The Museum is excited to announce the recent acquisition of an important painting by a Peruvian master that depicts the Virgin of Montserrat, a subject with a rich and complex cross-cultural history. Her story begins with the Catalonian monastery of Santa Maria de Montserrat, where according to religious tradition their sculpture of a dark-skinned Madonna was miraculously rediscovered in a mountain cave in 890, after having been hidden during the Moorish invasion of 717. In Medieval and Renaissance Europe, Black Madonnas like the Virgin of Montserrat were not generally viewed in terms of race but rather associated with miraculous transformation and a line from the Song of Solomon (1:5): “I am black, but beautiful.”

Peruvian, Cuzco School, Virgin of Montserrat, 18th century, oil on canvas. Allentown Art Museum: purchase, Priscilla Payne Hurd Endowment Fund, 2023. (2023.11)

The Virgin of Montserrat acquired new significance with Spanish colonizers’ dissemination of Christianity. Her dark skin would have had particular resonance in the context of colonial Peru, where many had mixed-race heritage—including artists of the Cuzco school. The Spanish convention of depicting the Virgin of Montserrat amid the mountains of Montserrat would have added to her appeal for a Peruvian audience. In Andean Indigenous cultures, mountains held spiritual significance as places of ritual. In this painting, the artist has reshaped Montserrat to echo the Virgin’s form; other Madonnas by Andean artists similarly merge the Madonna’s body with a mountain, a compositional strategy likely intended to evoke the Indigenous earth-mother deity Pachamama. This adaptation of Spanish tradition for a Peruvian context offers opportunity for important conversations about agency and resilience in the face of colonial encroachment.

As the first Spanish Colonial work to enter the Museum collection, this Virgin of Montserrat addresses an important gap in our holdings and offers rich opportunities to understand the history of the Americas through a global, cross-cultural lens. She will join the Museum’s European Madonnas in Kress Gallery later this year.