Stephanie Porras, The First Viral Images: Maerten de Vos, Antwerp Print, and the Early Modern Globe. University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2023, 186 pp, ISBN 9780271092836.
Aaron Hyman, Rubens in Repeat: The Logic of the Copy in Colonial Latin America. Los Angeles: Getty Research Institute Publications, 2021, 311 pp, ISBN 9781606066867.
These fascinating books illuminate the previously under studied relationship of early modern Netherlandish art to works produced in global Spain. Their consecutive publications signal a watershed moment in Netherlandish art history’s global turn. Together, they evolve our understanding of print’s impact on early modern art and its importance for variations on compositional prototypes.
Stephanie Porras addresses the dissemination and repetition of the main figure in St. Michael the Archangel (1581–85) by Antwerp master Maarten de Vos (1532–1603), which depicts the archangel defeating Satan. Aaron Hyman shows us how several prints after compositions by Peter Paul Rubens (1577–1640) received reinterpretation by New Spanish and Peruvian artists. Despite the ostensibly narrow scopes of both books, the appearance in print of the works at the core of each prompted the global movement, reception, and reiteration of their works over the course of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Both authors rise to this challenge by exploring a range of people and images scoped well beyond de Vos’s and Rubens’s immediate circles and oeuvres. And both judiciously imbricate the artistic choices they address with their global geopolitical contexts.
Porras’s first chapter emphatically foregrounds her interpretive model’s originality compared to traditional scholarly approaches to print’s dissemination. As her book’s title indicates, in the global movement, appropriation, and continued reinterpretation of de Vos’s St. Michael she sees similarities with our present-day fast trafficking of popular internet memes. Porras draws on Karen Nahon and Jeff Hemsley’s Going Viral, to underscore virality’s emphasis on image mobility’s “infrastructure…the physical spaces, transit systems [and the] political, commercial, and religious organizations” (14) that facilitated the printed image’s movement and reinterpretation in new works. She contrasts this to the often and perhaps thoughtlessly repeated term, “circulation,” which she argues falsely suggests autonomous image movement. Although Porras’s book might be the first to liken the spread of early modern prints to viral internet content, her emphasis on the concerned actors who facilitated such movement is not new. In 2001, for example, Rose Marie San Juan urged us to privilege the “web of social relations constantly under contestation and renegotiation” that produced, circulated, and consumed printed images. Still, Porras’s revelation of intertwined networks of patrons, artists, and audiences around a single image’s spread forms the appropriate counter to paradigmatic placements of simulacra in linear chains of transmission per George Kubler’s Shape of Time.
Chapter 2, “Fixing the Line,” applies virality to the famous pair of Antwerp-published Jesuit books, the Imagines Icones Symbolicae and the Adnotationes et Meditationes (1593). The former contains many images showing Christ’s life, some after de Vos; the latter contains their corresponding text. Though the Imagines is intertextual (and “inter-visual,” as it were), Porras sees in it an “unexpected viral object” (17) because of its size, complexity, and abundance of images. However, its Antwerp genesis locates it in a “meshwork” encouraging virality. The ardently mobile Jesuits brought the Imagines to Mughal territories and China, where its pictures engendered localized reinterpretations. In a book about de Vos’s St. Michael, this material may seem misplaced. However, the Imagines comprises an appropriate exemplum for establishing Antwerp-driven virality. That it contained de Vos’s compositions demonstrates his global reach.
The book’s remaining chapters detail the St. Michael’s virality across time and space in ever widening circles and increasingly varied media. Chapter 3, “Conquering and Forgetting,” establishes the composition’s unique qualifications for virality. Between the painting’s execution in 1581 and the print’s publication in 1584, Antwerp oscillated violently between Calvinism and Spanish Habsburg Catholicism. Porras links this tumult to St. Michael’s presence in print “as a…subject of Spanish force.” (56) Meanwhile, the painting traveled from Antwerp to the high altar of Mexico City’s cathedral, where it broadcast Counter-Reform triumph. Per Porras, such movement could only have occurred via “powerful gatekeepers…religious authorities [and] royal tastemakers,” (86) messengers of Spain’s imperially branded Catholicism. By the mid-seventeenth century, the print’s proliferation in New Spain begat numerous painted reinterpretations. Porras sees these repetitions as revealing Spain’s “inherent instability,” its perpetual conflict with “Moors, Jews, heretics, and pagans.” (87) Chapter 4, “Local Mediators in Latin America,” illuminates these localized permutations. Stoking adaptations of de Vos’s figure across media was the seventeenth-century growth of the cult of St. Michael around the famous 1631 vision of the archangel in San Bernabé; this resulted in processions featuring St. Michael images indebted to de Vos’s print. Chapter 5, “Silver and Souls in Manila,” traces the St. Michael’s migration to the Hispano-Philippines, where he appeared in sculptures, some of which found their way to the Low Countries. In sum, the sheer number of figures indebted to the de Vos figure has art historical value; it reveals the composition’s continued widespread resonance. But Porras’s penetrating interpretations deftly situate the St. Michael’s global spread, thus advancing our awareness. Her writing is everywhere crisp, direct, and clear.
Aaron Hyman’s Rubens in Repeat is as thorough as Porras’s book in its contextualization of Netherlandish art’s numerous global reiterations. Like Porras, Hyman eschews linear production models wherein patrons or artists affect a top-down process. He reveals collaborative transatlantic networks across which Rubens’s compositions traveled and reappeared. However, while Porras explores the wherefores of print’s role in a single image’s spread, Hyman seeks to clarify the relationship between a single artist’s print oeuvre and the works it engendered. This approach engages one of the discipline’s core questions, the relationship of prototype to “copy,” resulting in a more encompassing theoretical construct. His book’s unassuming subtitle – “The Logic of the Copy…” – conceals his dazzling mastery of late medieval and early modern image replication’s historiography. Hyman has received criticism for devaluing Alexander Nagel and Christopher Wood’s interpretation of copies as “substitutions” that perpetuated their prototypes. But his rejection of this and other theories that unsatisfactorily account for the copy may prove as important as Michael Bury’s early 1990s takedown of “reproductive.” For devising his own explanatory term, Hyman looks not to the present, but to the archive. As deceptively modest as his subtitle, his coinage the “conforming copy” results from a preponderance of contracts obligating New Spanish artists to “conform” (in Spanish, “conformar”) to their Rubensian models (13). With many well-chosen examples, Hyman uses this open directive as an entree into the complicated nature of New Spanish artistic agency, its deft reconciliations of Rubens’s compositions with concerns from local to global.
Hyman elaborates this story in three parts addressing permutations of Rubens’s designs in Cuzco, Mexico City’s cathedral, and the viceroyalties of New Spain and Peru. In some examples, the artist’s solutions for conforming to Rubens are clear. For example, in Cuzco, an unknown artist translated Rubens’s rectangular Antwerp triptych, Elevation of the Cross (1610–11), to a lunette larger than its prototype by approximately 250 cm.. Working with Jan Witdoeck’s engraving after Rubens’s design (1638), also rectangular, the Cuzco master managed to include all the prototype’s major elements in a manner affirming its source. Works by Cristobal de Villalpando (1649–1714) and his master-then-rival, Baltasar de Echave Rioja (1632–1682), receiving scrutiny in Part 2, “The Cathedral, Mexico City,” are more complex. Villalpando’s variation on Rubens’s Triumph of the Church through the Eucharist (1686) appears in the Cathedral’s sacristy. Unlike Rioja’s earlier, utterly conforming version in Puebla’s Cathedral (1675), Villalpando’s features obvious license with its source. Original motifs appear in pastiche with new ones from other prints after Rubens. Critical readers will wonder if Vilalpando’s liberally recreated Triumph transgresses Hyman’s notion of the conforming copy. While Hyman does not give this question sustained address, his analysis suggests not. He destabilizes Rubens’s original by noting its many pre-transatlantic iterations: drawing, oil sketch, cartoon, engraving, and tapestry. Add Rioja’s earlier Triumph to the mix and, Hyman argues, Villalpando inherited an already-fluid design, to which he conformed, but not slavishly, to create a site-specific painting useful to clergy administering the host to first-generation converts. Hyman’s notion of conformity, then, provides a spectrum within which to gauge relations between New Spanish works and their European sources. It appears to be a reasonably elastic concept as examples continue to accrue in subsequent chapters.
Of especial art historical value is Hyman’s Chapter 5, “Transatlantic Thesis Disputation,” which assesses an image that modern scholars have long found inscrutable: Paulus Pontius’s print after Rubens’s Austroseraphic Heavens (1616–1657). A global Franciscan network facilitated the trafficking of the print’s central motif, St. Francis in an Atlantean pose, which appeared in numerous examples across media and ecclesiastical contexts. Hyman is convincing in demonstrating the motif’s use as a prompt for thesis disputation, a discursive intertext among “Franciscans on two sides of an ocean [comprising] one audience.” (250) Like Porras’s many discoveries of de Vos variants, Hyman’s presentation of these examples is itself a marvel. But his book’s true art historical value is in his valiant commitment to acknowledging the possible pitfalls in his arguments and explaining the nuance he has discovered. He avoids privileging difficulty for its own sake; he clarifies without oversimplifying. He is perhaps overly reliant on some pet expressions, evincing the real struggle to invent varied language for these new ideas. For example, artworks, concepts, and even his own ideas, are everywhere “mobilized.” Similarly, artists, patrons, and audiences repeatedly “complicate” conventions or our discipline’s misguided perceptions. However, over the whole of this thoroughly researched, generously argued, and copiously appointed book, his writing is vibrant and pleasurable.
Points of contact and comparison between these books raise questions. Mexico City’s cathedral provides an enriched nexus. Hyman, not Porras, examines de Vos’s unconventional borrowing of print’s signature conventions to declare himself the St. Michael painting’s “inventor” (MERTINO DE VOS ANTVEPIECIS / INVENTOR ET FECIT ANNO / 1581). For Hyman, this explains Villalpando’s choice to sign himself as the Triumph’s inventor. But the New Spanish master’s reciprocity with de Vos also furthers Porras’s notion of de Vos’s virality and corroborates her point that de Vos sensed print’s global viability. Relatedly, the splendid quality of the prints at the center of both studies (evident thanks to high production values) is also enlightening. De Vos engaged Antwerp’s elite engravers; Rubens, dissatisfied with the quality of prints after his designs, took over their production. Porras sustains the possibility of de Vos’s participation in St. Michael’s global virality. Hyman renders Rubens spectrally by comparison. That none of the contracts Hyman has mined mentions Rubens perhaps justifies this relative invisibility. Hyman wisely refrains from arguing that this forecloses considerations of Rubens’s agency. While he unassailably establishes New Spanish artistic agency in the repetition of Rubens’s designs, perhaps there is also use in seeking Rubens’s industry in the arrival of his prints on distant shores. Granted, however, traditional notions of individuated authorship must yield to Hyman’s focus on how the copy reveals the original.
Both of these books are monumentally important. Each’s impressive depth strongly suggests that we have only begun to explore how early modern prints nuanced global conquest. The idea that Netherlandish prints lived in a European vacuum, or that people could have ever produced and carried pictures, texts, pictures of texts, or ideas to global destinations in linear processes now seems reductive and impossible. Likewise, the notion of the colonial artist’s or audience’s uncritical acceptance of imperially generated art now seems unthinkable.
Arthur J. DiFuria
Savannah College of Art and Design
 Karen Nahon and Jeff Hemsley, Going Viral (Cambridge: Polity, 2013).
 Rose Marie San Juan, Rome, A City Out of Print (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2001), 29.
 George Kubler, The Shape of Time: Remarks on the History of Things (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1962), 44–46.
 Amy Knight Powell, “Review: Rubens in Repeat: The Logic of the Copy in Colonial Latin America, by Aaron Hyman,” Art Bulletin 104 no. 4 (2022): 122; Alexander Nagel and Christopher Wood, Anachronic Renaissance (Brooklyn, NY: Zone Books, 2010).
 Michael Bury, “On Some Engravings by Giorgio Ghisi Commonly called ‘Reproductive,’” Print Quarterly 10 no. 1 (1993): 4–18.