Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
November 30, 2005
Chiyo Ishikawa, ed. Spain in the Age of Exploration, 1492–1819 Exh. cat. Seattle: Seattle Art Museum in association with University of Nebraska Press, 2004. 300 pp.; 150 color ills. Cloth $50.00 (0803225059)
Seattle Art Museum, Seattle, Wash., October 16, 2004–January 2, 2005; Norton Museum of Art, West Palm Beach, Fla., February 2, 2005–May 1, 2005

The exhibition Spain in the Age of Exploration, 1492–1819 sprang from a collaborative enterprise between the co-curators Chiyo Ishikawa and Javier Morales Vallejo, with the support of three participating institutions: the Patrimonio Nacional of Spain, the Seattle Art Museum, and the Norton Museum of Art in West Palm Beach, Florida. Their efforts are sumptuously represented in the catalogue produced to accompany the exhibition. The catalogue’s seven essays each explore a different aspect of the exhibition’s thematic interests, including the idea of Spain and its empire, Spanish spirituality, cross-cultural encounters, and the role played by science in the Americas and Spain. The result of the catalogue’s fortuitous assembly of scholars is an outstanding accomplishment that presents an impressive assortment of objects expertly and lucidly contextualized by its essays.

The objects chosen for this exhibition represent the history of Spain’s visual and material culture from the end of the fifteenth century through the beginning of the nineteenth. They are drawn from the Patrimonio Nacional’s extensive collection of 7,000 paintings, 2,500 sculptures, 3,000 weapons and armor, 2,000 tapestries, and many clocks, carriages, ships, furniture pieces, maps, and decorative objects. This collection includes both objects and works of art from Spain and those brought to Spain from every country with which Spain had contact during the centuries of its global expansion. Thus, Spain in the Age of Exploration assembles works by Juan de Flandes, Luis Meléndez, Peter Paul Rubens, Sánchez Coello, Bartolomé Esteban Murillo, Francisco de Zurbarán, Francisco de Goya, Titian, Hieronymus Bosch, El Greco, Diego Velázquez, Jacopo Bassano, Gianlorenzo Bernini, Pedro Berruguete, Jusepe de Ribera, Sofonisba Anguissola, and Antonis Mor, alongside casta paintings (with their depiction of varying racial mixtures), a series of maps (including the earliest surviving map of the Americas), manuscripts (medical, geographic, and religious), astrolabes, tapestries, masks, and hats. The objects are gorgeously illustrated in the catalogue’s plates, supplemented by additional illustrations of buildings and places, which enhance the catalogue’s value as a historical and cultural resource.

The historical epochs represented by the assembled objects begin with the first years of exploration in the New World to the age of the Enlightenment, thereby deftly moving from Columbus to Diderot. In the essays, this lengthy and complex history of exploration, conflict, assimilation, and accommodation is examined with the goal of elucidating the role played by class, race, and other social structures in the formation of these interwoven cultures. Throughout the essays, the authors consistently examine the results of this intricate historical passage and its implications for today’s continuing global exchanges.

The exhibition’s approach of linking the past to the present is laid out by Ishikawa in the catalogue’s foreword: “At a time when war and tension rage throughout the world, international cultural collaboration is essential in building a mutual understanding of the history of human achievement, past and present” (10). It is precisely this project that is at the heart of Spain in the Age of Exploration, as each essay takes its place in a coordinated effort to let the past speak to the present in a manner that makes the past relevant for the future. In so doing, the catalogue also chronicles the visual and cultural transformations that moved Spain and Western Europe from the medieval into the early modern era.

This catalogue is certain to become a classic for other curators seeking to elucidate complex cultural moments. By ably combining objects that trace the grand and the mundane, Ishikawa and Morales Vallejo create a visual landscape that challenges the reader with a series of thought-provoking methodological paradigms applicable to the study of cross-cultural exchanges.

In her essay “Spanish Art and Science in the Age of Exploration,” Ishikawa discusses the imagery that promoted Spain’s voyages as a spiritual destiny protected by God, which was key to the creation of the Spanish Empire. In the next essay, “The World of Early Modern Spain: Empire and its Anxieties in the Golden Age,” Richard Kagan and Benjamin Schmidt explain the uneasy reality that was the result of the continuing conflicts between Spaniards and the people they conquered. By drawing parallels between Spain’s history of internal conquest and accompanying unease with its Islamic and Jewish populations (as well as its regional divisions), Kagan and Schmidt expand an understanding of the complexity of interaction between Spain and the Americas.

Joaquín Yarza Luaces contributes “Art in the Time of the Catholic Monarchs and the Early Overseas Enterprises,” which contextualizes the international elements found in the stylistic environment that flourished at the court of Isabel de Castilla and Fernando de Aragón. The generalized thematic implications of courtly artistic production is given specific meaning by Sarah Schroth in “Veneration and Beauty: Messages in the Image of the King in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries.” Her analysis of the iconographic traditions employed by the court painters of a range of Habsburg rulers, male and female, gives insight into the manipulation of objects of religious import as well as those representative of royal power.

Another theme developed in the catalogue is how nature and scientific exploration were used to gain control over the environment as well as individuals and groups. Jesús Carrillo Castillo’s essay, “The World is Only One and Not Many: Representation of the Natural World in Imperial Spain,” presents the manner in which the flora and fauna of the Americas were seen within the contextual prism of the cultural and natural self and other. Thus, the paradigm of natural evolution and cultural exchange was established to aid Spain’s efforts to explore, categorize, and catalogue the territories they wished to assimilate and convert.

In “Spanish Science and Enlightenment Expeditions,” José de la Sota Ríus discusses the ways in which Spaniards came to terms with “a radically different and unintelligible landscape” (159). Confronted with a diversity of cultural exchanges, the explorers/conquerors set themselves the task of surveying the Americas in order to control and exploit its resources for the benefit of Spain, a process which varied as time passed and as different methods were deployed, as in the examples of the making of maps and the writing of chronicles recording the events of the explorations and conquests. Eventually, royal support for scientific exploration created and preserved knowledge of new taxonomies, such as studies of the flora and fauna of the Americas, which could be linked to those of Western Europe in the process of colonization.

Art and science and their roles within the enterprise of empire are explored by Andrew Schulz in “Spaces of Enlightenment: Art, Science, and Empire in Eighteenth-Century Spain.” Schulz’s essay explores the intricate interaction between the Bourbon court and the Royal Academy of the Arts, the Royal Cabinet of Natural History, and the Royal Academy of Fine Arts of San Fernando—interactions that became the prototype for art academies founded in the Americas. The idealized interaction between these institutions created a political science that sought to explain the differences that characterized the relationship between Europe and the Americas. Schulz’s discussion of casta paintings and their complex racial codes is an astute presentation of the issues raised by the commingling of art, science, and cultural politics in Spain’s eighteenth-century view of itself and its global context. This essay is an appropriate and fitting conclusion to the catalogue’s essays.

From the Spanish perspective, the conquest of the Americas represented a grand and glorious enterprise to which they were called by God. To contemporary historians interested in understanding this enterprise from both sides of the cultural divide, the significance of the Age of Exploration lies more in what it can tell us about the continuing process of encounters between groups that were perhaps never meant to meet, much less merge.

However, as Ishikawa points out in her introduction to the volume, it is in the attempt to chronicle these encounters that we can find our way to reconciliation—if we can put aside the idea of conflict as the means whereby we measure the history of our accomplishments. We live in a historical moment that will itself be scrutinized by later ages in a manner similar to that employed by the scholars included in Spain in the Age of Exploration. The contributors to this catalogue have charted a scholarly approach to situations faced by those who stand on different, if not divergent, sides of cultural encounters. Ishikawa’s call for an engaged and balanced scholarly history has value for contemporary scholarship as well as politics.

Lynette Bosch
F, Professor, Art History Program, School of the Arts, SUNY Geneseo

To read a review of the exhibition by Hipólito Rafael Chacón, please click here.

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