Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
June 9, 2016
Penny Morrill The Casa del Deán: New World Imagery in a Sixteenth-Century Mexican Mural Cycle Austin: University of Texas Press, 2014. 384 pp.; 115 color ills. Cloth $75.00 (9780292759305)

The near total destruction of the sixteenth-century murals in the palatial home of Tomás de la Plaza—an influential cleric in New Spain, dean of the cathedral of Puebla, and patron of the arts—makes for a compelling opening story in Penny Morrill’s new monograph, The Casa del Deán: New World Imagery in a Sixteenth-Century Mexican Mural Cycle. Although much of the original structure and murals were destroyed over the centuries, Morrill re-creates and evaluates key elements of the dean’s residence, and focuses the greater part of her study on two surviving salons distinguished by colorful and symbolically rich murals that depict the Sibylline oracles and Petrarch’s Triumphs. For Morrill the murals stand not only as a testament to the patron’s interest in humanist thinking, but also to his self image as a cleric who, through evangelization and ministry, offered spiritual salvation to a neophyte people. Morrill further regards the murals as an indicator of the mutual respect the dean and his tlacuilos (Amerindian artists) who painted the murals had for one another, given that these works incorporate both indigenous and European imagery, and are premised on both cultures’ distinct rhetorical traditions. The underlying theme of Morrill’s book is that the rhetorical qualities of art in Mesoamerica and Europe created a space of cross-cultural communication and understanding in the early colonial period. Such a space allowed Don Tomás and his tlacuilos to co-create these murals in a manner that deeply engaged with metaphor, the multivalent meanings of images from distinct cultural traditions, and their oral exegesis.

In chapter 1, Morrill offers a thorough biographical sketch of the dean, who arrived in the Americas as part of the 1539 Hernando de Soto expedition. Period documents convey his quick rise from the position of parish priest in a number of indigenous communities in Oaxaca, to dean of the cathedral of Puebla, the city where he built his palace. Morrill paints the dean as a man of extraordinary times in New Spain that saw the institution of the New Laws (1542), which, among other intentions, were designed to prevent the abuse of natives by Spaniards; a growing tension between the regular and secular clergy (Don Tomás was a secular priest); and the development of schools for indigenous artists, located in monasteries and run by regular clergy like the Franciscans. According to Morrill, an indicator of the dean’s admiration of native arts was his possession of a pre-Conquest axe blade used in the Mesoamerican ballgame, ullamaliztli, and a stone sculpted in the shape of a skull. Early in his career as a parish priest, he learned to speak Nahuatl and Mixtec, which would have given him a deep appreciation and understanding for these indigenous groups.

In chapter 2, Morrill argues that the influential Spanish architect Francisco de Becerra designed the Casa del Deán. To support her argument, she examines primary source documents that locate the two men in Puebla at the same time, the dean supervising the reconstruction of the cathedral and Becerra designing it. Her comparative visual analyses of sixteenth-century buildings designed by Becerra support her attribution. After Becerra left Puebla for Peru, Francisco Gutiérrez, a resident of Puebla, who was probably indigenous or mestizo, took over his work for the cathedral and may have also worked on completing the house.

The following chapter engages with the nature of indigenous visual production in sixteenth-century New Spain and argues that images worked in conjunction with rhetorical oratory. Aligning her study with a vein of scholarship that emphasizes the indigenous comprehension, practice, and expression of Christian doctrine in indigenous terms, Morrill identifies the art of the tlacuilo as particularly capable of holding multiple, complex, metaphorical meanings of a divine nature. She offers the Nahuatl term tlapalli (literally “red,” but with more nuanced meanings regarding beauty and knowledge) as an alternative to the problematic term tequitqui, which carries with it racial undertones and refers primarily to early colonial sculptural production by indigenous artists, arguing that, “with its many references to art, metaphor, and knowledge, [it] might be an appropriate substitute” (71). One of the strongest arguments made in this chapter is that sixteenth-century lienzos (cloth paintings) and catechisms became the primary models for art produced in the sixteenth century because these manuscript types were used to activate the oral process of rhetorical discourse in the Christian context. That is, priests used these objects when explicating Christian doctrine to native audiences and to persuade them of its value in their lives. What is certain is that the Puebla-Tlaxcala region (where the dean’s residence was built) was part of a trade network predating the conquest that linked Maya to Mixtec country, producing a kind of “international style” of art that combined distinct visual traditions and which continued into the late sixteenth century, as the Casa del Deán murals demonstrate.

Chapter 4 focuses on the murals in the Salon of the Sibyls, whose theme indicated that ancient seers foretold the birth of Christ and his redemptive role for humankind. Morrill points out that the dean and his tlacuilos selected an iconographic program from a number of French and Flemish printed sources. However, a recently discovered manuscript, the Processio Sibyllarum (early fifteenth century), strongly suggests that the Casa del Deán’s unique depiction of the sibyls riding on horseback was due to the fact that in Spain actors representing the sibyls appeared on horseback in actual religious processions. Morrill argues that the horseback-riding sibyls in the murals “must have related to the inclusion of the sibyls in the feast of Corpus Christi in Puebla” (112), which the dean would have helped organize.

Chapter 5 provides an overview and interpretation of the imagery in the Salon of the Triumphs. Five of the six Triumphs from Petrarch’s Trionfi (1351–74) are depicted in this salon (Love, Chastity, Time, Death, and Eternity) and arranged slightly out of Petrarch’s original order. Morrill explains that the Procession of the Triumphs fulfills the prophecies represented in the Sibylline Procession. One of the more peculiar figures that appears in the sprawling landscape of this mural cycle is the salvaje or “Wild Man,” who peers out of a cave at the approaching figure of Time. Chapter 6 is dedicated to determining the significance of this image in the Casa del Deán. After describing the development of the “Wild Man” concept from classical antiquity to the early modern period, Morrill concludes that the figure, as it appears in Don Tomás’s mural, is a general personification of evil, particularly referencing those groups who rejected Christianity and lived outside of its purview.

In chapter 7 Morrill examines the emblematic animals that appear in cartouches within the friezes framing the main scenes in the Salon of the Triumphs. Most of these animals are indigenous to Mesoamerica—the opossum, jaguar, monkey, rabbit, peccary, coyote, badger, coatimundi, and deer—while two are not (the ermine and the lion). In each case, the animals are acting as humans (e.g., writing, painting, drinking chocolate, playing musical instruments) and are wielding human-made attributes such as weapons and writing implements. Each animal is examined in comparison to its pre-Conquest depiction in art and poetry to determine the meanings it carried. Drawing upon the metaphorical and metonymic qualities of pre-and post-Conquest visual production in Mesoamerica, Morrill convincingly argues that these emblems established a relational system of correspondence in which indigenous forms held Christian metaphorical meanings. For example, the opossum, which “dies” and then resurrects itself, was likened to Christ’s resurrection, and for that reason was probably placed above the Triumph of Eternity in the central scene.

The Casa del Deán is carefully researched and written clearly, and contributes to scholarship on early colonial Mexican art production and its cross-cultural complexities. Morrill’s examination of the connections between rhetoric and image production is particularly insightful, and her analyses of the salons’ murals are commendable for taking into account both European and indigenous rhetorical practices and pictorial traditions. Although a minor quibble on terminology, one wonders if the introduction of yet another new term is needed to replace tequitqui, which tends to focus on early colonial sculpture but has been critiqued and largely discarded in recent scholarship. Morrill’s suggestion for substituting tlapalli for tequitqui is thought-provoking; however, it is unclear how commonly the term would have been used by Nahuas to refer to “artistic” productions and practices in the late pre-Hispanic and early colonial periods. We might also consider toltecayotl, which the nahuatlato (Nahuatl speaker) and Spanish friar Alonso de Molina defines in his Vocabulario en lengua castellana y mexicana (1571) as maestría de arte mecánica. While replacing or complicating our concepts of “art” with indigenous terms and epistemologies is a worthwhile pursuit, it is also outside of the primary scope of this valuable monograph on a series of visually striking murals that have partially survived to the present day, despite great odds. Morrill’s timely and beautifully illustrated study adds to their standing as a major monument of Mexico’s rich cultural and artistic heritage.

James M. Córdova
Associate Professor of Art History
University of Colorado–Boulder