Old and new worlds meet at the altar

Theaters of Conversion
April 4, 2003

The aftermath of the 1519-21 Spanish conquest of Mexico is, from a popular standpoint, a poorly documented and widely ignored chapter in the colonial history of the Americas. In Theaters of Conversion , Samuel Edgerton explores the symbolic complexities of this momentous event through the art and architecture of Mexico's churches and conventos (monasteries/nunneries). In this beautifully illustrated book, the author draws on medieval and Renaissance history, philosophy and theology to show how the early missionary mendicant friars conceived religious buildings as theatres for the Christian conversion of indigenous peoples.

Between 1526 and 1600, more than 400 conventos were built and decorated by native artisans in styles that drew as much on their pre-Columbian heritage as on imported European influences. What we see is a range of imaginative accommodations between ancient Mesoamerican concepts and proselytising Christian enthusiasms that led to an explosion of hybrid forms.

From the early years of the conquest, it was the competing mendicant orders of the Franciscans, Dominicans and Augustinians that were concerned with impressing and converting native peoples. The focus of their activities was the development of an often monumental and uniquely Mexican architectural style that provided ample space in which the mystery of the Christian mass could be presented. The most famous example of these buildings were the conventos . Their vast interiors were less monastic residences for perhaps four or five resident friars than ceremonial arenas for thousands of local Indians to learn the Christian faith and sometimes shelter from the depredations of Spanish settlers.

A deep moral tension underlies the scholarship of the post-conquest period. Were Indians forced by the Spanish to adopt the styles of the European Renaissance and abandon their own sensitivities in art and iconography? Did they insinuate pre-Columbian motifs and meanings into otherwise Christian murals and sculpture as a form of native resistance to imperialist Spanish conversion strategies? The author thinks not, and takes issue with those such as Serge Gruzinski who advocate what he calls "this disturbing trend in Latin American scholarship". Rather than poorly and begrudgingly reproducing misunderstood European artistic conventions, Edgerton argues that native artists fully mastered the styles of the Italian and Flemish Renaissance.

In support of this contention, he points to a black-and-red mural of Saint Catherine of Siena in the cloister of the Dominican conventos of San Juan Bautista at the foot of the volcano Pococatépetl in the state of Morelos dating to c. 1560-70. The author presents this as an Indian masterpiece pointedly ignored by Gruzinski and others, but also admits it is a contested image regarded by some as displaying a mastery of European forms that could not be attained by a native. While this is an assertion, so is Edgerton's contrary view - both are unproven, and probably unprovable.

Of all the stunning imagery and erudition marshalled here, one example stands out for its mix of historical significance, ambiguous subtlety and convoluted meanings. For 400 years the polychrome murals at the conventos church of San Miguel, Ixmiquilpan, north of Mexico City, were hidden under whitewash. Accidentally rediscovered in 1960, they reveal a dazzling sequence of images showing two groups of warriors engaged in combat with each other and with supernatural beings. Some aspects of conception, colour and design recall pre-Columbian examples, yet the general execution is an awkward European Renaissance contrapposto style.

This is a unique and intriguing mix of native and European styles. One group of warriors is dressed in bright and typically Mesoamerican jaguar and coyote costumes and wields obsidian-edged swords, while the other group appears naked except for a loincloth and carry bows and arrows. Similarly pre-Columbian are speech scrolls emerging from the warriors' mouths and trophy heads suspended from a belt. Yet, while all these elements owe nothing to European influence, a giant leafy tendril of acanthus-like forms derived from European classical conventions connects all these images in a continuous frieze.

The absence of overt Christian symbols in these blatantly pre-Columbian murals raises the question of why the Augustinians allowed such pagan imagery to decorate a church. It may be, as Edgerton says, that this was a psychomachia or cosmic struggle between the allegorical forces of good and evil disguised as a battle between Christianised warriors and uncivilised pagans. Whatever the truth, the Ixmiquilpan images indicate a rich and complex interplay of ideas and styles whose vivid presentation nevertheless conceals more than it reveals.

This is a well-researched and fascinating book whose extraordinary range of colour illustrations leads the reader into a colonial world that appears straightforward but is in fact endlessly layered with multiple meanings and interpretations. In an increasingly sensitised multicultural world, there is a need for more books like this that challenge us with images as well as text, and which offer an unexpected and significant view of the comparatively recent past that we thought we knew.

Nicholas J. Saunders is lecturer in material culture, University College London.

Theaters of Conversion: Religious Architecture and Indian Artisans in Colonial Mexico

Author - Samuel Y. Edgerton
ISBN - 0 8263 2256 5
Publisher - University of New Mexico Press
Price - £48.50
Pages - 350

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