Religion, specifically Roman Catholicism, was the dominant subject matter in Latin American and European painting prior to the 1900s, and continues to offer contemporary artists such as Fernando Botero with an inexhaustible source of inspiration. A mighty and omnipresent institution in Latin America, continually active and influential in politics, society, and culture for over four centuries, the church played a fundamental part in Botero’s upbringing in Medellín, the intensely devout Colombian city of his birth.
“There were no museums in Colombia when I was young. The only paintings I saw were those of Colombian Baroque artists in churches, when Colombian children go to church they see all these Madonnas, so clean and perfect. In South America, china-like perfection is very much a part of an ideal of beauty...So, in contrast to Europe or North America, you connect the notions of art and beauty at a very early stage. I grew up with the idea that art is beauty. All my life I’ve been trying to produce art that’s beautiful, to discover all the elements that make up visual perfection.” (Carlos Fuentes, Botero Women, New York 2003, p. 42)
Botero’s painting is inextricably linked to a Colombian and Latin American identity. Depicted with humor and gentle irony, his religious subjects conjure up a magical world where identifiable saints and sinners play out their preordained roles in familiar narratives. The pictorial exploration of this genre—and at times satirical interpretation of its subjects—is one Botero’s most significant achievements. Painted at the height of his mature production, Madonna and Child (Nuestra Señora del Carmen) portrays an approachable monumentality, a voluminous presence founded in the principles of depth and optical illusion. From Giotto, Piero della Francesca, and the entire Renaissance, to Rubens, Goya, and Ingres, right up until the twentieth century, volume has remained a formal concern in Western painting. No other quality has had a more consequential impact in the work of Fernando Botero.
Sculptural immediacy, another hallmark of Botero’s religious paintings, is superbly achieved in this Madonna and Child (Nuestra Señora del Carmen) of 1967. With a rare combination of humor and awe, Botero renders our Lady of Carmen as a motherly figure, attentively caring and protective of her son while instantly overpowering an endearing snake, the embodiment of evil. More than a work of art, our Lady of Carmen inspires a religious experience connecting our humanity through the presence of a colossal and omnipresent spiritual being.
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