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An Interview with Maya Stanfield-Mazzi, author of “Clothing the New World Church”

Maya Stanfield-Mazzi is an associate professor of art history at the University of Florida. She recently answered our questions about her new book, Clothing the New World Church: Liturgical Textiles of Spanish America, 1520–1820 (February 15, 2021), published by Notre Dame Press on February 15, 2021. While there are several books on pre-Columbian textiles, Clothing the New World Church is the first study that deals with colonial textile arts. In the book she argues that the visual culture of cloth was an important and previously-unrecognized aspect of church art in the Americas, and she shows how a “silk standard” was established on the basis of priestly preferences for imported woven silks. Nevertheless, in select times and places, spectacular local textile types were adapted to take their place within the church, reflecting ancestral aesthetic and ideological patterns. The book is the first broad survey of church textiles of Spanish America, one that also closely examines selected local developments.

When did you first get the idea to write Clothing the New World Church?

When I was working on my first book, about sculptures of Christ and Mary created in the Andes during the sixteenth century, I went to Spain to read a set of very early (1560) church inventories. They outline the possessions of several churches founded along the western shores of Lake Titicaca shortly after the Spanish conquest. While each church had just a few paintings and sculptures, I was surprised to note that they had altar coverings described as being made of “wool from the land.” That made me realize that liturgical textiles were created in the Americas from the outset of evangelization, often in ways that built on indigenous traditions. After finding that similar examples existed in other parts of Spanish America, and that no one had written a broad book about church textiles from that region, I decided to write it.

What can readers find in your book that will resonate with them today?

Part of the movement to decolonize histories of the Americas includes recognizing and foregrounding indigenous voices. While addressing issues of colonial power, especially Catholic priests’ hierarchy of value in regard to church cloth, my book focuses on the contributions of native textile makers to the art of the Catholic Church.

How did you conduct the research for this book?

I read a lot of handwritten church inventories to find what types of cloth churches had and used during the colonial era. I also visited church sacristies to look for historical textiles, and searched through museum collections to find works from Spanish America. I spoke to experts about textile manufacture—dyeing, weaving, etc.—and participated in workshops on weaving and painting on cotton with dyes.

How does this book contribute to contemporary conversations or events?

The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s 2018 exhibition, “Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imagination,” broke a record for attendees but received critique for its focus on western fashion designers. It also focused on fashion of the twentieth century so had little historical depth. A show that did focus on historical textiles, albeit still those from Europe, was the Victoria & Albert Museum’s 2017 “Opus Anglicanum: Masterpieces of English Medieval Embroidery.” My book is the first to apply a historical approach to fine textiles of the early modern Americas, introducing many unknown and little-documented examples and showing their wider impact on colonial society.

What did you learn while writing this book?

I learned that by looking closely at a textile (such as with a loupe) you can often judge the materials it was made of and the technique by which it was created. That information can lead to a much greater understanding and appreciation of where it came from, who made it, and why it was created.

In what way is the book you wrote different from the book you set out to write?

I first thought I would write about liturgical ornaments writ large, including art forms such as silverwork. But then I realized I was primarily captivated by textiles, so I decided to focus on them and consider examples from throughout Spanish America (including Mexico, Peru, Colombia, and Paraguay).

Who is the biggest influence on you and your work?

When I was an undergraduate I read Sabine MacCormack’s Religion in the Andes: Vision and Imagination in Colonial Peru. Her treatment of the complex ways in which Catholicism was introduced to and received in the Andes inspired me to study Catholic art of that region and wider Spanish America. (Dr. MacCormack was the Reverend Theodore Hesburgh Professor of Arts and Letters at the University of Notre Dame from 2003 until her death in 2012.)

What advice would you give to a scholar, who is beginning to work on a book?

Build a strong outline and tie the sections to a realistic timeline. Organize your notes so they’re searchable and allow you to follow your outline. And if possible, team up with a colleague who is also writing and share pages with each other regularly. I did that with my friend Emily Engel, whose book Pictured Politics: Visualizing Colonial History in South American Portrait Collections also just came out.

Who would you like to read Clothing the New World Church and why?

I would like art historians who work on painting, sculpture, or architecture to read my book and be inspired to consider textiles as an important part of colonial visual culture.

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