Priceless Spanish Colonial Art in Miami Baroque Chapel Project
Discover Iglesia-Museo Perú de Nuestra Señora de la Merced, just a decade in the making
By Francine Birbragher-Rozencwaig, PhD
After almost 13 years in the making, the Iglesia-Museo Perú de Nuestra Señora de la Merced, a chapel that houses one of the most important collections of Spanish Colonial art in the United States, opened its doors in Miami. Located next to Corpus Christi Church in Allapattah, the chapel is the first stage of an ambitious project known as Florida Colonial Heritage whose objective is to revive, restore and exhibit an impressive number of Spanish Colonial paintings and a valuable collection of 10,000 original and 600,000 digitized historical documents from Latin America and the Caribbean.
Meet the Project’s Brainchildren
Father José Luis Menéndez, Corpus Christi Church’s Pastor, and a dedicated group of members of the Peruvian community associated with the parish came up with the idea of building a chapel inspired by a Peruvian Colonial church on the grounds of Corpus Christi Church. Once the foundation and the walls were built, the team, which by then included the project’s current artistic director Ray Zamora and representatives of the Latin American community, began to work on the altars’ designs. They contacted Mexican architect and artist Manuel Lira, who specializes in the Mexican Baroque style, who diligently researched the Peruvian Baroque style prior to presenting them with different proposals. A committee formed by Father Menéndez, Monsignor Lorenzo León Bishop of Huacho (Peru), and Ray Zamora was in charge of selecting the designs for the altars.
For their fabrication, the team considered different options from Bolivia, Mexico, Peru, Spain, and Miami, and in the end, they chose the carvings proposed by a workshop from Cochabamba (Bolivia) that provided spectacular designs, excellent quality and competitive prices. As Zamora explained in a recent interview, “We searched for the best materials and the best craftsmen. For example, cedar wood was used so the wooden work may last between 100 and 200 years, the main doors were made of teak wood, which is quite sturdy, all the metal locks were forged by hand, and all the altars are covered with leaves of real gold.” It is important to note that the chapel is not a copy but rather an original structure that includes elements of different styles, particularly Peruvian and Mexican Baroque.
During the initial phase of the project, Father Menéndez gathered approximately one dozen paintings from the collection of the late Bill Morgenstern, a Miami-based collector and dealer. Upon his passing, the remaining works of his Spanish Colonial art collection were acquired to be displayed permanently in the new building. According to Dr. Carol Damian, curator of the collection, this project is extremely valuable: “The colonial art of Latin America has long been neglected or misinterpreted as a poor imitation of European religious painting. This collection, one of the most important in the United States, presents the opportunity to study firsthand works of artists from different colonial cities, to recognize their unique, often distinctly regional characteristics, and to give them the recognition they deserve as a visual testimony of the newly converted artists.”
The Collection’s Signature Pieces
The most extraordinary works are from the Cuzco School, considered the first school of painting in the Americas. The collection also includes paintings and sculptures from Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador, Mexico, Nicaragua and Spain dating from the 17th and 18th centuries. One of the most beautiful works depicts Santa Rosa de Lima, patron saint of Peru and the first saint of the New World. Known as Christ’s bride, this intellectual and erudite woman is depicted receiving a wedding ring from Jesus Child and wearing a crown of roses with thorns piercing her head, like the crown of thorns that pierced the face of the crucified Christ. Another beautiful work is The Immaculate Conception, one of the most important images of Mary and a beautiful example of the use of gold stencil typical of the Cuzco School. The image, taken from Saint John’s Book of Revelation, represents Mary triumphantly ascending to heaven, dressed in a white dress, standing on the backs of the angels and prowling the moon.
The collection also includes beautiful wooden carvings and sculptures, including a magnificent figure of the Archangel Aspiel, the angel who governs hidden treasures, with his harquebus and a flag. The piece was entirely made of silver by a Jesuit priest who arrived in Bolivia in the 18th century and used his goldsmith skills learned in Italy on a large scale thanks to the availability of silver in the mining city of Potosí, Bolivia. This life-size statue, a rare and splendid example of silverware, pays homage to one of the most popular themes in the Andes: angels as warriors.
The Iglesia-Museo Perú de Nuestra Señora de la Merced is located at 3220 NW 7th Avenue, Miami, and is open by appointment (305) 635-1331.