Monday, February 15, 2016

Cloak and Dagger mystery of "Petro Basto" revealed 250 years later in the painting of Miguel Cabrera at Tepotzotlan

Until Umberto Eco wrote his classic "The Name of the Rose", we didn't usually relate the world of thrillers with the seemingly routine and dreary life of monasteries.
The cover of one of the first paperback
massive printing editions of the
Name of the Rose in Italian.

In the case of Tepotzotlan however, the conscientious work of the restoration team has revealed messages behinds the paintings that have been covered-up, possibly censored, probably not by ecclesiastical authorities as by the powers of the Crown of Spain, during the rule of Carlos III.

In the hall or sala "Tepotzotlan, the total Creation" of the Exposition "Miguel Cabrera, Episodes of the Creation", we will see a painting of "The Holy Family", which for years was at the entrance of the chapel of the novices of the Jesuits in Tepotzotlan. Here is Saint Joseph, the Infant Jesus and the Virgin Mary with Angels and lilies. At the bottom of this huge painting that for years covered an entire wall leading into the novice chapel, we see a young man, dressed in a black soltana typical of the Jesuits, who seems to be giving the viewer an introduction. Who is he?

He was a Portuguese Jesuit lay-brother. How do we know? Thanks to the restorations of the Museum of the Virreinato under the skillful hands of Xochipilli Rossell, the banner on the bottom of the painting was brought out from the dark after 250 years of hiding.

What does the banner say?

"Et Fr. Petro Basto" is the introduction. Petro Basso or Pedro Basto is identified not as Pt or Pater, that is a priest, but as Fr. or Frater, that is a brother. "We created la Compañia de Jesús" (the name of the Jesuit Congregation in Spanish) the banner apparently continues in Latin. Why would someone want to blot our that message? If the message was offensive, why wasn't the painting hidden or destroyed? Why would someone find that message offensive?

In The Name of the Rose, the mystery revolves around a missing copy of Aristotle's Poetica with poisonous pages in the Abbey of Melk, while in Tepotzotlan, the mystery lies behind a painting,  Unlike Umberto Eco, I cannot offer you an astute investigator such as his Friar William of Baskerville to find the definite answer to the puzzle. At the best, I can only offer you  a hypothesis.

This Holy Family was intended only for the internal use of this house of formation of the Jesuits. This part of the compound was off-limits to visitors. "We created the Jesuits" was painted over, blocked from light, "censored". By whom? Why?

Only a few years after this beautiful painting of the Holy Family was finished by Miguel Cabrera, in 1767  Carlos III forced the entire Jesuit Congregation into exile, not only from Mexico, but from every country under his control. In a question of a few weeks, the Colegio of San Francisco Javier of Tepotzotlan was deserted by the Jesuits, and then taken over after eight years of abandonment  by the Archbishop Alonso de Haro y Peralta, who restored it as a seminary for secular priests. It is quite plausible that the new tenants were benefited by this expropriation, and desired to keep the Colegio in all its splendor, but wanted to wipe out all evidence of the Jesuits.

And if this painting was judged as being politically incorrect, why wasn't it simply disposed of?

Maybe if this "Holy Family" were one more of the hundreds of "anonymous works" painted during the 18th Century, it would have been probably destroyed in a rage of contemptuous censorship.  But who was going to destroy a masterpiece by Cabrera?.

Xochipilli Rossell is a magnificent painting restorer, and not a forensics detective. Only part of the banner has been uncovered, being respectful of the past and of history, because this vandalistic act of censorship is in itself an important part of history and art.

Our hypothesis is plausible, but it is a Pandora's box, creating far more questions, than answers.

The new techniques of restorations include different lighting: infra-red, ultra violet, black lighting photography, and what was hidden comes out to light.

How many secrets are underneath the top cover of coloring of the paintings we see in our churches and museums?

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