During her sabbatical in 2015, Alena Robin was intent on tracking down a painting by Antonio Enríquez, an 18th century Mexican painter. With dogged determination ─ and on the last day of her stay in Guadalajara – she found it in a corner of a storage room, forgotten by specialists and unknown to the public.
In November this year, the restored monumental painting was returned “to the people of Guadalajara”, unveiled where it was found at the Museo Regional de Guadalajara on the 104th anniversary of the museum’s founding.
It marked a poignant moment for Robin.
“Going back for the opening was important to me,” she said. “I’m just one dot in the line that led to this. If it wasn’t for me, the painting would still be in the storage room. But it was the years of collaboration and building trust that enabled the rest to happen.”
As one of the few Canadian scholars studying Latin America art, Robin, the current chair of visual arts, has been visiting the museum in Guadalajara throughout the past decade. Her groundbreaking work attracted a Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council grant, allowing her to hire graduate students to travel to Mexico over a five-year period.
Robin’s primary research interest in religious art from New Spain (colonial Mexico) brought her focus to Enríquez. He’s an elusive figure. Robin has yet to discover his birth and death dates, and details of his personal life.
She has, however, been able to establish him as a painter local to Guadalajara by building a biography of his works, through visits to the Museo Regional de Guadalajara and other area museums and churches.
“There was one painting eluding me, and that was very frustrating,” Robin said. “The painting (called San Ángel Carmelita preaching in the Basilica of San Juan de Letrán) was mentioned in the first inventory of the museum in 1931, but there was no photo and only a small description.”
To make matters worse, the title of the painting had been entered incorrectly.
“Every time I asked to see that painting, they would bring me to a painting done by a different painter. It was very disappointing,” she said.
But Robin never gave up on her quest. Delving further into the archives and different inventories, she gathered enough evidence to prove the painting existed and was likely to be housed somewhere within the museum.
“I was persistent and insistent,” she said. “On the last day of my sabbatical in Guadalajara, I went to see my friend and longtime collaborator Adriana Cruz Lara Silva, curator of painting at the museum. I told her, ‘I have evidence, the painting has to be here somewhere.’ I was convincing enough that she took me to the storage room.”
There, they consulted with the archivist, who directed them to a dark corner, where the painting stood, rolled up and unframed.
“We were shocked,” Robin said. “To unroll this beautiful, gigantic painting no one had seen in recent years was a wonderful moment.” But it was also bittersweet to leave what she’d spent years searching for behind, as she left for the second half of her sabbatical in Mexico City.
The massive two-piece painting, measuring five by three metres, was also in sad repair.
“It was in terrible shape,” Robin said. “There were remains of insects and signs of previous attempts to restore it with patches and glue.” The borders of the painting were the most affected, meaning some of the Latin inscriptions describing the story of the painting were lost. But the name of the patron, Felipe Pastor, remained intact, helping Robin to build a compelling case for the painting’s restoration.
Road to restoration
Also in her favour was the painting’s historical significance.
“This monumental painting portrays the moment Saint Angelus is preaching in the basilica of Saint John Lateran in Rome in 1218 to the Pope, cardinals, members of different religious orders and lay people, including men, women, and even children,” Robin said.
Angelus, who would become the most revered priest of the Carmelite Order, had travelled from Jerusalem to Rome to have the Carmelite rule recognized by the church authorities, which happened soon after. Saints Francis and Dominic (founders of the Franciscan and Dominican orders, respectively) were in the audience. Recognizing Angelus, they wanted to meet with him, with the moment signified in the painting as the embrace of the three religious orders. Soon after this event, Angelus was sent on an evangelical mission in Sicily where he was martyrized. These events are narrated in the Latin phrases disposed through the composition.
The Carmelite order arrived in New Spain in 1585 and Saint Angelus was an important figure in Colonial Mexico due to the significant role the Carmelite order had in the territorial expansion. The Carmelite brothers were, however, only able to definitively establish themselves in Guadalajara in 1746, after two previous frustrated attempts.
“This is a meaningful date in relation to Antonio Enríquez’ painting, signed and dated in 1747, which connects the historical events of the early 13th century in Rome, to mid-18th century Guadalajara. It sends a celebratory message to church leaders in Guadalajara that the Carmelite brothers were being welcomed and respected by other religious orders in the region,” Robin said.
With Pastor’s name included in the composition, it connects the historical events to the local context. Originally from Spain, Pastor had ties to Guadalajara through marriage and as a merchant, miner, with different civic and military recognitions.
Robin’s findings, which she presented on a return visit to Guadalajara a month later, ultimately secured approval for the painting to be restored by the School of Conservation and Restoration of the West (ECR0). The school trains specialists in the study, conservation, and restoration of cultural heritage through its interdisciplinary bachelor’s degree program and is judicious in the projects it assumes.
While Robin conducted the academic research, she credits Cruz Lara Silva, her co-curator on the project, for recognizing the potential of the project and overseeing all aspects of the journey ─ from securing the funds to support the restoration, to renting a truck big enough to ensure safe transport of the painting between the ECRO warehouse and the museum.
As the video below shows, restoring the painting was complex. The process spanned three years and involved dozens of ECRO students, faculty and researchers.
When Robin saw the results of the team’s dedicated efforts, the transformation of the once lost work was striking. “They made a masterpiece out of that painting,” she said.
She also found a level of fulfillment she’d not experienced before.
“As an art historian, we conduct our research and we get our results, but we don’t see the impact beyond publishing an article or a book or giving a talk at a conference that interests our peers. But in this case, having a painting never seen in recent years, in a public museum where people can see it, brings real satisfaction.”
Particularly moving for Robin was a recent social media post of a school visiting the museum, the painting serving as a backdrop and tie to the cultural heritage of the next generation.
“The idea of returning the painting to the people of Guadalajara, so they and others abroad can see it, is pretty significant,” she said.