Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
September 29, 2016
Arni Brownstone, ed. The Lienzo of Tlapiltepec: A Painted History from the Northern Mixteca Exh. cat. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press in association with Royal Ontario Museum, 2015. 216 pp.; 98 color ills. Paper $29.95 (9780806146300)

Lienzos are large painted cloths produced after the Spanish invasion of Mexico that relate the territory, historical deeds, and protagonists of local cacicazgos (city-states) throughout central and southern Mexico. Following the style and conventions of Mesoamerican pictography, such as the more famous Mixtec screenfolds, they greatly outnumber their surviving pre-Hispanic counterparts and offer an indigenous view of the changes that occurred in Mesoamerica in the wake of the conquest. The Lienzo of Tlapiltepec is one such document hailing from the Coixtlahuaca valley in northern Oaxaca and now housed at the Royal Ontario Museum, in Toronto.

The Lienzo of Tlapiltepec: A Painted History from the Northern Mixteca adds to a recent and growing list of publications on Mesoamerican manuscripts that combine different approaches and contributions in a single volume. Collected multidisciplinary studies scrutinize style, iconography, and content through the lens of historical research and formal analysis, while scientific data shed light on the material and technical aspects of manuscript production. As a result, scholars gain not only a more complete picture of Mesoamerican pictography, but are indeed encouraged to continue exploring and to ask further questions on the nature of Mesoamerican culture and its complex ongoing history. This multidisciplinary format was inaugurated by Cave, City, and Eagle’s Nest: An Interpretive Journey through the Mapa de Cuauhtinchan No. 2 (David Carrasco and Scott Sessions, eds., Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2007) and followed by the more recent volumes edited by Gerhard Wolf and Joseph Connors (Colors Between Two Worlds: The Florentine Codex of Bernardino de Sahagún Florence: Villa I Tatti in association with Harvard University Press, 2012) (click here for review) and Mary Miller and Barbara Mundy (Painting a Map of Sixteenth-Century Mexico City: Land, Writing, and Native Rule, New Haven: Yale University Press, 2012) (click here for review). Unlike these other publications, however, The Lienzo of Tlapiltepec is being released as a paperback, making it more affordable without significant diminishment of its visual impact. Many of its almost one hundred color images are tracings of the manuscript with the original colors—now mostly faded—reconstructed. Photographic details, on the other hand, highlight the tangible aspects of the lienzo as object.

The Lienzo of Tlapiltepec opens with a foreword by the noted Mexican manuscript scholar Elizabeth Hill Boone. Rather than a general introduction, she frames specific details of the lienzo within larger themes shared by Mesoamerican pictographic histories. This is the first instance of what I found to be a recurring problem in the ways ideas are presented or developed in the book. Boone discusses themes of the lienzo without referring to any specific visual or documentary evidence, but instead relies on previous publications. It becomes somewhat difficult at times, then, to distinguish between what has come to be generally accepted by scholars and her own proposed interpretations.

The preface that follows, by the Royal Ontario Museum curator and editor of the book, Arni Brownstone, offers a brief history of the document prior to its arrival at the museum. This is the only time in the book in which previous scholarship is consistently addressed. While groundbreaking studies, especially those by Ross Parmenter, a Toronto native, are credited here and elsewhere, no contribution critically presents the broader historiography of pictography studies and the historical advancements in the decipherment of its contents.

The first chapter, by Nicholas Johnson, aims to introduce a general readership to the basic features of a lienzo. He highlights pictographic conventions along with the specificities of the Lienzo of Tlapiltepec. Although Johnson gives a good overview of this object type, some of his statements are reductive. Maintaining that pre-Hispanic writing systems were replaced by European alphabetic writing by the end of sixteenth century may be in part true (6), but it fails to acknowledge the vitality of Mesoamerican pictography seen in such genres as land maps and Títulos primordiales, created in the later colonial period as a response to changing political and economic conditions. Also, relying on a few references that mention the existence of pre-Hispanic maps drawn on cloth, Johnson’s assertion that two types of pictorial manuscripts (strip-shaped and single-sheet) existed in Mesoamerica before the arrival of the Spaniards is somewhat misleading (17). Many more may have existed of which scholars are not currently aware. These statements lead the reader to believe that lienzos constitute a genre of their own, combining geography and history (also suggested in the table on page 20), when in fact pre-Hispanic Mixtec screenfolds deal with exactly the same types of information, as Johnson himself discusses in his other contribution to the book.

Bas van Doesburg’s essay enters deep into Coixtlahuaca pre-Hispanic and early colonial history, with an emphasis on local historiography. The Coixtlahuaca valley is a multi-ethnic region (Mixtec, Choco, Ixcatec, and Nahua peoples settle there), geographically perched between the Mixteca to the south and the central Mexican (Nahua) region to the north. This results in a unique conception of the past that combines themes from Aztec historiography (such as the reference to Chicomoztoc, the cave of origin) with Mixtec topoi, such as the bundle cult to the founding hero Lord 9 Wind. Boone also remarks on this peculiar aspect, but here van Doesburg gives many more details, comparing representations in the Lienzo of Tlapiltepec with others from cognate documents. I wish he had engaged a little more with work by other scholars, such as Maarten Jansen and Carlos Rincón Mautner. It is not always clear in van Doesburg’s text that certain conclusions he presents in fact remain matters of debate among scholars. The intricacies of details, coming from different, partial, and ultimately limited sources, make it difficult for the reader to grasp fully current scholarly understanding of the topic. Van Doesburg ultimately contends that the imposition of the colonial regime broke the socio-political hierarchy that was in place at least since the establishment of Coixtlahuaca as a tribute-collecting center for the Triple Alliance. While I concur that archival research has shed light on the complex issues surrounding the socio-political changes in the aftermath of the conquest, more attention should also be placed on the different nature of the documents at hand, namely pictographic-style lienzos, early colonial historical sources from Central Mexico, and notarial records. They at times seem to offer competing, rather than complementary, views on local politics and its ramifications for the lower strata of society.

Johnson’s second essay brings the focus back to the visual and formal aspects of the lienzo and specifically the composition, layout, and relation between the different parts of its extended visual narrative. Johnson pays attention to the lines that guided the original intended reader through the manuscript and compares them with the linear, but often intricate, unfolding of the Mixtec codices. Does this suggest a direct derivation of the Lienzo of Tlapiltepec from a pre-Hispanic regional screenfold? Why, then, the striking difference in format, size, and material? Might the territorial emphasis, so characteristic of colonial lienzos, be a consequence of the Spanish imposition of a feudal ideology over the lineage-oriented geopolitics of the pre-Hispanic period? Johnson painstakingly details the black and faded red lines that run through the lienzo, but offers only a few terms of comparison with ancient pictography and does not delve deeper in the analysis.

Lastly, Brownstone and Eckehard Dolinski detail the fascinating history of the lienzo’s many reproductions. Every new attempt, especially in the face of the colors’ progressive deterioration, also offers a new interpretation on the lienzo itself, which will in turn generate further considerations and studies, once published and disseminated.

As a whole, the book produces a somewhat uneven reading. Introductory essays alternate with complex historical analyses and identification. Two appendices to van Doesburg’s contribution (the transcription of original Spanish documents and a study of the now almost completely faded glosses in the local Chocho language, done with the help of linguist Michael Swanton), while extremely useful to a researcher of Oaxacan colonial history, seem a little at odds with the preceding introductions by Boone and Johnson, which are geared for a more general audience. Given that different authors penned every chapter, the transition from general to specific is not always smooth and repetitions do occur, especially between the denser interpretative essays by van Doesburg and Johnson. Despite this lack of clarity about its target audience, The Lienzo of Tlapiltepec makes such a difficult but important aspect of indigenous Mexican history and culture available to a wide audience.

Alessia Frassani
Faculty of Archaeology, Leiden University

Please send comments about this review to