A Fledgling Baroque: Featherworks from New Spain in Counter-Reformation Europe

by Rachel Kline

Figure 1. Unknown Mexica Artist. Ahuitzotl Shield (c. 1500). Feathers, gold leaf, and reed. Weltmuseum Wien, Austria. © KHM-Museumsverband.

Throughout the sixteenth century, Spanish clergy and nobility acquired hundreds of featherworks crafted by the Indigenous artists of New Spain, which arrived on merchant ships in major European port cities from Antwerp to Seville. The artistic tradition of featherwork, or amantecayotl, among the Mexica people of New Spain predated the conquest of Tenochtitlán but was preserved by the Spanish colonists who commissioned Indigenous artists to create Catholic images in the art form. At once objects of Mexica cultural affirmation and evidence of conquest and conversion, sixteenth-century featherworks represented the Spanish possession of the Americas and bridged the impossible distance of empire for collectors who sought to construct a cosmopolitan self-image. European viewers were enthralled by their inexplicability as objects of both human artifice and natural creation so distinct from the mimetic painting of the late Renaissance. Within the context of the Counter-Reformation and the Council of Trent’s (1545–1563) reaffirmation of the role of images in religious practice, featherworks emerge as a non-western influence on the European Baroque, which harnessed the political valence of affect in service of the Catholic Church. By examining Mexican featherworks through a decolonial lens, this paper proposes a thread linking the affective splendor of arts indigenous to the Central Mexican Valley to the emergent Baroque style of Counter-Reformation Europe.

One of the earliest featherworks to arrive in Europe was the pre-Hispanic Ahuitzotl Shield, now in the imperial collections in Vienna (fig. 1).1 Dating to the early sixteenth century, the featherwork shield was crafted by skilled artists known as amantecas, who were trained in the art of amantecayotl. Called chimalli by the Mexica, these featherwork shields were often used in ritual performances and were particularly valued for the ways in which the image crafted from feathers responded to the vibrant effects of ambient light, granting them an affective power.2 Often received as tribute to the Aztec Emperor, or tlatoani, extravagantly decorated featherwork shields can also be read as material manifestations of the tlatoani’s authority to extract luxury resources from subordinate groups.3 The amantecas created these featherwork objects by cutting feathers into minuscule pieces and applying them to a blank surface with a natural adhesive in a similar technique to arranging mosaics.4 The feathers themselves were acquired by the pochtecas who traveled far distances into Central America to obtain them from the quetzal bird and other species not native to the Central Mexican Valley.5 As a result, featherwork objects, or amantecayotl, embodied the reach of the Aztec Empire, which wielded economic and political power over neighboring regions from which the feathers originated. The function of featherworks as an imperial signifier for the Aztecs would later be appropriated by the Spanish conquistadores who sought to convey their own imperial aspirations.

Beginning in the sixteenth century, Indigenous artists were commissioned by the Spanish clergy and colonial elites to depict Catholic imagery using the featherwork medium, thereby resulting in the creation of complex objects situated between different cultural systems of representation. While featherworks bearing religious imagery have commonly been interpreted as signs of European domination of the Mexica, the Spanish appropriation of a traditional indigenous medium for their most sacred works of devotional art speaks to a more nuanced relationship of power.6 In this reading of the featherworks, we can identify a system of artistic representation and symbolic meaning which would not be completely erased even in the face of Spanish conquest and conversion. Although the Spaniards chose to preserve the medium of featherwork and appropriate it for their own devotional arts, we can consider the skillfulness of Indigenous artists, the adaptability of Catholic images, and the dual coding of indigenous and European meaning as primary reasons why featherwork endured.7

Figure 2. Juan Bautista Cuiris. Jesus at the Age of Twelve (1590–1600). Michoacán, Mexico. Feathers on paper on copper with gilding. 10 x 7.2 in. (25.4 x 18.2 cm). Kaiserliche Schatzkammer, Kunstihistorisches Museum, Vienna. © KHM-Museumsverband.
Figure 3. Juan Bautista Cuiris. Weeping Virgin (1590–1600). Michoacán, Mexico. Feathers on paper on copper with gilding. 10 x 7.2 in. (25.4 x 18.2 cm). Kaiserliche Schatzkammer, Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna. © KHM-Museumsverband.

The reception of featherworks from New Spain in Europe determined the impact they would have on the artistic practice and discourse of the Counter-Reformation as an era of stylistic transformation. The bewilderment that ensued upon the arrival of featherworks highlights the intensity of responses that these objects elicited.Created in Michoacán by the Indigenous artist Juan Batista Cuiris at the end of the sixteenth century, the featherwork pendants Jesus at the Age of Twelve (fig. 2) and Weeping Virgin (fig. 3) embody the astonishing optical effects that fascinated European viewers. Both figures are encircled by a shimmering turquoise background of hummingbird feathers, which appear both blue and green due to the effect of light on the surface of the feather fragments.9 The sacred quality of these images is indebted to the medium, which, through the chromatic vibrations of hummingbird feathers, breathes life into the figures of the Virgin and Christ. Building on Brendan McMahon’s argument that the “chromatic instability of colonial Mexican featherwork” transformed the visual experience of images in early modern Europe, we should reconsider their reception in the context of European stylistic developments.10 The green and blue hues of iridescent featherwork shift and change depending on the angle of both the viewer and the light source, and therefore they became enmeshed in artistic discourse about the affective capabilities of visual experience.11 In this way, featherwork images differed from the static medium of oil paint and entered into the vibrant debates surrounding the artistic imitation of nature and the wonders of the natural world. As such, the bewilderment of European viewers upon seeing Mexican featherworks can be explained not just by the objects’ embodiment of an exotic location, but by their connection to an intellectual discourse about “the illusory nature of the material world itself.”12

These decolonial reconsiderations about the reception of featherworks in early modern Europe share a concern for both the agency of the Indigenous artist whose skillful work captivated European audiences and the contributions of Latin America to intellectual discourse and artistic production across sixteenth-century Europe. The canon of early modern art should include objects like Batista Cuiris’s featherworks because of documented evidence that they were considered sophisticated art objects even by European artists themselves. In 1520, the German Renaissance artist Albrecht Dürer traveled to Brussels to meet with Emperor Charles V regarding his pension. While in Brussels, Dürer saw the exhibition of Cortés’s gifts to Charles V, which included a large inventory of Aztec metalwork, textiles, and most likely featherwork.13 Upon viewing these objects, Dürer recorded in his journal: “I have never in my life seen anything that gave my heart such delight as these things for I saw in them the subtle ingeniousness of people in foreign lands. I cannot find words to describe all those things I found there.”14

This encounter between a Renaissance master and Aztec art is remarkable in and of itself, but the most significant aspect of Dürer’s testimony is his ascription of ingenium to the Indigenous artists of New Spain. Ingenium, or the innate quality of genius, was an early modern term attributed only to the most skilled painters, sculptors, and architects. Dürer’s inclusion of this terminology in his journal as he recalled the objects he saw that day demonstrates the affective power of New Spanish arts in the European imagination. Far from being described as exotic or primitive, the objects Cortés shipped back to the Holy Roman Empire were lauded as objects crafted by artists gifted with ingenium. However, it should be noted that while Dürer’s claim demonstrates that he perceived the makers of these objects quite differently than the dehumanizing conquistadores, it remains unclear how he viewed Indigenous artists in relation to himself, as the Aztec objects he witnessed may have fallen outside the bounds of a Renaissance definition of art, which privileged painting, sculpture, and graphic works.

Figure 4. Albrecht Dürer. Wing of a Blue Roller (c. 1512). Watercolor and gouache on parchment. 7.7 x 7.9 in. (19.6 x 20.1 cm). The Albertina Museum, Vienna. © The Albertina Museum, Vienna.

Though Dürer’s Wing of a Blue Roller predates his trip to Brussels, it becomes impossible to view without imagining the influence of Aztec featherworks on the artist’s detailed description of the miraculously vibrant bird wing (fig. 4). Although there is no explicit evidence that Dürer ever drew the marvelous featherworks from New Spain that he experienced in Brussels, unpacking the social life of his Wing of a Blue Roller points to a likely linkage between the two art forms.15 Regardless, the interest in and relationship between featherworks and the hyper-realism of Dürer’s nature study helps us to imagine the ways in which arts from New Spain entered and impacted the intellectual discourse surrounding European art during the sixteenth century.

Wing of a Blue Roller was acquired by Emperor Rudolf II to be displayed in his Kunstkammer at Prague Castle, which also housed Juan Batista Cuiris’s featherwork pendants of the Virgin and Christ.16 As a great patron of the arts and sciences, Rudolf II was intensely interested in natural curiosities and what Brendan McMahon has described as contingent images, or “ambiguous pictures with unstable perception.”17 We can theorize that Rudolf paired Bautista Cuiris’s featherworks with Dürer’s watercolor not only because of their associations with birds, but also because they would have provoked humanistic discourse surrounding the capacity for art to imitate or even surpass nature.

The Kunstkammer of Rudolf II was organized into the dual categories of artificialia and naturalia, with man-made objects and items collected from nature being cataloged separately but not necessarily displayed in this manner.18 However, the featherwork’s natural medium, combined with human intellectual talent, disrupts the binary of Rudolf’s system of classification and therefore represents an object of exceptional curiosity. The natural medium of hummingbird feathers would have been understood by European viewers as secondary to the featherworks’ function as devotional works of art. Further, the astonishing optical effects of Bautista Cuiris’s featherworks could make even the hyper-naturalistic watercolor by Dürer appear mute and static. The hummingbird feathers’ chromatic instability combined with the breathtaking arrangement of color would have perhaps appealed more to Rudolf II who, in prefiguring the Baroque emphasis on the spectacular, was himself captivated by the wondrous things the world had to offer. Unlike the Renaissance, in which the most mesmerizing art was that which could imitate the ancients, the Counter-Reformation era ushered in a focus on affective, bewildering images that existed beyond the realm of intellectual or artistic explanation.

Isabel Yaya has demonstrated the desire amongst collectors to possess marvelous objects from the Americas and maintains that during the Counter-Reformation, “there was also a turning away from the classical standards of beauty towards an emphasis on the atypical work of nature and the abnormal.”19 The practice of collecting objects of exotica in the late sixteenth century aligned with the humanistic pursuit of compiling the macrocosm of the world within the microcosm of the Kunstkammer, yet also implicated the European elite in the process of American colonization.20 While featherworks indeed embodied the far-flung colony of New Spain, they also promoted the growing interest among collectors and connoisseurs in the marvelous, which would ultimately lead to the stylistic shift towards the spectacular image in the Baroque era.

In reaffirming the centrality of images to Catholic worship, the Council of Trent in 1563 and the later Counter-Reformation movement introduced the political valence of affect.21 Indeed, an entire genre of art rooted in the promotion of the sensuous as inherent to the practice of worship arose following the Council of Trent.22 The responses of bewilderment that followed the introduction of featherworks into Europe predate the profoundly sensuous devotional images of the Counter-Reformation, yet their reception by Dürer speaks to a longstanding impact. Claire Farago has theorized about the significant contributions of Latin American art to the intellectual landscape of Counter-Reformation Europe and argues that “non-European art may have contributed to the theoretical and critical discussions of western art, which never directly mentioned their existence.”23 Through documentary and visual evidence, the proposed thread linking featherworks to the emergent Baroque style of the Counter-Reformation has amplified the influence of Latin America and Indigenous artists on the stylistic transformation of European art.

Within the context of the Counter-Reformation, featherworks illustrated the power of spectacular images to captivate the viewer, as Europeans remarked upon the mesmerizing inexplicability of featherworks as objects of human artifice and marvels of the natural world. Predating the European Baroque movement by more than fifty years, featherworks breathed new life into the artistic and intellectual discourses surrounding the role of the image and the wonders of nature. Through this artistic influence, perhaps featherworks can be situated within an emergent Baroque aesthetic, which valued the marvelous, sensuous qualities so inherent to the affective capabilities of featherworks. Therefore, by crediting the Indigenous makers of featherworks as contributors to a period of European stylistic transformation, this paper has sought to reaffirm the active role of Indigenous Americans in the making and remaking of the visual culture of the early modern world.


Rachel Kline is a third-year PhD student in the History of Art & Architecture at Boston University specializing in the Italian Renaissance. With a background in anthropology, she hopes to use this perspective to explore the cultural meanings acquired by art objects and their materials circulating in the Renaissance. Rachel is especially interested in the artistic exchange between Italy and Northern Europe during the fifteenth century.



1. The shield was given by Hernán Cortés to the Bishop of Palencia, Don Pedro Ruiz de la Mota in his shipment sent from New Spain in 1522. Alessandra Russo, The Untranslatable Image: A Mestizo History of the Arts in New Spain, 15001600 (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2014), 28.

2. Alessandra Russo has suggested that for the Mexica people prior to Spanish conquest in the sixteenth century, featherworks were linked to the religious practice of sacrifice and the accompanying ritual performances. Alessandra Russo, “Recomposing the Image: Presents and Absents in the Mass of St. Gregory, Mexico-Tenochtitlan, 1539,” in Synergies: Creating Art in Joined Culture, eds. Manuela De Giorgi, Annette Hoffmann, Nicola Suthor (Florence: Kunsthistorisches Institut-Max Planck, 2012), 467. Additionally, Diane Fane has argued that the ways in which light and color interacted on the surface of the featherwork medium granted the chimalli an affective power. Diana Fane, “Feathers, Jade, Turquoise, and Gold,” in Images Take Flight: Feather Art in Mexico and Europe (14001700), eds. Alessandra Russo, Gerhard Wolf, and Diane Fane (Munich: Hirmer, 2015), 103.

3.  See Alessandra Russo, “Cortes’s Objects and the Idea of New Spain: Inventories as Spatial Narratives,” Journal of the History of Collections 23, no. 2 (2011): 18.

4. Alessandra Russo, “A Contemporary Art from New Spain,” in Images Take Flight, 30. 

5. The pochtecas were a class of long-distance merchants in pre-Hispanic Tenochtitlán who traveled as far as the southwestern United States and Central America to acquire precious goods for the imperial capital. See Deborah L. Nichols, “Farm to Market in the Aztec Imperial Economy,” in Rethinking the Aztec Economy, eds. Deborah L. Nichols, Frances F. Berdan, and Michael Ernst (Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 2017), 19–43.

6. Thomas Cummins has argued that featherworks depicting Catholic subject matter were primarily evidence of successful conversion of the Mexica by the Spanish. In reference to one of the first featherworks to be made with Catholic imagery, he maintains that “the feather painting of the Mass of Saint Gregory was thus intended as more than a material gift; it was an early sign of the conversion of the Mexicans, and proof that they were capable of a profound understanding of the mysteries of Christianity.” See Thomas Cummins, “To Serve Man: Pre-Columbian Art, Western Discourses of Idolatry, and Cannibalism,” RES: Anthropology and Aesthetics, no. 42 (2002): 116.

7. In Reframing the Renaissance, Claire Farago calls for a methodological approach to Renaissance art which considers the exterior factors of artistic influence and asks, “What would the history of the Renaissance look like if cultural interaction and exchange, and the conditions of reception, became our primary concern?” This type of decolonial methodology that aims to re-examine the visual culture of the Renaissance has informed my approach to the reception of featherworks in Counter-Reformation Europe. Claire J. Farago, “Introduction,” in Reframing the Renaissance: Visual Culture in Europe and Latin America, 14501650, ed. Claire Farago (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1995), 8.

8. At the Debate of Valladolid (1550–1551), Bartolomé de Las Casas argued in support of the humanity of Indigenous Americans by citing their artistic capabilities. Las Casas articulated how the bewildering effect of featherworks convinced him of the rights of the Indigenous to sovereignty and even placed featherworks on the same level as contemporary European painting. In his Apologética Historia Sumaria he wrote: “But what certainly seems to exceed all human inventiveness, and which all the nations of the world will find not just curious but entirely novel, and all the more worthy of admiration and esteem, is the art that those Mexican people know how to make so perfectly, of creating with natural feathers with their own natural colors everything that they and all other excellent and first-rate painters are capable of painting with brushes.” Bartolomé de Las Casas, Apologética Historia Sumaria, book III, LXII, 323–325, qtd. in Alessandra Russo, The Untranslatable Image, 85.

9. Feathers from the violetear hummingbird were increasingly used in featherworks postconquest because the species of bird was native to Mexico and the Spanish conquest had disrupted previous long-distance trade networks which imported feathers to Tenochtitlán from the rainforests of Central America. See Brendan C. McMahon, “Contingent Images: Looking Obliquely at Colonial Mexican Featherwork in Early Modern Europe,” The Art Bulletin 103, no. 2 (2021): 29.

10. Brendan C. McMahon, “Contingent Images: Looking Obliquely at Colonial Mexican Featherwork in Early Modern Europe,” The Art Bulletin 103, no. 2 (2021): 26.

11. McMahon, Contingent Images, 25.

12. McMahon, Contingent Images, 45.

13. Joseph Koerner, “Dürer in Motion,” in Dürer’s Journeys: Travels of a Renaissance Artist, eds. Susan Foister and Peter Brink (London: National Gallery, 2021), 44.

14. Albrecht Dürer qtd. in Koerner, “Dürer in Motion,” 44.

15. Anthropologist Arjun Appadurai has demonstrated that objects collect value and social meaning through human transactions. See Arjun Appadurai, “Introduction: Commodities and the Politics of Value,” in The Social Life of Things: Commodities in Cultural Perspective, ed. Arjun Appadurai (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986), 3–63. Alessandra Russo has argued that Dürer, who was intensely interested in nature studies as a way of obtaining knowledge, possibly created this watercolor in dialogue with the objects of Aztec art he saw in Brussels. See Alessandra Russo, “A Contemporary Art from New Spain,” 50.

16. Thomas DaCosta Kaufmann, “Remarks on the Collections of Rudolf II: The Kunstkammer as a Form of Representatio.” Art Journal 38, no. 1 (1978): 22–28; Alessandra Russo, “A Contemporary Art from New Spain,” 50.

17. McMahon, Contingent Images, 26.

18. DaCosta Kaufmann, “Remarks on the Collections of Rudolf II,” 24.

19. Isabel Yaya, “Wonders of America: The Curiosity Cabinet as a Site of Representation and Knowledge.” Journal of the History of Collections 20, no. 2 (November 1, 2008): 176.

20. Daniela Bleichmar, “Seeing the World in a Room: Looking at Exotica in Early Modern Collections,” in Collecting Across Cultures: Material Exchanges in the Early Modern Atlantic World, eds. Daniela Bleichmar and Peter C. Mancall (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2011), 15–30.

21. Between 1545 and 1563, the Council of Trent reevaluated the role of images in the Catholic Church in the wake of the Protestant Reformation, which had led to an outbreak of iconoclasm in Northern Europe. The Council of Trent resulted in the recognition by the Catholic Church that Protestants had renounced emotion and the senses in their practice of worship and so the Church could therefore use images that elicited an emotional response to appeal to followers lost to the Protestant movement. See Marcia B. Hall and Tracy Elizabeth Cooper, “Introduction,” in The Sensuous in the Counter-Reformation Church, eds. Marcia B. Hall and Tracy Elizabeth Cooper (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2013), 2.

22. Hall and Cooper, “Introduction,” 2.

23. Farago, “Introduction,” 11.

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