critical texts


Notes about a study on painting and sculpture in Cuba. 16th, 17th and 18th centuries.
Olga López Núñez
Notes about a study on painting and sculpture in Cuba. 16th, 17th and 18th centuries.

By Olga López Núñez

...There is no reference to paintings made in Cuba previous to the 16th century. In 1584 ―according to the Actas Capitulares―, the Cabildo (town council) agreed that Gaspar de Avila would be contracted to acquire “an image and eight paintings” to be placed in the courtroom of the City Hall; two years later, with the pirate Drake at the gates of Havana, it was decided to move these artistic treasures to a safe keeping. In the Cabildo of 1599, held on March 22nd, was informed that artist Juan Camargo had received the amount of 1000 ducats for painting the altarpiece of the Parroquial Mayor.

Unfortunately, from these early times after the Spanish conquest, no painting works have been found yet, and we know about them only through the reference made by written documents. Unlike painting, we do have ―although they are just a few― exponents of sculpture from this period.

According to the historian Valdés, in 1633 was brought from Seville a wooden image, carved by Martín Andújar and painted in Havana by Luis Esquivel for the Parroquial Mayor: “its total cost was 1235 pesos and one real”; there are no other news about this Luis Esquivel.

Master carpenter Juan de Salas Argüello signed a document before a scrivener on January 26th, 1646, according o which he donates to the Santa Clara convent a golden wooden altarpiece made by him, with pictures, paintings and the image of La Purísima Concepción (the Immaculate Conception). He also carved for the convent its beautiful choir beams, on one of which his name engraved still can be seen; another one puts exactly: “Being Don Alvaro de Luna y Sarmiento the Governor and Don Fernando de Aguilar his Lieutenant General, was completed this church in 1643”. And even today in the present convent there are still religious images from the 17th century. Among them, a San Miguel Arcángel and a Dios Todopoderoso that could easily be made by the hands of the Master Salas Argüello. He was buried in the convent church on September 26th, 1649.

But undoubtedly the 17th century sculptural piece most known in our days is la Giraldilla (the little weather vane), a small bronze sculpture the Governor and Galleons Admiral Don Bitrián de Viamonte, Knight of the Calatrava Order, ordered to fix at the top of the tower of the la Fuerza Castle, between 1630 and 1634 as a sort of weather vane. According to historian Pérez–Beato “it represents Victory” since it holds “in its right arm, a palm tree of which only the trunk remains”, while in its left hand holds a shaft with the Calatrava Cross; in the underside it used to have a banderole showing the wind direction. On its chest there is a medal with this legend: “Gerónimo Martín Pinzón. Craftsman and foundryman, sculpted”.

Its author, Havanan Gerónimo Martín (or Martínez) Pinzón, the son of Master Juan Martínez Pinzón, a well-known seaman of that time, and of Beatriz Solís, the daughter of the Main Sacristan of the parish, was born in 1607 and died in 1649, the victim of an epidemic. Researcher Pedro Herrera has recently found references about a foundry property of Gerónimo, in which sugar mills’ spare parts were made.

Apparently, la Giraldilla’s shape is reminiscent of the sculpture weather vane that crowns la Giralda, a tower turned into a belfry for the Seville Cathedral. Maybe that is the reason why for a long time people though our weather vane had been cast in Spain, without taking into consideration that la Corona had an important foundry in Havana too. As a matter of fact, each sculpture was made in a completely different spirit. La Giralda represents Faith with a male figure, which also holds a banderole, but with a different design, and besides the classical features of its face, the sculpture shows a very Spanish baroque style, with too windblown clothes. In contrast, our Giraldilla is feminine, gracious and in a arrogant gesture presents an arbitrary model of torso which, ingenuously resolved, can be seen through the cuirass that covers it. It has a crown on its head and carefully treated hairs; the wide skirt, moved by the gentle sea breeze from the North ―unlike La Giralda― describes an undulating, graphic movement. It is obvious in it the profound relationship with the proximity of the sea.

Around 1660, an Indian from Guanabacoa named José Bichat ―according to the historian Pedro Herrera― bought in Havana two oil-on-wood paintings representing Jesus of Nazareth. Both paintings were identical and could only be differentiated by small details; (...). Painted on request in a painting shop in Havana, they show a very strong Spanish influence, very close in this case to los Nazarenos by “el Divino Morales”, a Spanish artist from the 17th century. The author of the paintings is still unknown, but there are many references in documents from that time to the names of some of the artists who had in Havana their painting shops, like the Master of el Nazareno.


(Published in Documentos. Information Group. Arts Visual Department. National Fine Arts Museum. 1987)