Shaping America Preview: The Joan Who Wasn’t Joan

Saint Michael the Archangel, a painting

Anonymous-Spanish Colonial, Saint Michael the Archangel, oil on canvas, 18th century, Brigham Young University Museum of Art, gift of Marguerite R. Powell

While preparing for the upcoming exhibition Shaping America: Art and Identity, Marian Wardle, MOA Curator of American Art, planned on displaying a long-neglected painting from BYU’s private collection. The untitled work shows a gallant, winged warrior wearing a plumed hat and fashionable, tall leather boots and holding a large staff in the shape of a cross. When the painting was first donated to the museum, the warrior’s feminine features caused the painting to be cataloged as Joan of Arc. But on an unrelated trip with her husband to Buenos Aires, Argentina, Wardle stumbled across a series of clues that told a different story.

Marguerite R. Powell first donated the painting in 1973 to BYU’s private collection saying that the painting was brought up from Mexico by her father in 1914. The style of the painting suggested that it was painted in the 1700s during the Spanish Colonial Era. In correspondence about the work, paintings conservator Bettina Jessell said it “has the feel of many Colonial paintings—good design, strength of form, late baroque or early rococo style, and a typical playfulness combined with spiritual strength.”

Still, little was known about the painting until Wardle’s crucial trip to South America. There, in an Argentinian art museum, Wardle stumbled upon another painting similar to the one at BYU. The figure in the painting had the exact same tall boots, plumed hat, wings, and feminine features. The resemblance between the two paintings suggested that they came from similar time periods and locations. Yet, the plaque painted in the corner of the painting from Argentina read “Michael” instead of “Joan of Arc.”

As soon as she saw this, Wardle rushed to get approval from the museum staff to photograph the painting, so she could analyze the two pieces. After returning to Utah, she contacted specialists in Spanish Colonial art and started putting together the clues.

Wardle noted that Catholic artists traditionally depict angels as androgynous. In many other paintings from the Spanish Colonial Era, Michael the Archangel has the same feminine figure and wears the same plumed hat, large wings, and tall boots.

Along with the figure’s dress, Wardle observed several other telling features. As the princely messenger of God, Michael the Archangel symbolizes the victory of good over evil. The figure in the painting holds a palm leaf, a traditional symbol of triumph over Satan. The images of the sun and the moon on the pectorals of his armor appeared constantly in Spanish Colonial portrayals of Michael the Archangel after about 1660. The painting also contains a scroll that reads “Quis ut Deus” which means, “Who like God,” a phrase associated with Michael’s four great roles as the supreme enemy of Satan, the Christian Angel of Death, the one who weighs souls, and the guardian of the church.

Together, the evidence confirmed that the painting is an 18th-century Mexican Colonial painting of Michael the Archangel.

This discovery highlights the extent to which the American story was formed by the mixing of many cultural traditions and identities.

“Our painting of Michael the Archangel is an excellent example of the exchanges between European art and indigenous artistic traditions in the formation of Southwest American art,” says Wardle. “An appreciation of this painting and its origins helps us understand that not all American art originated in the American Northeast. It helps us acknowledge the excellent production of art that contributed to the shaping of identity in our own region.”

Shaping America: Art and Identity features selected works from BYU’s permanent collection of American art that explore the cross-cultural encounters and exchanges that form American identity. The exhibition will present around eighty works of art, including paintings, sculptures, and photography. The exhibition will open on March 22, 2013 and will be on display through March 2018.