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The Power of the Image in a Peruvian Indulgence

Emily Floyd discusses the multivalent nature of printed indulgences in colonial Peru. In addition to advertising the opportunity for the recipient to diminish time spent in Purgatory, indulgences often incorporated large, printed images of holy figures, opening them up to a range of possible devotional uses.

MLA citation format:
Floyd, Emily C.
“The Power of the Image in a Peruvian Indulgence”
Web blog post. Material Religions. 10February 2016. Web. [date of access]


On February 9, 2009, the New York Times ran an article titled “For Catholics, a Door to Absolution Is Reopened,” describing the Catholic Church’s reintroduction of indulgences after ending the practice in the wake of Vatican II. Indulgences are best known to the general public for having attracted the ire of Protestant Reformers such as Martin Luther during the Protestant Reformation. The logic of indulgences rests on the concept of Purgatory, an intermediary space in which souls are purged of their sins prior to being welcomed into Heaven. The souls of those who had committed unforgivable mortal sins in life went straight to Hell and damnation, but the majority of individuals who had sinned less drastically would spend some amount of time in temporary torment in Purgatory. Indulgences granted the recipient remission of that time. As the New York Times article described, many contemporary Catholics were confused by the purpose and function of indulgences. One woman asked, “What does it mean to get time off in Purgatory? What is five years in terms of eternity?”

Eighteenth-century Peruvian printed indulgences suggest that the opaque nature of the indulgence isn’t limited to the twenty-first century. Indulgences were common in Peru—the numerous confraternities associated with each of the many churches in cities throughout the region all had their own indulgences (confraternities are religious associations that come together for mutual support and, sometimes, charitable purposes, usually centered around a specific miracle-working image). Bishops, archbishops, and popes might issue indulgences for any number of reasons and in a variety of degrees, from a few days free from purgatory to plenary indulgences (only issuable by popes) that cleansed the recipient of the weight of all the sins they had committed until that moment. These grants were often contingent on the recipient performing certain actions—making a donation to a cause (such as the Holy Crusade) or saying specific prayers in a designated place or before a named cult image.

Figure 1: “Nuestra Señora de las Cabezas (Our Lady of the Heads)”, Print, 18th c., Image Courtesy of Biblioteca Nacional del Perú, Lima.

If indulgences were on one level enacted by the combination of the will of the ecclesiastical leader and the action of the recipient, they were also often physically embodied in printed sheets. Many of these physical indulgences survive today in the collection of the Biblioteca Nacional del Perú in Lima, where I have worked with them as part of my broader research into religious prints made in seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Lima. The eighteenth-century Peruvian indulgence in Figure 1, for example, advertises forty days free from purgatory. The text that explicitly states the broadsheet’s purpose is dwarfed, however, by the printed image. How did viewers respond to this object when confronted by it? A print of this kind would have been inexpensive enough to be accessible to individuals from a wide portion of society, perhaps purchasing it at a shop or in a market, perhaps receiving it freely from the confraternity that commissioned it. It is far from given that all eighteenth-century viewers would have been able to read the text, and, even if they could, the message is still ambiguous.

The cult image depicted in this engraving, [i] Nuestra Señora de las Cabezas (Our Lady of the Heads), a Limenian depiction of the Virgin Mary, hovers on a cloudbank studded with the heads of cherubim. In her right hand she holds a standard with the initials of the Virgin Mary topped by the letter “S” pierced by a nail, a rebus for “slave” (es-clavo) in Spanish, and a reference to confraternity members who declared themselves “slaves” of the Virgin. Her left arm supports the Christ child. Both holy figures are crowned and ornately dressed, the manner in which they are depicted is meant to recall the appearance of statues of the Virgin and Christ child during this period. The likely wooden statue itself might be a diminutive seated Virgin and Child, but devotees dressed the figure, as in this other example, in elaborate robes that dramatically augmented its size. The complex composition suggests a hierophany of the Virgin in this form to a shepherd, who kneels in adoration before her, his flocks spread out behind him.

Figure 2: “Imagen de la Virgen (Virgin de la Cabeza)”, CC BY-SA 3.0, Image Credit.

The composition reflects the connection of Our Lady of las Cabezas to another Virgin of similar name (la Cabeza rather than las Cabezas, Figure 2) in Jaén, Spain. According to legend, in 1227 a shepherd discovered the statue of the Virgin of la Cabeza high on a mountain while caring for his flocks. The print represents this moment, but the text of the engraving directs devotees not to the Spanish Virgin but to the church in the neighborhood of Rimac in Lima. Hector Schenone, somewhat confusingly, tells us that the cult image in Lima, now lost, was a “dressed image,” with a shepherd at her feet and “behind, a mountainous landscape with the sanctuary” (Santa María: iconografía del arte colonial, 323; my translation). Although it is difficult to envision Schenone’s description as a grouping of statues within an architectural space, as suggested by his use of the term “dressed image,” his description closely matches the print. Is the print (and perhaps the original image) meant to recall the Spanish landscape and sanctuary that housed the original? The tooth-like protuberances of the mountainous landscape are more evocative of another famous Spanish Marian shrine, Montserrat in Catalonia, (Figure 3) than of the smooth mountain of the Spanish la Cabeza Virgin, (Figure 4) and the sanctuary bears only passing resemblance to the surviving temple in Jaén or to earlier representations thereof. Which particular landscape and image are being evoked here?


Figure 3: “Monastir/Abadia de Montserrat”, CC BY-SA 2.0,Image Credit.


Figure 4: “Santuario de la virgen de la Cabeza, Andújar, Jaén”, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0,Image Credit.

Bruno Latour would have us believe that “what imagery has tried to achieve through countless feats of art is the opposite of turning the spectator’s eyes to the model far away: on the contrary, incredible pains have been taken to break the habitual gaze of the viewer, so as to attract attention to the present state, the only one which can be said to offer salvation” (On the Modern Cult of the Factish Gods, 115). Latour is responding to the Catholic Church’s official stance on use of images in religious practice: Catholics venerate their religious images in honor of the celestial prototypes they represent; they do not worship the images themselves. For Latour this is an inaccurate representation of how religious images actually function. Latour argues that successful religious images direct the viewer not to a distant prototype (Jesus Christ, the Virgin Mary, one of the saints), but rather bring the attention of the viewer into the present moment.

The purpose of the Nuestra Señora de las Cabezas indulgence is less clear-cut than Latour’s argument would suggest, and varies depending on the consumer we envision. For the commissioners of the image, it seems to have been intended at least in part as an advertisement for the shrine. The confraternity associated with the Virgin seems to have been responsible for issuing this imprint, as the text explicitly names “Laureano” as the mayordomo (an individual serving a term as the official responsible for directing the confraternity) and treasurer of the confraternity. Perhaps the confraternity hoped to increase their membership and thus revenue, or encourage non-members to visit the shrine with the possible corresponding donations.

The textual inscription supports this interpretation, but it also complicates the indulgence’s purpose. It reads (my translation):

“The Illustrious . . . Francisco Gutierrez Bishop of Rosalia and Auxiliary of Lima concedes 40 days of Indulgence to all the faithful who before this print of Nuestra Señora de las CABESAS [sic] or before her colored original in her Church pray an Our Father and a Hail Mary.”

The text thus explicitly acknowledges the insistent power of the object itself. The commissioners of the indulgence may have wished to encourage visits to the shrine or to increase membership in the confraternity, but they recognized their ultimate inability to control the way in which devotees would use such an object. By including a large, printed image of the Virgin of las Cabezas, the indulgence allowed its possessors to bring the Virgin into their homes and to interact with her directly in ways that would be impossible in the more restricted context of a church. During the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, holy images were often hidden from devotee’s eyes much of the time, shielded by protective curtains. When they were uncovered, they were situated within elaborate altar structures that placed them beyond the reach of the faithful. In contrast, devotees could touch and adorn prints, build small altars around them within their homes, and use them to ease pain in childbirth or heal a headache by applying them to the area in question. Textual sources from the period attest to all of these uses, and the worn condition of many surviving prints supports the written narrative.

Ideally the print would at least encourage devotion to the Virgin of las Cabezas, but in the end the promise of indulgences might pale next to the image’s ability to engage with the viewer, bringing the sacred into the present. [ii] For, after all, what is forty days in terms of eternity?


[i] An engraving is a form of intaglio print produced by cutting into a thin, polished copper plate with a sharp tool known as a burin. The plate is then wiped with ink so that the ink remains only in the lines cut by the burin. The plate is placed on the bed of a roller printing press, with a sheet of paper, often dampened, placed over it. Paper and copper plate are then run through the press at high pressure, causing the ink to be forced out from the indentations in the plate onto the paper and producing the resulting image. The plate may then be re-inked in order to produce further impressions of the same image. The earliest known engraving produced in Peru dates to 1612. For more about engraving, see Kimberley Nichols, “Physical Properties of Early Prints,” in Altered and Adorned: Using Renaissance Prints in Daily Life, ed. Suzanne Karr Schmidt (Chicago: Art Institute of Chicago, 2011).

[ii] For more on purgatory and the colonial Andes, see Nancy E. van Deusen, The Souls of Purgatory: The Spiritual Diary of a Seventeenth-Century Afro-Peruvian Mystic, Ursula de Jesús (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2004).


  • Latour, Bruno. On the Modern Cult of the Factish Gods. Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2010.
  • Nichols, Kimberley. “Physical Qualities of Early Prints.” In Altered and Adorned: Using Renaissance Prints in Daily Life, 99-105. Editor, Suzanne Karr Schmidt. Chicago: Art Institute of Chicago, 2011.
  • Peterson, Jeanette Favrot. “The Virgin of Guadalupe, Extremadura, Spain.” Object Narrative. In Conversations: An Online Journal of the Center for the Study of Material and Visual Cultures of Religion (2014).
  • Schenone, Héctor H. Santa María: iconografía del arte colonial. Buenos Aires: Educa, 2008.
  • Teicher, Jordan G. “Why Is Vatican II So Important?”NPR. October 10, 2012.
  • Vitello, Paul. “For Catholics, a Door to Absolution Is Reopened.”The New York Times. February 9, 2009.
  • van Deusen, Nancy E. The Souls of Purgatory: The Spiritual Diary of a Seventeenth-Century Afro-Peruvian Mystic, Ursula de Jesús. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2004.


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