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Members' Research Report Archive

“Where sight is scarcely able to assure”:  Iridescence, Vision, and Belief in the Early Modern Hispanic World

Brendan McMahon [University of Southern California]
Andrew W. Mellon Fellow, 2014–2016


Antonio de Pereda y Salgado, Allegory of Vanity, 1634. Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna

In an oil painting by the Spanish artist Antonio de Pereda y Salgado
(c. 1611–1678) completed in 1634, two tables strewn with objects from the vanitas tradition appear bathed in warm light. The ephemeral effects of this illumination serve to underscore the symbolic charge these objects carried for contemporary viewers, reminders of the fleeting nature of the material world and the impending reality of death. Among the canonical imagery of skulls, playing cards, coins, a clock, a candle, and an hourglass, the unusual textile worn by the painting’s enigmatic central figure stands out both for its novelty in this context and for its colors. Through the careful manipulation of icy pinks and mint greens, Pereda has attempted to capture the visual effects of shot fabric, a type of iridescent textile whose colors appear to shift depending upon the angle of view. What led the artist to choose this fabric specifically as an element of his painting, and how might his audience have interpreted its presence?

During my year at CASVA, I have proposed answers to these and related questions that address the reception of iridescent materials in the early modern Hispanic world, a line of inquiry that forms the core of my dissertation. In it, I examine historical reactions to such materials in order to address the relationship among sight, deception, and belief in sixteenth-and seventeenth-century Spain and Mexico. Iridescent feathers, mother-of-pearl, and shot textiles circulated between these regions in the early modern period both physically, within novel transregional political and economic networks, and through representations in text and image. Historians of art and science have not fully examined the implications of this geographic and cultural mobility. In my dissertation I argue that it was directly related to the ways in which the shifting colors characteristic of such materials were seen to challenge the reliability of sight. Reactions to iridescent materials preserved in objects, images, and texts comprise a rich set of data that helps to answer fundamental questions regarding how individuals on both sides of the Atlantic understood optical perception and its ability to provide a link to an objective reality. At the same time, they help to situate the Hispanic world within a larger narrative that has traditionally placed the development of modern theories of vision almost exclusively within the context of the Italian peninsula and northern Europe.

Why were early modern viewers in Spain and Mexico—and beyond—so fascinated with iridescence? Color is a fundamental aspect of visual perception. Objects within our field of vision are identified and defined in part through their hue, a quality that appears to be inherent to them. Iridescent materials challenge the idea that colors are properties of the things that we see because of the visual experience they provide, in which shifts in viewing geometry yield contrasting optical data. Early modern naturalists, philosophers, playwrights, missionaries, artistic theorists, collectors, and patrons engaged with iridescence because it provoked epistemological questions regarding the veridicality of sense data.

The study of these materials is especially relevant within the context of the early modern Hispanic world. First, the geographical parameters of the Spanish empire facilitated the circulation of iridescent natural materials to which neither Europeans nor Central Mexicans had had previous access. Second, Iberian expansion to the Americas brought with it a rich and heterogeneous lineage of thought on iridescent materials, a system of ideas that was matched in complexity by those of the indigenous inhabitants of the region. This context not only allows for a comparison of differing approaches to the optical phenomenon of iridescence across cultural divides but also provides an opportunity to look for similarities and entanglements as these traditions wove together. Last, the unique status of the image, which frequently functioned in an evidentiary capacity in the early modern Hispanic world, makes this context a fruitful conceptual space in which to evaluate responses to iridescent materials, whose visual qualities thwarted easy transcription to the page and canvas. Paradoxically, this relationship between images and truth was coupled, especially in the seventeenth century, with a growing distrust in the objectivity of data gathered through optical perception. Fascination with the discrepancies between appearance and reality marked a variety of period discourse. Drawing connections between responses to iridescence in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries therefore helps to situate the Spanish world at the forefront of period debates that have been central to the narrative of the Scientific Revolution, a narrative that has often ignored the contributions of historical actors in this sphere.