Expert opinion
A Prominent Figure in the History of New Spain
A portrait of the venerable Don Juan de Palafox y Mendoza

The city of Puebla is engaged in permanent dialog with the figure of Palafox, as this bishop’s cherished episcopal see was the place he loved most, and the prelate’s presence is palpable in many of Puebla’s buildings. As one of the most important figures in Mexico’s history, the Regional Museum of Puebla (MUREP/INAH) cannot ignore him.

All of the moments in Puebla’s history are present in the MUREP’s wonderful collection, from the arrival of the first humans to the creation of the Mexican state, as well as contemporary expressions by the diverse social groups that make up Puebla’s regions. The History Gallery has various exhibits that refer to important figures in regional history, such as mayors, bishops, soldiers and merchants, as well as objects connected with the daily lives of artisans or farmers. One of these pieces is the Portrait of Bishop Palafox as Inspector of the University of Mexico, an oil painting executed by the skillful brush of Joseph de Ibarra, a colonial artist who painted this work in 1739.

Juan de Palafox y Mendoza was born in Fitero (in the southernmost part of Navarre, Spain) and held important positions within the governmental structure of the Spanish monarchy. He served on several of Philip IV of Spain’s councils, was chaplain to certain members of the royal family, Viceroy and General Inspector of New Spain and, above all, Bishop of Puebla. The material results of his activities are now greatly admired, and although he does not deserve all the credit, since his predecessors and successors also participated in these works, he does stand out as the driving force behind Puebla Cathedral, the Palafoxian Library, the Conciliar Seminary, parish churches for numerous towns in the states of Puebla and Tlaxcala, the shrine of San Miguel del Milagro, and for inscribing the name of the city of Puebla in the history of the West. He is a leading historical figure about whom numerous books have been written and perhaps also the most frequently depicted figure in New World art, above all in paintings and engravings.

Notwithstanding his achievements, he was also one of the most polemical figures of his age, whose reforming actions earned him innumerable enemies in the Church, the vice-regal administration and the royal court itself. Palafox was a prolific writer, and texts by him have been preserved on the most diverse subjects, from economics to spiritual matters.

There are several portraits of him, besides the numerous paintings he appears in (as was customary at the time) as a participant in religious genre scenes, such as the Adoration of the Shepherds (in Puebla Catedral). The official portrait of the prelate as bishop of the diocese of Tlaxcala-Puebla hangs in the Chapter House of Puebla Cathedral, which was painted by Diego de Borgraf, and the face it displays was undoubtedly the basis for subsequent depictions, as well as the engravings produced in Spain. The painting displayed at the MUREP was produced almost a century after Palafox’s arrival in New Spain, and is especially dedicated to his work as inspector and reformer of the Royal and Pontifical University of Mexico. He held this position from 1644 to 1645 in order to eradicate abuses in the granting of dispensations for obtaining university degrees, and to endow the institution with clear administrative and academic rules of operation.

The bishop is the only figure shown on the canvas, and stands in the center, dressed in his episcopal robes. The coat-of-arms of the Marquisate of Ariza, a title which belonged to his father, appears in the background. Next to the bishop is a table on which stands the image of the Infant Jesus of Prague, one of his chief devotions. His right hand holds a pectoral cross and his left rests on the book of the Royal University Statutes, i.e. the Constitution with which he attempted to regulate that institution. Written by Palafox himself, these Statutes were the result of his inspection of the University (we would call it an audit nowadays). The notice which occupies most of the bottom right-hand corner of the painting attests to this activity. His face bears almost no expression, yet it is at the same time at the absolute heart of all the elements in the painting. This depiction reinforces his role as officer of the crown, which is why it does not display more episcopal attributes (such as the cappa magna shown in Borgraf’s portrait). It does, however, place emphasis on his communication with Philip IV of Spain on matters relating to the University of Mexico, hence the letter and envelope next to the book of Statutes. This canvas could have been painted for the University of Mexico itself, but it is also possible that it formed part of the Conciliar Seminary (now the Palafoxian Seminary). The erection of this study center for priestly education (based on the tridentine model) was the bishop’s work as well, and he also bestowed it with some statutes of operation. Students at Puebla’s seminary obtained their degree certificates from the Royal and Pontifical University of Mexico.

The portrait is signed by Joseph de Ibarra, one of the most outstanding colonial painters in the first half of the eighteenth century, who died in 1756. Joseph de Ibarra painted several famous portraits, including the Archbishop of Mexico, Juan Antonio de Vizarrón (now hanging in the National Museum of History). This artist painted the works on the outer part of the choir walls at Puebla Cathedral, among other commissions. Portraits of Palafox multiplied throughout the eighteenth century, due to interest from Puebla’s ecclesiastical hierarchy, many admirers and, at one time, the Spanish crown itself. Containing other elements, themes and pictorial techniques, extant portraits dating from that century are by Juan Patricio Morlete, Miguel Jerónimo Zendejas and Miguel Cabrera, to name only the most illustrious. The depiction of Palafox in art is a well-researched topic by historians from Mexico and Spain.

Due to the importance of the figure, theme and artist, this is one of the MUREP’s most significant works, which reveals the wealth of its collection and how representative it is of Puebla’s history, as well as its dialog with other cultures and forms of expression in Mexico and around the world.
INAH-Museo Regional de Puebla
Portrait of Don Juan de Palafox y Mendoza
Under translation

  • Fernández Gracia, Ricardo, 2002, Iconografía de don Juan de Palafox. Imágenes para un hombre de Estado y de Iglesia, Pamplona, Gobierno de Navarra / Departamento de Presidencia, Justicia e Interior.
  • González y González, Enrique, “Juan de Palafox, visitador de la Real Universidad de México: un cuestión por despejar”, en González, Enrique y María Leticia Pérez (coords.), 2001, Colegios y Universidades I. Del antiguo régimen al liberalismo, México, Centro de estudios sobre la Universidad / UNAM.
  • Jaramillo Escutia, Roberto, 2008, “La Universidad Pontificia de México. La reapertura”, en Efemérides Mexicana, núm. 76, México, Universidad Pontificia de México.
  • Méndez Arceo, Sergio, 1990, La Real y Pontificia Universidad de México, México, UNAM.
  • Mues Orts, Paula, 2009, El pintor novohispano José de Ibarra: imágenes retóricas y discursos pintados, Tesis de doctorado en historia del arte, México, UNAM.


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