The Metropolitan Museum in New York is currently holding an exhibition of the works of the Mexican baroque painter Cristóbal de Villalpando (ca. 1649–1714). Villalpando figures in the “la ruta de la plata” because he painted one of the very few contemporaneous representations of the Parián:


In Mexico City’s Plaza Mayor, known today as Zócalo, there was an outdoor marketplace of stalls and shops called the Parián after the Chinese district in Manila. In this market Asian vendors mixed with those from the world over. The Parián became a permanent edifice at the turn of the eighteenth century, while the term parián became the word for ‘marketplace’ in many cities of Mexico. [The Silver Way, pp. 44–45]


View of the Plaza Mayor of Mexico city, Cristóbal de Villalpando (1695)

View of the Plaza Mayor of Mexico city, Cristóbal de Villalpando (1695)

My co-author Juan José Morales notes that Villalpando’s painting of the Plaza Mayor is one of the most renowned in Spanish American art. Painted around 1695, the leading art historian Jonathan Brown describes it in detail:


The plaza is framed at the top by the Viceroy’s Palace, which shows the damage inflicted by an uprising on June 8, 1692. To the left is the Cathedral of Mexico and, to the right, a row of houses resting on an arcade. The square thus formed is populated by innumerable merchants’ stalls, including those within the red-roofed enclosure called the Parián. A diligent scholar, who counted the number of figures, arrived at the total of 1,283, most of whom appear to be members of the uppers classes. As a slice of daily life in the viceroyalty, this painter has no peer.


This painting, in the collection of James Methuen Campbell, Corsham Court, Bath, is not part of the Metropolitan exhibit which does however feature the extraordinary two-storey-tall Moses and the Brazen Serpent and the Transfiguration of Jesus (1683).


In a bold and erudite arrangement, Villalpando juxtaposed the Old Testament story of Moses and the brazen serpent with the New Testament account of the Transfiguration—an unprecedented pairing of subjects. The two biblical events are staged within a single, continuous sacred landscape that encompasses the wilderness of Exodus and the holy mounts of Calvary and Tabor. Life-size figures of every age and gender, clothed and nude and in an astounding variety of poses and attitudes, populate the composition. The painting’s lower half features the story of Moses making and using the image of the brazen serpent according to God’s instructions to heal Israelites bitten by poisonous serpents. This episode provides a scriptural precedent for the making and use of images in worship, while also affirming the importance of art and artists. The upper half of the composition represents the transfiguration of Jesus’s corporeal body into light, a scene that demanded nothing less than the materialization of light in paint, which Villalpando attained through shimmering color and fluid brushwork. [Metropolitan Museum description]


Villalpando has a style of his own: floridly baroque, yet nevertheless seen through a unique lens. He is a reminder that Spanish America was at this time a producer as well as well as a consumer of high culture, a status that its neighbors to the north would not reach until the latter part of the eighteenth century. In addition to Villalpando, it is worth remembering that


in Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, seventeenth-century Mexico produced a world-class poet and one of the first feminists to boot.  [The Silver Way, pp. 43]


Spanish America had an opera composer as early as 1701, the year La púrpura de la rosa by Tomás de Torrejón y Velasco to a Spanish libretto by Pedro Calderón de la Barca premiered in Lima.