Birdman of Assisi: Art and the Apocalyptic in the Colonial Andes

By Jaime Lara, Research Professor, ACMRS and HRC

The first time I encountered Peru was as a tourist in 1972. It was an otherworldly experience of traveling over the Andes’ snowy peaks first by train and then by what was in effect an unheated school bus; no creature comforts whatsoever. Arriving in Cuzco -- the ancient capital of the Incas -- after days on the road without stopping and suffering from altitude sickness, I found myself in a liminal time and space. Here Quechua-speaking people seemed to inhabit simultaneously the Christian Middle Ages and the animistic world of huacas, stone temples, legends of flying bird-men, and the googling of tourists like me. Having been trained as a medievalist in art and architecture, I found myself strangely at home. Graduate work in cultural anthropology had also taught me to be observant and to avoid the impulse to be culturally judgmental.

In subsequent trips I came across paintings and life-size processional sculptures of St. Francis of Assisi with wings or in flight, something I had never seen in the churches and museums of Europe. During one trip to Cuzco in August 2007, a magnitude 8.0 earthquake struck the Peruvian coast killing many people and wreaking destruction. Fundamentalist preachers immediately claimed that God had sent the earthquake to punish Peru and as a sign of the approaching end of days. This jarred my ruminating on Peru as a medieval culture and on “flying Francis,” and so I decided to delve into the connection between art and (super)natural catastrophes. Happily, a generous fellowship from the Guggenheim Foundation allowed me to travel and explore friaries and colonial archives, and then an equally-generous Kress Fellowship in the Center for Advanced Study in the Visual Arts at the National Gallery of Art allowed me to focus on Inca and Franciscan iconography and to write. ACMRS and the Hispanic Research Center at ASU subsequently encouraged me to finish the manuscript, and both centers made possible the publication of Birdman with over 200 color photos.

What I discovered was the novel reception of Francis of Assisi and angels in the colonized Inca Empire, but one that was colored by the writings of a medieval monk, prophet and artist, Joachim of Fiore (d. 1202). Andean peoples had long had images and beliefs related to flying bird-men and these were transformed in the colonial era by contact with European missionaries and prophecies. I was fortunate to be able to bring to light previously-unknown paintings of Saint Francis depicted as a militant angel of the Apocalypse battling rival religious orders, the secular clergy, and even bishops. Executed by native artists in the aftermath of volcanic eruptions, earthquakes and tsunamis, the paintings and sculptures converted the Italian saint into a local shaman. They also acted to critique colonial society and reveal a controversial, even violent role for Francis and his band of brothers. A side trip – so to speak -- to colonial Mexico revealed similar dynamics, but with different artistic solutions. I previously dealt with the eschatological aspects of sixteenth-century Mexican architecture and art in City, Temple, Stage (2004) and Christian Texts for Aztecs (2008), but now I followed those beliefs into the later colonial period. Furthermore, employing contemporary ethnographic data and anthropological theory, I was able to document how flying Francis continues to live in Andean and Mesoamerican folklore to this day. I am happy to have contributed the first volume in the new Medieval and Renaissance Latin America (MARLA) series, an exciting and important area of knowledge.