Birdman of Assisi

Art and the Apocalyptic in the Colonial Andes

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Jaime Lara
Medieval & Renaissance Text Studies
  • Tempe, AZ: 
    ACMRS Publications
    , February
     353 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Why does Saint Francis have wings in the colonial frescoes of the Peruvian Andes? It is this peculiar question that Jaime Lara sets out to answer in the chapters of the Birdman of Assisi. Absorbing and intriguing, to say the least, Lara’s study engages a range of disciplinary approaches. From art history to ethnographic analogy, his analysis of Christian-Andean art history illuminates the religious platform of the colonial period, capturing the transatlantic diffusion of one of the most popular figures in the pantheon of Roman Catholic saints. It is the illustration of frescoes and iconography, however that makes Lara’s book something special. They invite the reader to flip through its pages again and again.

Jaime Lara is Research Professor at the Arizona Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies in Tempe, Arizona. The Birdman of Assisi is the first product of Lara’s fellowship term, to be followed by an upcoming work on Andean-Christian architecture. Lara is not new to the topic of art history. In fact, his books, City, Temple, Stage (University of Notre Dame Press, 2004) and Christian Texts for Aztecs (University of Notre Dame Press, 2008), survey how culture, liturgy, and theology shaped religious motifs in the Americas. Lara’s latest publication assures experienced scholars, but also newcomers to the field, an alluring and captivating contribution to the study of religion in Latin America.

The Birdman of Assisi has two main sections: the apocalyptic Francis in the Old World (chapters 1-2), and the apocalyptic Francis in the New World (chapters 3-7). Both sections situate Francis within the larger Roman Catholic eschatological imaginary. Lara’s calculated composition guides the reader with careful turns, building his argument through every chapter, only to propel it towards his master trajectory in chapter five. While the book has a clear aim from its beginning, the first four chapters serve to position the reader in the hagiographical disputes that surrounded the persona of Saint Francis.

The Birdman of Assisi shows that, from the beginning, biographers filled the accounts of Saint Francis’s life with apocalyptic expectations. Not only did his stigmata endow him with divine charisma, it elevated him above all humans and other saints. His early followers associated him with the angel “ascending from the rising of the sun” in the Book of Revelation (Revelation 7.2). Until Peter John Olivi (1248-1298), previous writers were subtle about their topological interpretations. In 1280, Olivi wrote a commentary on the Book of Revelation that launched an entirely new tone. He proposed that the humble man from Assisi was the spiritual representation of Jesus Christ, “wholly co-crucified and configured [with him]” (24). While Olivi was a controversial contributor, he became the catalyst for future illustrations of Saint Francis as the alter imago—the idealized image—of the crucified Jesus.

It is this much-needed hagiographical section that outlines how Franciscans gave their founder his wings in the New World. In the Peruvian Andes, mendicant orders discovered that Inca mythologies shared a belief in winged figures or birdmen. Lara explains this colonial “culture contact” by demonstrating that art was a far more inconspicuous conduit of contextualization. While Franciscans were weary of unchecked indigenous appropriations in theology and rituals, they never imagined that their own artwork would diffuse a cross-cultural campaign. Confraternities, Third Order laity, and local caciques “had made friends with the saints” that came to function as the protective stones and revered places in Incan religious perspectives (167). In part, it is in the cult of Christian saints that pushed the Andeanization of the Christian religion.

At this juncture, Saint Francis enters as the already quasi-divine patron of the Franciscan order. While the colonial project was in full force, church frescoes and processional mannequins depicted Saint Francis, not only with his famous stigmata, but also with colored or silver-plated wings. Lara argues that these illustrations were the result of both an indented desire to convey the intellectual history of Franciscan theology and unintended insertions by indigenous communities. To the Inca, at the point of contact, Saint Francis was a “bird-man, a shaman with power useful in an agricultural context” (212). Modern local traditions claim that “Saint Francis is alighted on top of the active volcano … the sacred Mount Corpuna” where he “awaits the souls of dead Andeans” (254).

Lara includes much more in his analysis of Christian-Andean art history, illuminating the minutest theological details and their consequences in ecclesial artwork. For anyone interested in transatlantic religion, this book presents a unique opportunity to explore religion and art together. It is a testament to Lara’s accessible writing that he is able to engage the reader through a comprehensive interpretation of frescoes and iconography, and produce a rendering that promises to animate colonial historiography. Lara successfully shows how Franciscans and indigenous communities in the Peruvian Andes adapted and transformed the origins of the apocalyptic Saint Francis, evident in the artwork and rituals that venerated him.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Josefrayn Sánchez-Perry is a Ph.D. student at the University of Texas at Austin.

Date of Review: 
February 3, 2017
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Jaime Lara (Ph.D. Graduate Theological Union and UC Berkeley) works in the intersection of the visual arts and religion through various media (architecture, painting, sculpture, prints). Trained as a medievalist, Prof. Lara examines hybrid artifacts and artistic creations at moments of culture contact, principally the contact that Aztecs and Incas had with a European Christian worldview. He is especially interested in how symbols and metaphors, both verbal and visual, mediated understanding or misunderstanding and how rituals, liturgy and theater acted as cultural bridges. This is the theme of his books City, Temple, Stage: Eschatological Architecture and Liturgical Theatrics in New Spain (2004) and Christian Texts for Aztecs: Art and Liturgy in Colonial Mexico (2008). His background in anthropology, theology, and liturgics (i.e., the history of worship) allows him to scan historical moments when missionaries contacted non-Mediterranean cultures such as those of the Irish, Saxons, Mongols, or New World, and the resulting innovative works of art that fused the values, thought, and worldview of both societies. During his fellowship term, Mr. Lara is working on two publications, both related to the Andes: a book on the novel Baroque iconography of St. Francis of Assisi as a flying warrior angel, and a monograph on the Andean-Christian architecture of sunlight.


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