The Tyranny of Doltish Symbolism

Quito, May 19, 2019

I found a copy of The Best Travel Writing 2000 at my Airbnb in Quito. The binding had failed and the book was falling apart in chunks, but a bottle of Ecuadorian Elmer’s and a couple of rubber bands set it to rights, for the time being. I have read three or four of these essays now, with an eye toward figuring out how they are different from my own travel writing.

One obvious difference, about which I can do nothing, is that each of the essays in the book is a cleverly written account of a real adventure. The essays are about drifting down tropical rivers in foundering barges or ducking behind barricades in civil wars or digging a snow cave using the left femur of a fallen comrade while a blizzard descends upon the hapless author. The Best Travel Writing 2000 does not include any stories about the time the author visited a museum and then drank a cup of coffee while having deep thoughts. There are other differences, too, between my writing and TBTW2000, but this one is particularly germane to the essay you are reading now; despite suspecting that no one wants to read my philosophical musings, and despite having what amounts to proof of this suspicion right here at my elbow, next to a couple of glue-encrusted rubber bands, I am about to talk about my reaction to having visited three different museums here in Quito. I am doing this for my benefit, not for yours.

You have been warned.

The Virgen de Quito

There is an imposing hill called the Panecilla just south of Quito’s Old Town. In 1976, a 45-meter tall aluminum statue was erected at its summit – an inexact and enormous replica of the Virgen de Quito, an iconic statue kept at the altar of the Iglesia de San Francisco, at the foot of the hill. The original statue is a wooden sculpture by the Quiteño artist Bernardo de Legarda, dating from 1734. It depicts a woman with a crown of stars, a pair of wings, a silver chain in her hands, and, at her feet, a crescent moon and a thoroughly trampled dragon. This is a reference to a typically weird moment from Revelation – in this case, Revelation 12:1-4, although I quote 1-6 below, for the sake of completeness:

12 And there appeared a great wonder in heaven; a woman clothed with the sun, and the moon under her feet, and upon her head a crown of twelve stars:

2 And she being with child cried, travailing in birth, and pained to be delivered.

3 And there appeared another wonder in heaven; and behold a great red dragon, having seven heads and ten horns, and seven crowns upon his heads.

4 And his tail drew the third part of the stars of heaven, and did cast them to the earth: and the dragon stood before the woman which was ready to be delivered, for to devour her child as soon as it was born.

5 And she brought forth a man child, who was to rule all nations with a rod of iron: and her child was caught up unto God, and to his throne.

6 And the woman fled into the wilderness, where she hath a place prepared of God, that they should feed her there a thousand two hundred and threescore days.

The convent attached to the Iglesia de San Francisco is now a museum. The gardens inside are home to a handful of tame green parrots, which munch on the chopped fruit that has been provided for them and say “¡Hola!” to the visitors. This is the second time I have visited a convent and met parrots that say “¡Hola!”, the first time being in 2016, in a village outside Antigua, Guatemala. If this is becoming a theme in my life, I’m not sure what to think of it. The museum itself features many brown, unrestored paintings on sacred themes and many sculptures that used to be carried through the streets in processions. All of these embrace the stereotypes of the genre: eyes are fixed on heaven and mouths are agape, all of the hands are spread, palms up, in supplication, wounds are prominently displayed, sometimes with helpful cherubim floating off to one side and extending index fingers to point out the injuries, for those of us who might not have been paying sufficient attention. The collection also includes four or five well crafted replicas of the Virgen de Quito. After walking slowly through the collection, I climbed the stairs to the choir loft, passing an enormous poster that featured a photo of the Virgen and the word SIMBOLOGÍA. Lettering next to the statue started at the top and worked its way down. I include only some of the enumerated symbols in the following list:

The crown – Los rayos solares are the splendor of the truth.
The sun – Jesus and the gospels.
The wings of an eagle – A sign of immortality and the throne of Salomon.
The robe – Symbol of victory.
The color white – Purity, glory, sanctity, justice, light, festivities, and so on.
The mantle – A cover of pure justice, glory, and so on.
The color blue – Symbol of the sky, sanctity, the divinity, and so on.
    Skipping many entries, until finally…
The clouds – God’s miraculous power, and so on.

We see runaway symbolism like this throughout the Catholic world. The churches of Quito feature some of the most brutal depictions of the crucified Christ I have ever beheld. The usual bloody excess of crucifixion scenes has been augmented by purple bruises all over his body. This is and is intended to be ghastly. It seems odd, at first, to find yourself confronted by such horrors in a place that is supposed to be providing a sanctuary from the grotesqueries of everyday life, but the progression that leads to these sorts of excesses is obvious enough. If the crucifixion of Christ is a symbol for God’s love made incarnate, then the sacrifice depicted by this image – the death of the prophet at the hands of the state – needs to be at the forefront of Christian minds. After a few years, a simple reminder – an undecorated wooden cross at the altar – loses its impact, and becomes simply a part of the architecture; the solution is to add the figure of the suffering prophet to the cross, and then to polychrome the figure, to rearrange his limbs to make his agony more obvious, to augment the runnels of blood running down from his hands and the wound in his side and from the crown of thorns on his brow. And then perhaps to add some purple bruises. What began as a symbol of a story in the shared cultural heritage becomes, over time, a symbol of other, similar symbols – the latest entry in a competition to catch the viewer’s attention, and to proclaim, more vividly than any of the previous examples, the symbols themselves, instead of their referents.

Visiting museums of Western sacred art, for a secular person in the 21st century, is largely about walking from one preposterous set of symbols to the next and thinking about the medieval European mind. (The sacred art here in Ecuador is Spanish, of course, and all of the people in the paintings and sculptures are whiter than I am.) The absurdity of the symbolism, and our modern distance from it, is much of the point of the visit. This is not to say that there aren’t many sacred works with superb artistic merit – of course there are. But the great bulk of most collections consists of uninspired clichés that owe their existence to pedagogy, not aesthetics. When Bernardo de Legarda created the Virgen of Quito in 1734, he heaped so much “meaning” on top of his creation that the reason for making it was entirely lost. Where, in his statue, and in the long list of symbols he troweled into it, and, for that matter, in the schizophrenic story out of Revelation, is a hint of the miracle of the virgin birth? That story is so deep and profound – so beautifully bound up with atavistic ideas about sexual impurity and the relationship of humans and gods – that it seems incredible that Bernardo de Legarda could have so entirely missed it. The story of the virgin mother is fascinating for reasons that have nothing to do with trampling dragons, and the veneration of Christ is not advanced by adding more carmine and purple to the lifesize torture tableau on display in the local church.

The symbols seem absurd to me, but today’s believers do not seem to be bothered by them. There is a framed print of the virgin, wearing a long flowing robe and an enormous silver crown, hanging on the wall at the foot of my bed here at this Airbnb. She makes me nervous.

The Cosmos and Pre-Columbian Art

There is a small, magnificent museum just a few doors from the Iglesia de San Francisco – the Casa del Alabado. It is devoted entirely to Ecuadorian pre-Columbian art. The greatness of many of the items in its collection is difficult to overstate. Many of the pieces are in pristine condition; despite being 3,000 years old; they seem to have been carried into the museum in the hands of some local genius just a week ago. I will include a number of photographs that will necessarily give you no more than a hint of what I mean, but I want to draw your attention to one piece in particular – a red-glazed figure seated in the lotus position with a white face and a high, bulbous forehead. This was created sometime between 950 and 350 BC, by someone who had never heard of the Greeks or Egyptians or Chinese – someone who created this aesthetic with no precedents except what he had seen created by other people in this part of South America. I don’t think this piece is great because of how much it accomplishes, despite its age – I think it is great because of how much it accomplishes, irrespective of its age.

This was a superb museum experience for me. I am not including it in this discussion of doltish symbolism because of its collection, or the cumulative power of the pieces in it – I am including it because of the sometimes laughable, often infuriating commentary in my museum guide and in the placards hanging next to the display cases. Whoever wrote this foolishness forgot that when you don’t know what you’re talking about, you should admit it, apologize, and then shut up. The author must have thought that it would be unseemly to write something like, “Again, we cannot be sure what this figure represents, but we admire its finish and power, and we invite you to speculate about the person it depicts. He is certainly a shaman, dressed in ceremonial regalia. We think the object around his neck may represent silver jewelry. Compare this piece to item #317, in which a similar figure is holding a bowl of lime for his coca leaves.” Instead of descriptions like that, which give some information that the visitor might not have come up with on his own, and which suggest correspondences that might otherwise have been missed, we are exposed to idiocy like this, copied verbatim from one of the placards:


According to the world view of indigenous American peoples, the cosmos is composed of many parallel worlds, often classified in three groups: the celestial realm and the underworld where ancestors, deities and good and bad spirits dwell; and the earthly world is the middle, inhabited by humans as well as plants, animals, and minerals.


Many rituals and objects promote communication among these worlds and maintain the flow of vital energy, the dynamic equilibrium of nature and the continuity of life. In addition, they reflect the dual structure of the cosmic system, made dynamic by its opposite and complementary forces such as night and day, male and female, life and death.


When the cosmos is divided in halves, and each half in two again, this quadripartition generates the concept of four cardinal points and a powerful center. This represents schematically the sacred geography of the parallel worlds.

This is one example of hundreds in the museum, all of them embarrassing displays of complacency and stupidity. Bad as they are, they don’t do a great deal of harm, except by supplanting whatever real information that could have been posted instead. Such harm as they do is limited to putting an unnecessary cognitive distance between us and the prehispanic people of Ecuador. These “explanations” are so far removed from the lives and the minds of the people who made these objects that they make the prehispanic population seem to be a bunch of vaporous hippies, unable to think in any but the most abstract terms.

Imagine describing great art of the Western European tradition using a vocabulary like this. The historical record is silent on the first performances of Hamlet, for example; what if an account of this were uncovered in a forgotten library that said, “Last night, the inhabitants of Stratford convened in a touching ceremony, gathering together by the flickering light of torches to reinforce their common culture and to examine, in symbolic form, their place in the cosmic order. A ritualized simulacrum of life and death was enacted, on a raised, rectangular platform whose four sides marked the bounds of the quadripartite universe. The bold speeches and gestures of the performers painted a picture of a realm of terrifying spirits and a dynamic interplay of societal obligations, and reified, at the conclusion of the ceremony, by the spectacle of reenacted murders commited with knives and poisons; a sacrifice that marks the climax of many such ceremonies, and which, by allowing the spectators to imaginatively take part in the bloodshed, helps ensure that the tensions of crowded urban living do not boil over into open violence.” Such a description of Hamlet may not be strictly false, but it could hardly be more wrong. It misses the point completely.

The authorities who have described the art at the Casa del Alabado have forgotten that the objects are art, and that they were made by people who knew what art is. The descriptions that hang on the museum’s walls infantilize the early Ecuadorians, and they cloud the minds of any of their readers who they don’t infuriate.

Museo Nacional del Ecuador

I love to travel, but I am not really very good at it. I am easily confused, easily intimidated, and easily overwhelmed. My experience with the Museo Nacional del Ecuador is a good example of the ways I often go wrong.

Many websites say that the Museo del Banco Central is at the top of every visitor’s list of things to do in Quito – that it features an enormous and first-rate collection of pre-contact artifacts, and that three or four hours are required to see and appreciate the hoard. I was eager to see this museum, but – here’s the odd thing – it doesn’t seem to exist. My guess is that it has been subsumed into the Museo Nacional del Ecuador, which I visited on May 18 – International Museum Day, as it turned out. Maps I had found showing the Museo del Banco Central displayed a location that matched the current site of the Museo Nacional del Ecuador, which had been closed for extensive remodeling in 2016; maybe this remodeling effort was also the moment at which Banco Central had been swallowed up. I thought this was likely enough to be worth taking a chance on it, so I set off on a long walk through the loud, dirty streets north of the Old Town, following my phone’s GPS to the new museum.

When I arrived, a large group of nicely dressed people was standing in the lobby, gyrating enough to express appreciation but not so much as to express wantonness as an ensemble of black-clad women sang and played an oddball variety of instruments. Speeches were made, and then the music started up again. I was told it would be diez minutos before I would be able to leave the lobby and actually tour the museum. Twenty minutes later, they were still singing. The museum staff relented when it became clear that the length of the delay was impossible to predict, so they opened up the second and third floors for visitors like me, who had not come for this event – which was to celebrate the addition of a famous painting, “The Three Mulattos of Esmeraldas,” to the collection.

The second and third floors of the museum are dedicated to “Thematic Axis 2,” “Territory, Economy, and Work,” which meant, as a practical matter, that there were displays of old furniture, ship models, paintings of old Quito and scenes of early life among the Spanish settlers, and modern art; none of this was particularly interesting to me. I wanted to see the material that had made the Museo del Banco Central so famous – if indeed I was in the right place.

When I had exhausted Thematic Axis 2, I joined the line that was controlling the access of the crowd to the main part of the museum; the music had stopped and everyone had queued up. My museum map told me that the pre-Columbian art I’d come to see was in the first room, “Historical Nucleus.” Here is part of the museum’s description of this theme, as published on their website:

In the 21st century, our national museum recognizes diverse identities and their constant transformations and seeks to establish itself as a space for participation, dialogue, confrontation and representation of the public sphere.

We invite you to be part of this ongoing construction process where memory, heritage, identities and social participation enter (are) in constant dialogue with cultural assets.

But where was the huge collection of prehispanic art? They had some nice pieces, but the collection didn’t come close what I’d just seen in the Casa del Alabado, and it was all mixed together with other objects that must have been part of their idea of a “Historical Nucleus.” If this museum now controlled the collection from the Museo del Banco Central – the collection that I had read demands three or four hours of my attention – most of it must have been in storage.

After the Historical Nucleus room, I walked through “Transversal Concepts”:

In this space, social memory and cultural heritage express the dynamics of a diverse and inclusive past in which the recognition of the multiplicity of subjects is fundamental for the construction of a citizen conscience.

And then “Political Power and Social Organization”:

When a community shares interests, values and ways of acting, which allow it to respond to the challenges of the social and cultural environment in which it operates, we speak of an organized society. Human relations can be explained from the study of historical processes, social phenomena and their origins, in which the human being has the ability to collaborate in the maintenance of social relations.

And then, since I wasn’t willing to join the scrum (and second line) that would have allowed me to see “The Three Mulattos of Esmeraldas,” I left.

It is possible – maybe even likely – that the National Museum of Ecuador did not incorporate the collection of the Central Bank. I may have been confused about that, as I am so often about practically everything. Maybe if my Spanish were good enough to allow me to ask penetrating questions of the staff at the National Museum, they would have been able to direct me to an enormous hall, maybe at a different location entirely, that would have given me four hours of sublimity. But that wouldn’t excuse the propagandizing that passes as the museum experience that the curators have constructed for us. The Museo Nacional del Ecuador has decided that its social mission – in which it “recognizes diverse identities and their constant transformations and seeks to establish itself as a space for participation, dialogue, confrontation and representation of the public sphere,” is more important than the objects it has on display. Pieces are mixed together in such absurd amalgamations as “transversal concepts,” and people like me – people who have come to the museum for an aesthetic experience, and to learn something about the history of the country – are instead subjected to what amounts to political indoctrination.

It is also possible that the National Museum of Ecuador did incorporate the collection of the Central Bank, but has chosen not to display most of that collection, because of constraints on the available space and their conviction that weaving the pieces together into their politically-enlightened themes is more important than simply putting the pieces in front of the public.

I am not saying that I disagree with the politics that the museum has adopted. Whether I agree or disagree is beside the point. The point is that art, and especially great art, is more important than ideology. I want to choose my own political context and themes, based on my own education and cast of mind. When art is subverted to an ideology, it ceases to be an aesthetic experience and becomes instead an agent of social change in the hands of of an ideologue. And ideologues are usually wrong.

The rampant symbolism of the Virgen de Quito is absurd because it so entirely ignores the central mystery of the virgin mother and why the story of Mary is interesting and vital in the first place – but this symbolism is appropriate and expected in its historical context, and it’s possible to enjoy it, while strolling through the collection and thinking about the weirdness of the medieval mind. The cosmic idiocy of the explanations at the Casa del Alabado is an insult to the pre-contact Ecuadorians and utterly fails to reveal what these people were like and why the collection is important. But neither of those examples seem to me to be doing real harm in the world – to be spending humanity’s patrimony in pursuit of an ideology. That’s what the National Museum of Ecuador is doing. This museum is pressing the brilliant work of Ecuador’s ancient people into service as a series of manufactured symbols that they hope might illuminate and implement modern political goals. It’s contemptible.

What is happening at the National Museum of Ecuador is nothing like the sort of brainless enthusiasm that has sometimes led ideologues into iconoclasm or burning Maya codices or carrying jackhammers into the Mosul Museum. The thinking is similar, though, and it should not go unremarked. Knowing you’re right is no justification for subverting your fundamental responsibilities to a social goal – in fact, it is clear evidence that your views are not to be trusted. The fundamental responsibilities of the National Museum of Ecuador are to care for and curate the treasures it maintains for the public. If the National Museum of Ecuador is keeping treasures in back rooms because otherwise they might not have enough room to display objects that promote their social goals, they are harming me and everyone else who think that essential history and great art are more important than 21st-century political positions.

If I must choose between meaningless drivel and meaningful drivel, I choose the former — but ideally I could visit a museum and not be subjected to drivel at all; I could learn about the history of the objects, and about their cultural relevance to the people who made them, and be allowed to extrapolate the experience to the modern world however I see fit. The National Museum of Ecuador has more enthusiasm for its opportunity to influence my politics than it has confidence in my ability and my right to draw political conclusions for myself. It insults my intelligence.

It was a long walk back to Old Town and my Airbnb. I passed tiny, squared-off grandmothers in fedoras, big-bottomed chicas in spandex, phlegmatic, tubby older men, and spiky, feral muchachos in soccer jerseys. Not one of them gave me a look that said, “I wonder if that grey-haired gringo has recently had a cup of coffee and then had interesting deep thoughts.” Not one of them gave me any kind of a look at all.

Here are a few photographs of some of the magnificent pre-Hispanic art in Quito.

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  1. Surely the museum’s commitment to diversity and inclusion is to be lauded? And yet I find the messaging that you encountered irksome as well. By displaying and describing the art works in this manner, the museum curators (the state? It is a national museum) are forcing the art to be an instrument of instruction, and therefore they are enforcing a particular aesthetic. This reminded me of the USSR and socialist realism. In theory, many (not all!) of the social goals the USSR was promoting were noble – accessibility, egalitarianism, labor, etc.. – and yet, something gets lost. (Creativity, for one.) If the art can’t provoke or inspire you on its own, then it is not art, and you tread into kitsch territory pretty quickly. If it *is* art, then the messaging is just unnecessary and annoying. So yeah, I don’t like to be told how to experience something. Then again, Orwell said that all art is propaganda, so what do I know?

  2. Hi Jim,
    I think you think too much more than me…

  3. Tsk tsk, you have fallen into two all too common errors. The Bible book is Revelation, singular. And the Immaculate Conception has nothing to do with virgin birth; it refers to Mary’s own conception and birth without the stain of original sin, so that she could be a suitable vessel for the embryonic god.

    • I went with “Revelations” instead of “Revelation,” knowing I was erring, because most people say “Revelations.” This is not at all how I approach most such decisions, though. I don’t know what I was thinking.


      And I don’t know what I wasn’t thinking with regard to the Immaculate Conception. This is an error I have made before, so I should have known better.


      I’ll fix them both. Thanks for the good editorial eye.

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