Cristina Gonzalez: Helmerich Center for American Research Fellow

Meet Cristina Gonzalez, Ph.D., an associate professor of art history at Oklahoma State University. As a Helmerich Center for American Research travel-grant recipient, she spent time here this summer conducting research for her first book concerning Francisican images and their use in converting Indigenous populations in the 16th century through the 19th century.

A frequent visitor of the Helmerich Center over the last 10 years, her grant provided her uninterrupted time to dig deep into our Spanish manuscript collection. Of particular importance was a 1789 publication of which only 10 copies exist in the world today, with Gilcrease holding the only one that is hand-colored. Learn more about our research fellowship opportunities in the video below.


Hi, I’m Christina Cruz Gonzalez and I’m an associate professor of art history at Oklahoma State University. I was trained as an anthropologist as an undergraduate with a focus on Pre-Columbian art, and then my graduate degree work focused on colonial Latin America, specifically the Franciscans and now as a faculty member at Oklahoma State University, I’m finishing up a book that concerns itself with Franciscan images and how they were used in converting Indigenous populations in the sixteenth century through the nineteenth century and the work I’m doing here this summer is kind of an outcrop of that dissertation work and of course book work, and it’s really kind of pivoting on a particular object in the archive.

The Franciscan Order is the first Mendicant order to arrive in Mexico, or in the Americas, and they arrived in 1524, so they basically define what conversion will look like and what the project will entail, and as an art historian, I’m interested in how images are present from the very beginning and how they develop a kind of image theory already in 1524 and write about it. They’re in an order who loves to write about itself, so we have a great kind of corpus of material, textual material, as well as images that survived. But I am mostly interested in the text and how they write about images, what their thoughts are on images and how that disposition towards images changes from 1524 to say 1821, when Mexico achieves its independence.

There are some bibliographic depositories, in the United States that are particularly valuable for researchers dealing with colonial Latin America. The very famous ones are for example, UT Austin’s special collections but also Berkeley’s Bancroft Library, for example. And oftentimes we kinda forget about other collections and when I first moved to Oklahoma, I had never heard of the Gilcrease Museum or of their Hispanic documents collection. But I was quickly tipped off by a colleague in the Spanish department and she told me about Inquisition documents and I was very dubious but made an appointment and came here and was shocked to find the real treasure trove that the Gilcrease has and over the course of the last 10 years, I’ve been coming maybe a few times a year to see some material.

But this summer has proved to be really a wonderful opportunity to really kinda focus on what stands out to me and to do it uninterrupted for many hours a day, many days out of the week, a real luxury for a historian, so I’m thankful.

The object that I am reviewing most closely during my time here is something that is published, so it’s not a manuscript per se, it’s a publication that’s very rare. It was published in 1789 in Rome as a part of a two-volume publication, and the Gilcrease has the volume that’s most important to me, which contains 130 engravings, and they all celebrate the life of a person who came from Spain, settled in Mexico, made a lot of money and left it to the Franciscan order. When he died, the Franciscan order starts to really celebrate him as a saint.

This volume in the Gilcrease collection is a 1789 volume that is celebrating his beatification. So the beatification process is complete and you could now own a volume with 130 engravings. There are maybe 10 copies in the world that survived, most of the in a library collection such as this one, but the Gilcrease example is unique not just because it’s rare, one of these 10 copies, but because it’s the only copy that was hand-colored. So someone took the time to hand-color 130 engravings. So, I’m interested in that color process and how to turn basically a manuscript into a devotional work of art, and the process of by which that is done physically, kinda chemically, but also what that tells us about the story and how it changes the story when one colorizes it and when one, for example, might racialize it as well, in the case of this particular volume, 1789. This research is, like I said, kind of a fallout of initial dissertation research that deals with the Franciscan order and I could see it as an article that focuses on this particular copy that’s a colored copy, and what that means in terms of colonial Latin American engravings, and in this case, engravings that are very special and part of a process for making a saint.

At the end of the day, our subject never becomes a saint, he’s never canonized, but he is beatified, and he’s on his way. And so, what I think it gives me is a kind of window of opportunity to kinda think of the process of saint-making. Basically, what it successful, and what is not successful. And there’s certain clues one gets from the life of this particular person that are red flags for me as I’m sure they work for people in the Vatican deciding this, that would say, “Hm, this person is a hard worker, very generous, but perhaps not a saint, per se.” So, I’m interested in not just sanctity, but the construction of sanctity.

It’s incredibly accessible archives, so as someone who is here, who’s been allowed to work with these materials, I like the hands-off approach. I’m given a with these materials, I like the hands-off approach. I’m given a nice work space to review these materials, to have multiple objects in front of me at once, which is a real luxury as anyone knows, who’s a historian who’s worked with archival material, that multiple items could be pulled at once from the stacks and that everyone’s always, in the library, very supportive of my projects and what I need to complete them or to advance them. From the chief librarian to others that are working at the center, I’ve always felt a great amount of support and aid. It’s been really a luxury, like I said, to be surrounded by so many people.