Review — Relicarios: The Forgotten Jewels of Latin America by Martha J. Egan (Venezuela)

Relicarios: The Forgotten Jewels of Latin America

By Martha J. Egan (Venezuela 1967-69)
Papalote Press
175 Pages
September 2020
$75.00 Hardcover

Reviewed by Marnie Mueller (Ecuador 1963-65)

Soon after I agreed to review Martha J. Egan’s new book, Relicarios, the Forgotten Jewels of Latin America, I had second thoughts about doing it. How could I, who have strong political opinions about the Conquest of Latin America by Spaniards and the consequent oppression of indigenous populations, be open enough to the material to give it an objective consideration? I still vividly recall arriving in the colonial city of Quito, Ecuador in March of 1964, where I witnessed the subjugation of Indians in the streets, soon discovering that they were literally considered untouchables, as they reflexively covered their hands with their ponchos if I reached out to shake theirs. It was caste-mandated that they do so.

Still, I went forward with this review, propelled by curiosity, wondering why a Peace Corps Volunteer of my era in Latin American would want to write such a book. How glad I am that I did so.

Egan’s glorious discourse arrived at my doorstep just before election day. A door-stopper. A heavy package measuring almost one-foot-by-one-foot, and weighing in at just under four pounds. When I pulled it from its packaging, one of the most beautiful books I’ve ever held in my hands emerged, with its glossy black dust jacket and title in scarlet lettering, images of relicarios on the front and the back, and inside, page after page illustrated with hundreds of the resplendent religious objects of the title, masterfully printed in Italy.

Egan spent forty years researching the history of European religious reliquary and its journey from Spain to the Americas. As I read the text and examined the illustrations, I was reminded of the role 17th Century Japanese netsuke, miniature objects sculpted from tagua nuts, played in the telling of history in Edmund de Waal’s memoir, The Hare with Amber Eyes, of Jews in Vienna during World War II. Egan’s equally impressive narrative can be read as the linkage of objects and political history in the centuries’ long influence of Spanish culture, art, and the Catholic Church, in the conquest of Latin America, of both Meso and South America. In her revelatory, intellectual journey, Egan also demonstrates the cross-fertilization and impressions on the Spanish hierarchy, of Incan, Mayan, Andean high craftsmanship, artistry, and centuries of established religious rituals.

Egan was intrepid in her research. She exhaustively scoured the archives and primary sources to learn how the original European artifacts came to the Americas and how they were transformed in the process. She read historical, personal, religious, and curatorial documents. She found records on ship manifests, in the bookkeeping records of pawn shops, in wills, dowry documents, sales receipts, in letters home from Latin America, in museum files, in private domains, and in personal jewelry boxes. She spoke with current artisans, descendants of Spanish ancestry, and Andean heritage. She read the work of a multitude of scholars and curators; her bibliography is long and a gift to future researchers.

We learn how these sacred items were early on seen as protection on the dangerous trip across the oceans. People flung relicarios into the sea to calm the seas during storms. We are told that many of the first Spaniards to come to the Americas were fleeing their own oppression in the land of their birth. When Christopher Columbus set sail in 1492, Jews were being expelled from Spain. They could leave or be converted. As Egan explains, many Jews adopted Christian traditions, but kept their Jewish cultural beliefs and practices. Her evidence? Flip over the wax Agnus Dei medallions, a form of relicarios, and find on the back-side menorahs and other Jewish symbols. Reading that, I began to see how through these relics, a more multifaceted story of the Conquest than I had supposed was unfolding before me.

An example of the complexity and complicity of the church in the conquering of Latin American and its people is found in the artistic exchange between the Spaniards and the indigenous populations. The Spaniards early on recognized the level of high skill among pre-Columbian Mesoamerican Indian artisans; the indigenous were such sophisticated woodworkers, stone-sculptors, painters, weavers, ceramicists, and gold and silver smiths, that the Spaniards became envious of their abilities and their industriousness. So intimidated were the Spaniards that they destroyed, as Egan reports, “all they could find.” Though too late to save the extraordinary work for posterity, the conquistadors soon realized they had no choice but to heavily utilize and rely on these artisans in the production of the popular manifestations of the church in order to pacify people and bring them into the fold. They needed an abundance of objects to proselytize among the conquered. As Egan explains, “Religious-themed art was the principle means by which the priests taught pre-literate Indigenous people about Christianity, inspired devotion, and transmitted European values.” The gifts of relicarios, crosses, and medals served the role of modern comic books missionaries later would use to help convert populations.

Tagua nuts, which I mentioned above, are also one of the materials out of which relicarios are formed. They are a frame for one of the more intriguing stories in Egan’s narrative, reaching back to a history of failed trade routes that foreshadowed future globalization. Tagua were eventually used as a Latin American substitute for ivory that became scarce during the late colonial times “when the galleon trade slowed and the ships ceased sailing to South America in 1820.” The Manilla Galleon trade path had been inaugurated in 1565 after an Augustinian friar had discovered the back and forth route. Ivory was initially transported on these ships, as were Chinese slaves and artisans from the Philippines who went on to become involved in the trade as well as in the crafting of religious objects in Latin America. They also didn’t escape an imposed assimilation by the Conquistadors. The Asians, slaves and artisans alike, were required to become Christian, take Spanish names, cut off their queues, and dress as Spaniards.

A significant section of Egan’s book is dedicated to analyzing the emergence of the Copacabana relicarios of Lake Titicaca in Bolivia where “Latin America’s finest relicarios were painted.” The evolution of these glorious objects spans the history of their creation from pre-conquistador to the present. Egan writes: “Copacabana was an important pilgrimage destination long before the Spaniards’ arrival. Pilgrims from many regions of the Andes traveled to shrines on Islands in Lake Titicaca, a large bowl of deep indigo water between Peru and Bolivia…they paid homage to a female deity, Kota Kahuaña, or Copacanahuan, meaning ‘lake view in Aymara.” An effigy to her was carved from a beautiful blue stone. A sacred rock on the island was covered with precious weavings and “burnished gold and sliver sheet,” where pilgrims made sacrifices to the Sun and local deities. By the 16th Century Augustinian missionaries had “synchronized an existing shrine to Kota Kahuaña to one honoring Our Lady of Copacabana, an avocation of Spaniards’ beloved Candelaria.” They commissioned a local Andean sculptor, descendant of the first Inca to design the statue to the Virgin holding the baby Jesus. After the bishop first dismissed the sculptor, Tito Yupanqui’s simple rendition, he made another which was gilded and dedicated by the Augustinian priests. Soon after the dedication of the statue, a crushing drought ended, for which the faithful credited the Virgin’s intercession.

Over the decades many miracles were attributed to the Virgin. Innumerable souvenirs and mementos brought home by Christian pilgrims spread the word of her god-given interventions. The relicarios have been passed down through the families of artisans; the materials and the methods changed over time, substituting more economic at-hand commercial paints and decorative applied objects, but the ingenuity and industry of the artisans continued. Egan reports that they still made their own single-hair paintbrushes for the miniatures: “from a rabbit’s chest, mouse fur, cat hair, a horse’s eyelash, or feathers from seagulls or ch’oqas, Lake Titicaca’s black ducks.” But the most ingenious choice of the 20th Century artisans was the monthly purchase in La Paz of “a hundred clear glass burned-out lightbulbs from a company that replaced the bulbs in office buildings,” for use in covering the surface of their paintings, front and back, on their relicarios. They did a big business for quite some time, but by mid-century many of the artisan’s quit their vocation for a variety of reasons: aging eyes, the flight to the cities of young people who weren’t interested in following the tradition, and in the rise of a modern lifestyle that necessitated a regular paycheck. Not the least impact came from the global market of cheaper prints of the Virgin “in pot-metal frames imported from China” with which they couldn’t compete.

At the end of her marvelous book, Egan offers some hope for the future, telling us that “a few painters and artisans in the southern Andean highlands are again making relicarios in the traditional Altiplano mold,” and that art schools in Cusco and other areas teach miniature painting to a new generation of artists.

Relicarios is an exhaustive study of religious art and through it the history of a continent, its conquest, its political Independence, as well as the beginning of global trade. This review barely touches the surface of the material in Egan’s book. For me it opened a whole world I knew next to nothing about. It flew in the face of my reluctance to even consider the multifarious history of the Conquest of Latin America. I still have strong political feelings, but I’ve been reminded that as with so much in the world of art—the objects, their history, and their makers, provide crucial guideposts for us by incorporating the good, the bad, the miraculous, and the cruel. Just what we need as we navigate the treacherous shoals and deep eddies of the 21st Century.

Erudite, scholarly, and lucidly explicated, Martha J. Egan’s Relicarios: The Forgotten Jewels of Latin America, a labor of love and commitment to her material, serves as a monumental example of what ex-Peace Corps Volunteers can contribute to the history of the areas in which they served.

Marnie Mueller (Ecuador 1963-65) is the author of three novels: Green FiresThe Climate of the Country, and My Mother’s Island, published by Curbstone Press, and currently in-print with Northwestern University Press. She is a winner of the Maria Thomas Prize for Fiction, an American Book Award, The New York Times New and Noteworthy in Paperback, and Barnes and Noble Discover Great New Writers, the Marian Haley Beil Award for Best Book Review, among many awards. She is on the steering committee of Women Writing Women’s Lives, a professional biography association.




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  • Marnie Mueller’s review is fantastic and her concerns about exploring this art form which reflected the Spanish/Catholic church’s dominance is well taken but like much of the cultural development in Latin America it ends up being a mix of Colonial and Indigenous art and culture.

    “Relicarios” is on my list to read.

  • Very impressive. Looks like a lifework spawned in that volunteer stint all those years ago–that’s something to celebrate.

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