Kilroy-Ewbank: [2:46] The Virgin is shown standing on a pedestal. That is how the statue was and still is displayed within the church space. This painting belongs to a genre known as statue paintings, which was very common at this time throughout the Spanish viceroyalties. It’s a reference to paintings that are showing statues, often standing within an architectural space.

[3:07] The statue in San Mauricio was actually cared for by a confraternity, who would have dressed her regularly, changed out her outfits, would have also adorned her with crowns and other types of objects.

Dr. Santner: [3:20] This confraternity was one of three Afro-descendant confraternities active at San Mauricio.

Dr. Kilroy-Ewbank: [3:26] The statue painted here is in some ways static. Her body is linear. We get the sense of verticality with her body as we follow her blue clothing upwards. Her crown is almost touching the top. Yet the space that she’s standing in has this interesting dynamic quality to it. There isn’t any straight edges within this niche. We’re seeing curves.

[3:49] At the top of the niche, we see this scalloped design with this undulating line that encases the two putti at the top. It’s this interesting dynamic between both undulating lines and the verticality of the Christ Child and the Virgin Mary.

Dr. Santner: [4:05] The painting itself has a rounded shape at the top that is echoed in the designs of the rocaille frame.

Dr. Kilroy-Ewbank: [4:12] Look at how the forms on her dress mimic some of the curves in the pilasters, or columns, in the niche behind her, where we can see Lopez’s loose brushwork to indicate some type of floral or decorative ornament that seems to writhe across the columns. We can see how that’s being picked up in how the dress itself is painted.

[4:32] This type of Rococo design was very in vogue. At this point the Spanish viceroyalties are now controlled by the Borbones. They were the Bourbon dynasty in Spain. Around 1700, what had been the Hapsburg dynasty ended. In its place, you have the rise of the Borbones, who had a connection to France.

[4:52] With that came this Frenchification, this greater influence of French taste throughout Spain and its dominions as well. Things like the Rococo-inspired niche in which she stands, these undulating forms. Even the color choices that López is using, where we have these pale blues, silvery grays, the red outfit of the Christ Child that veers in a pink direction.

[5:17] Even the pink and turquoise swathes of cloths that surround the two putti at the top. These all indicate to me that this is part of that French taste, that Rococo style.

[5:28] What’s also amazing about this painting is that we actually have its original frame.

Dr. Santner: [5:33] The original frame was made by Domingo Gutierrez, who, like López, came from a family from the Canary Islands. López and Gutierrez collaborated throughout their artistic careers. It’s very uncommon to find paintings from this period that still retain their original frames, particularly one as fine as this.

Dr. Kilroy-Ewbank: [5:54] This painting tells us so much about the global interconnectedness of Venezuela in the 18th century.

[5:59] [music]

Juan Pedro López, Our Lady of Guidance, c. 1765–70, oil on canvas, Caracas, Venezuela, 41.325 x 26.5 inches, with original frame by Domingo Gutiérrez (Collection of the Carl & Marilynn Thoma Foundation)

Juan Pedro López, Our Lady of Guidance, c. 1765–70, oil on canvas, Caracas, Venezuela, 41.325 x 26.5 inches, with original frame by Domingo Gutiérrez (Collection of the Carl & Marilynn Thoma Foundation)

Our Lady of Cocharcas, 1765, oil on canvas, 198.8 x 143.5 cm (Brooklyn Museum)

Our Lady of Cocharcas, 1765, oil on canvas, 198.8 x 143.5 cm (Brooklyn Museum)

Essay by Kathryn Santner

One of the most striking elements of an eighteenth-century painting of the Virgin Mary and Christ Child from Venezuela is to see these biblical figures dressed in contemporary fashions. The Virgin wears an elaborate dress ornamented with flowers and flourishes, and Christ is dressed like a dandy in a red silk suit rich with gilt embroidery. This painting of Our Lady of Guidance depicts a religious statue as it stood on the main altar (or retablo) of the Church of San Mauricio in Caracas. Paintings of statues such as this were popular across colonial Latin America, and even sometimes feature the vases of flowers or candles that decorated the altar.

Here, the artist, Juan Pedro López, has given us several clues that we are looking at a statue, placing the Virgin on a platform and setting her within the niche of the altar. Her rigid form and frontal gaze also indicate that this is a representation of a statue rather than a person. The fashions of the Virgin and Christ Child reflect the tastes of the era of the painting’s creation (the 1770s) and the rise of a Rococo style in Venezuela.

Miraculous origins of the statue of Our Lady of Guidance

Map showing Veracruz and La Guaira (underlying map © Google)

Map showing Veracruz and La Guaira (underlying map © Google)

According to pious tradition, in 1688, while sailing from Veracruz, Mexico to Maracaibo, Venezuela, captain Juan Delgado and his crew sighted some enemy ships on the horizon. The sailors prayed to St. Rita, patroness of lost causes, to guide them to safety. Though they successfully evaded the enemy ships, they became lost in a fog. While trying to orient themselves, they discovered a box floating in the sea with a statue of Our Lady of Guidance inside it. Delgado and his men prayed that the statue would bring them safe harbor, which it did. After their arrival in the port of La Guaira, the statue was given to the bishop of Caracas and eventually placed on the altar at the Church of San Mauricio in Caracas, where it became the patroness of a Black confraternity founded in 1701.

A devoted community

The church of San Mauricio, where the sculpture found its home and one of the oldest in Caracas, had three active Afrodescendant confraternities (in addition to the group devoted to Our Lady of Guidance, there were also groups devoted to Saint John the Baptist and the Holy Sacrament). During the colonial period, the members of all three confraternities, both free and enslaved, were part of a West African ethnic group known as the Tari, who were brought to Venezuela as part of the transatlantic slave trade that began in the sixteenth century. Enslaved Africans and their descendants were forced to mine gold, fish and dive for pearls, and work on cacao plantations.

The membership dues and alms raised by the members of the confraternity of Our Lady of Guidance (cofrades) were used for adorning the Virgin of Guidance with the fine vestments seen in the painting here. An inventory of the church made in the decade the painting was created shows the remarkable wealth invested by the community in this votive image. From crowns studded with real and imitation gems, including emeralds mined in Colombia and pearls fished in Venezuela’s coastal waters, to numerous silk dresses, the Virgin was the object of profound veneration and care. These votive offerings were given by individuals or by the confraternity and were common throughout Latin America. They could be extraordinarily lavish, like the emerald-studded crown given to the Virgin of the Immaculate Conception in Popayán, or humble, depending on the social status of the donor.

Juan Pedro López, Our Lady of Guidance, c. 1765–70, oil on canvas, Caracas, Venezuela, 41.325 x 26.5 inches, with original frame by Domingo Gutiérrez (Collection of the Carl & Marilynn Thoma Foundation)

Juan Pedro López, Our Lady of Guidance (detail), c. 1765–70, oil on canvas, Caracas, Venezuela, 41.325 x 26.5 inches, with original frame by Domingo Gutiérrez (Collection of the Carl & Marilynn Thoma Foundation)

Our Lady of Guidance and the Rococo in Venezuela

After the War of the Spanish Succession (1701–14), the crown of Spain fell into the hands of the House of Bourbon, a French royal dynasty. With this new leadership came an influx of French customs to Spain and its overseas territories, including a change in artistic taste. The Baroque styles favored under the Habsburgs gave way to Rococo flourishes, classicism, and the influence of the Enlightenment. Though the Bourbons imported French artists to the court in Madrid, Spanish Rococo styles diverged from those of France. 

Johann Baptist Klauber and Joseph Sebastian Klauber, One of two plates from a suite of four cartouches with the elements. Germany, 1745-1765, engraving.  Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

Johann Baptist Klauber and Joseph Sebastian Klauber, One of two plates from a suite of four cartouches with the elements, 1745–65, engraving, Germany (Victoria and Albert Museum, London)

Venezuela, part of the Viceroyalty of Nueva Granada until 1777, had been under Spanish control since the early sixteenth century. By the eighteenth century, much of the local economy depended on the cultivation and trade of cacao beans, and the illicit trade of cacao on Dutch and British ships put Venezuela in greater contact with European goods, ideas, and artistic styles. While the majority of this trade was for foodstuffs and cloth, this cosmopolitanism led to brushes with European fashions and stylistic modes. The trade links to Europe that supported the colony—as well as a steady stream of migrants from the Canary Islands—also kept it in closer contact with European artistic trends than more isolated artistic centers like Cuzco.

Bernardo Rodríguez, Saint Jerome, 18th century, oil on sheet, Quito, Ecuador (Ivan Cruz Collection)Bernardo Rodríguez, Saint Jerome, 18th century, oil on sheet, Quito, Ecuador (Ivan Cruz Collection)

Bernardo Rodríguez, Saint Jerome, 18th century, oil on sheet, Quito, Ecuador (Ivan Cruz Collection)

Visible in López’s painting of the Virgin are the several hallmarks of the international Rococo style, most notably its pastel palette and lack of straight lines. López decorates the altar niche with serpentine curves and counter-curves that echo the dress of the Virgin and the gilt frame carved by his frequent collaborator, Domingo Gutiérrez. The frame Gutiérrez created for Our Lady of Guidance is an exuberant confection of foliate and floral ornamentation rendered in gold leaf that winds around the painting in sinuous waves.

The scallop shell painted at the top of the niche also recalls the forms in the frame, whose delicate striations evoke the natural forms of shells, flower petals, or vegetation. In fact, the term “Rococo” comes from the combination of the words rocaille (from the French for rockwork or pebbles; rocalla in Spanish) and coquille (shell). Rocaille is a term that refers to the undulating forms imitating shells, rocks, leaves, and scrolls, used in Rococo architecture and ornamentation in the eighteenth century. Rocalla was brought to Latin America via European engravings, such as those by the Klauber brothers of Augsburg, and was particularly popular in the painting of colonial Quito. 

The artists, Juan Pedro López and Domingo Gutiérrez

Juan Pedro López, Our Lady of Guidance, c. 1762, oil on panel.  Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

Juan Pedro López, Our Lady of Guidance, c. 1762, oil on panel, 100.3 × 69.2 cm (Museum of Fine Arts, Boston)

The population of Caracas remained remarkably small compared to other viceregal cities like Lima and Mexico City. Because of its location, Venezuela had many immigrants from the Canary Islands, known as isleños, who made up a quarter of its 7,000 residents. The Canary Islands, which lie off the coast of Morocco, were conquered by the Crown of Castile in the fifteenth century and became an important stopover point on transatlantic crossings. During the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, a steady stream of isleño migrants arrived in Caracas as well as other Caribbean colonies of Hispaniola, Puerto Rico, and Cuba in hopes of escaping famine and overpopulation. Among those migrants were accomplished artists and craftsmen like Domingo Gutiérrez.

Juan Pedro López, who would become one of Venezuela’s most accomplished artists of the eighteenth century, was also isleño, the son of migrants from Tenerife. During his career, he created over two hundred artworks, most of them painting on canvas or panel. He also created sculpture and ornamental decoration, refreshed and repaired artworks, gilded frames and retablos (altarpieces), and appraised estates for wealthy caraqueños (people from Caracas). While he did produce a few portraits during his lifetime, almost all of López’s paintings are of religious themes. Among them are numerous statue paintings, showing other religious statues in their niches.

Indeed this is not the only painting López produced of Our Lady of Guidance; an almost identical version, thought to have been produced for a convent of Discalced Carmelite nuns, is now at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. In this version, the niche behind the Virgin is not clearly depicted but only suggested by the stand beneath her.

Left: Juan Pedro López and Domingo Gutiérrez, Tabernaculo de los evangelistas, oil on cedar, 134.3 x 110.5 cm (Collection of the Asociación Venezolana Amigos del Arte Colonial, Caracas); right: Juan Pedro López and Domingo Gutiérrez, Armchair for the Solium of the Caracas Cathedral, 1766, gilded and painted Spanish cedar, fabric upholstery, 116.04 cm high (Denver Art Museum)

Left: Juan Pedro López and Domingo Gutiérrez, Tabernaculo de los evangelistas, oil on cedar, 134.3 x 110.5 cm (Collection of the Asociación Venezolana Amigos del Arte Colonial, Caracas); right: Juan Pedro López and Domingo Gutiérrez, Armchair for the Solium of the Caracas Cathedral, 1766, gilded and painted Spanish cedar, fabric upholstery, 116.04 cm high (Denver Art Museum)

Our Lady of Guidance is the product of López’s frequent collaborations with Domingo Gutiérrez, a cabinetmaker (ebanista) and sculptor who also designed frames. The Canary Islands had close ties to mainland Europe and that influence can be seen in Gutiérrez’s sculpted altars (retablos) and frames for paintings including Our Lady of Guidance.

Together with Gutierrez, López helped introduce the Rococo to Venezuela several decades after it had taken root in France and Germany. López’s palette of pink-reds, ochres, gray-whites, and blues borrow from the pastel hues favored by eighteenth-century French artists like Jean-Marc Nattier and Jean-Honoré Fragonard. [2] Other artists in Latin America were influenced by this artistic movement, including New Spain’s Miguel Cabrera, who may in turn have influenced the work of Juan Pedro López through works imported from Mexico City to Caracas. While Rococo originated as a secular style in French interior design, in the workshops of Latin America, it found use primarily in religious art. The spread of Rococo was a global phenomenon, and examples of its influence can be found from the Philippines to Brazil.  

A splendorous work

The splendor of this work—its size (48 x 33 inches) and extravagant Rococo frame—suggest that it may have been commissioned not for a private home but for a religious institution of some prominence. As noted earlier, López’s other version of Our Lady of Guidance in Boston was thought to have been painted for a convent of Clarissan nuns in Caracas. However, little is known of this piece’s origins or its history prior to the twentieth century, when it entered the collection of Alfredo Machado Hernández, founder of Caracas’s colonial art museum, the Quinta de Anauco.

[1] Mariano Martí, Documentos relativos a su visita pastoral de la diócesis de Caracas (1771–1784), vol. 3 Inventarios, coord. Lino Gomez Canedo (Caracas: Academia Nacional de la Historia, 1969), pp. 65-83.

[2] Carlos F. Duarte, Juan Pedro López: maestro de pintor, escultor y dorador 1724–1787 (Caracas: Fundación Polar and Galería de Arte Nacional, 1996), p. 61.

Object page for Our Lady of Guidance, Thoma Foundation

See another collaboration between Juan Pedro López and Domingo Gutiérrez

Gauvin Alexander Bailey, The Spiritual Rococo: Decor and Divinity from the Salons of Paris to the Missions of Patagonia (London: Taylor and Francis, 2017).

Carlos F. Duarte, Juan Pedro López: maestro de pintor, escultor y dorador 1724–1787 (Caracas: Fundación Polar and Galería de Arte Nacional, 1996).

Mariano Martí, Documentos relativos a su visita pastoral de la diócesis de Caracas (1771-1784), vol. 3 Inventarios, coord. Lino Gomez Canedo (Caracas: Academia Nacional de la Historia, 1969), pp. 65–83.

Ermila Troconis. “Tres Cofradías de negros en la Iglesia de San Mauricio de Caracas,” Montalbán 4 (1976): pp. 339–76. 

Cite this page as: Dr. Kathryn Santner and Dr. Lauren Kilroy-Ewbank, "Juan Pedro López, Our Lady of Guidance," in Smarthistory, February 7, 2023, accessed May 24, 2024, https://smarthistory.org/juan-pedro-lopez-our-lady-of-guidance/.