ODD TRUTHS: THE ANGEL GUNSLINGERS OF PERU
“Painting was, from the very beginning, one of the most important instruments of conquest in the sphere of thinking, the mind.”
– Guy Brett, “Being Drawn to an Image”, in Oxford Art Journal, Vol. 4, No. 1 (1991).
The airy cities of the Altiplano region in South America were once at the forefront of a major culture war. Strangely enough, part of this war was waged through angels. Some of these unwitting celestial soldiers are still around today.
Called ángeles arcabuceros (angel arquebusiers) these figures were made to be religious eye-candy. With their plumed hats, matchlock guns (muskets or harquebuses) and opulent military garb, they served as vivid representations of Spanish noblemen and the imperial glory of Christianity. Most were created in the seventeenth and eighteenth-centuries by artists based around Lake Titicaca, Cuzco, and La Paz in the Viceroyalty of Peru.
Aesthetically, these artists appear to have been inspired by three things: Flemish Baroque art (imported to the Viceroyalty by European painters), apocryphal accounts of Biblical angels, and (according to historian Peter Davidson) the “indigenous American deities of the stars”:
“These figures represent an extraordinary imaginative fusion of the idea of the indigenous American deities of the stars, merciful, handsome young warriors, with the European merciful warriors of heaven, the angels and archangels.”
Notwithstanding, the origin of the angel gunslingers is much more clandestine than it first seems. In reality, the art functioned as a psy-ops element of the Spanish Empire’s “hispanisation” programme. The aim was to assimilate indigenous cultures by either redirecting or “extirpating” native spirituality. Although the propaganda campaign was orchestrated by the Councils of Lima, the idea of art-based indoctrination had first been proposed by the Council of Trent in the mid-sixteenth century (1545-63). In the New World however, the managers and promoters of Catholic imagery and doctrine were the Church’s missionaries: the Jesuits, Franciscans, Dominicans, and Augustinians. According to Kelly Donahue-Wallace, many of these preachers had a working knowledge of local mythology and folklore which they used to channel the energies of the Amerindians:
“…missionaries redirected indigenous veneration of huacas and other sacred beings and forces into acceptable Christian substitutes. In place of celestial phenomena, such as stars, rain, hail, and comets, friars offered the Christian cult of angels derived from the apocryphal Book of Enoch. The ángeles arcabuceros…undoubtedly also reflected the Catholic Counter Reformation militaristic rhetoric which promoted the church as an army and heavenly beings as its soldiers.”
After being used successfully as instruments of evangelisation, the angel gunslingers eventually took on a life of their own. In fact, the uniquely “Alto-Peru” armed angels motif persisted well into the twentieth century among local artists and (as proven by Oxford University’s recent acquisition) still persists today. Their lasting popularity is a testament to the seemingly infinite ambivalence and multigenerational power of religious objets d’art.
Kelly Donahue-Wallace. Art and Architecture of Viceregal Latin America, 1521-1821. University of New Mexico Press (2008).
Fernando Cervantes and Andrew Redden. Angels, Demons and the New World. Cambridge University Press (2013).