This powerful painting, which was previously thought to be by an anonymous Spanish artist active in Madrid, has recently been recognized as the work of Cristóbal de Villalpando, the most innovative and accomplished painter in Mexico at the end of the seventeenth century. Born in Mexico City to an affluent family, he studied under the painter Baltasar de Echave Rioja, the son of the Spanish-born painter Baltasar de Echave Orio. Villalpando’s early work is indebted to the baroque theatricality of Sir Peter Paul Rubens, but he increasingly incorporated the more measured style of New World painting traditions, essentially tailoring his style to the demands of the subject matter and commission.
The subject of Saint Michael vanquishing the Devil was especially popular in New Spain in the seventeenth century. Villalpando himself treated it on a number of occasions, including in examples in the Metropolitan Cathedral, Mexico City; Museo José Luis Bello, Puebla; and Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art, Hartford. The comparatively small scale of this painting suggests it was likely painted as part of a domestic altarpiece, perhaps as part of a cycle treating the theme of the Woman of the Apocalypse as recounted in the Book of Revelation. The painting likely dates to around 1680 on account of similarities with Villalpando’s work for the sacristy of the Metropolitan Basilica in Mexico City. While the present painting displays a more refined handling of paint than this large-scale commission, this is no doubt chiefly due to its smaller size. Particularly characteristic of Villalpando’s style are the physiognomy of the hands and knees of both Saint Michael and the figures of the damned as well as the 'boiling' drapery, which is especially close to works like the Lactation of Saint Dominic (Church of Santo Domingo, Mexico City).
We are grateful to Dr. Guillaume Kientz, who curated the exhibition Le Mexique au Louvre: chefs-d'oeuvre de la Nouvelle Espagne, XVIIe et XVIIIe siècles for the Musée du Louvre in 2013, for suggesting an attribution to the artist following firsthand inspection of the painting.