Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
August 5, 2003
Samuel Y. Edgerton Theaters of Conversion: Religious Architecture and Indian Artists in Colonial Mexico Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2001. 350 pp.; 83 color ills.; 91 b/w ills.; 20 ills. Cloth $60.00 (0826322565)


Samuel Edgerton has collaborated with photographer Jorge Pérez de Lara to produce a compelling book on the large mission complexes (conventos) in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century colonial Mexico. A chance trip to Mexico in 1987 introduced Renaissance scholar Edgerton to Mexico’s rich artistic and architectural heritage, and he quickly immersed himself in its study. Bringing his extensive knowledge of medieval and Renaissance European history, philosophy, theology, art, and architecture to bear on this topic, Edgerton offers a provocative approach to colonial Mexican art and architecture in a field that is entering a period of substantive growth. His primary purpose is to emphasize the collaborative, even reciprocal, nature of the architectural and artistic enterprise between European mendicant friars and Indian artisans in colonial Mexico, and to make the results of that enterprise better known to North Americans. Pérez de Lara’s numerous eye-catching photographs make the conventos’ art and architectural beauty readily apparent. Written in a lively, engaging, almost conversational tone, the book’s overarching themes are the European friars’ use of what Edgerton terms “expedient selection”: the impact of the introduction of Renaissance illusionism, and the creative, theatrical deployment of art and architecture to effect the desired outcome of conversion.

Built by indigenous artisans as missionary centers of Christian indoctrination, the convento and its component parts (church, open chapel, patio or atrio, posas, patio cross, and cloister) are uniquely Mexican and were built to respond to the needs of conversion. Edgerton argues that through expedient selection the friars strategically chose to order spaces, to deploy European architecture, and to create new architectural forms purposefully conceived to resonate with indigenous concepts and practices in order to effect conversion. He notes, for example, as have other scholars, that the five-part organization of the convento patio replicates the sacred indigenous diagram of the cosmos. Edgerton also draws visual and symbolic parallels between the open chapels’ impressive, large, vaulted spaces and indigenous sacred caves and cenotes (sinkholes in Yucatan’s limestone crust), describing the sense of awe that he feels both natural and constructed large interior spaces must have inspired. He compares the Christian liturgical processions that took place in the walled convento patio in front of the church to indigenous ceremonies held in enclosed precincts before the temple, specifically noting formal similarities between Corpus Christi processions and the indigenous monthly ceremonies of Panquetzalitzli and Toxcatl.

Although skilled native masons survived the conquest, the artisans who built the conventos under the friars’ direction would have been trained in the necessary European construction techniques. Edgerton proposes that the European keystone arch and vault, Albertian ideas (“artistic beauty as a means of moral ennoblement,” 113), and Renaissance illusionism (linear perspective and chiaroscuro) were disseminated in Mexico by Flemish friar Pedro de Gante (Peter of Ghent) through his indigenous pupils from San José de los Naturales, a postconquest center of artistic training. Based on de Gante’s former student Diego de Valades’ book Rhetorica Christiana (Perugia, 1579), which devotes five chapters to memory, Edgerton further suggests that de Gante also used ars memoriae (the art of memory) among his strategies for teaching Christianity to the Indians. Edgerton’s explication of the art of memory—the use of images or physical objects to serve as mnemonic cues for orators, which were popular among sixteenth-century European intellectuals—and its relevance to Mexico is particularly pertinent. The visual aspect of preconquest intellectual culture (all Central Mexican texts were pictorial) was noted by the friars and exploited in the conversion process.

Edgerton makes his most important contribution in proposing that the convento functioned as theater, a site of Christian pageants and spectacles, and as a “theater of memory” (incorporating ars memoriae) in which images and architecture served as mnemonic cues. Frequently citing chroniclers’ accounts of sixteenth-century Mexican theatrical performances (both religious and secular), Edgerton suggests that the friars used the convento spaces as theaters for the staging of liturgical ceremonies and expediently selected “Christian symbols and Renaissance artistic motifs…that would evoke in Indian eyes reassuring resemblance to precolumbian concepts of their own” (71). Edgerton argues that convento murals often served as scenographic backdrops to religious ritual and that some were permanent reenactments of mythicized indigenous events (e.g., the battle scene between native warriors at Ixmiquilpan). He draws parallels between the use of convento murals as painted performance and art historian Charles Parkhurst’s identification of the fourteenth-century Arena Chapel (Padua) frescoes as representing “the illusion of a stage setting for a contemporaneous miracle play” (177). Edgerton also notes Fernando Horcasitas’s observation that “a number of convento murals…are actually representations of theatrical scenes” (180).

Edgerton devotes an entire chapter to the extraordinary Malinalco convento murals of native plants and animals that fill the walls and vaulted ceiling of the cloister corridor surrounding the inner courtyard garden. Drawing on the work of Jeanette Peterson (The Paradise Garden Murals of Malinalco [Austin: University of Texas Press, 1993]), who identified the murals as depicting an idealized, utopian vision of the Americas, Edgerton analyzes the murals from the perspective of theater. Noting the didactic nature of cloister murals in general, Edgerton suggests that Indians were admitted to the Mexican cloister (unlike European cloisters, which were restricted to friars) and that the cloister also served as a theater of conversion collaboratively developed by friars and indigenous artisans. He describes how the murals might have functioned in a liturgical ritual that purposefully echoed an indigenous ceremony of community establishment, and proposes that the cloister mural represents a lost terrestrial paradise and the inner garden, the Marian hortus conclusus. In this way, he argues, the painted garden murals of the cloister corridor and the actual garden of the inner courtyard served as a didactic theater of memory contrasting original sin with divine salvation. Edgerton further suggests that the Malinalco murals lack depictions of people because living actors would have fulfilled that role, perhaps enacting scenes from the lives of Adam and Eve.

Edgerton’s final chapters treat seventeenth-century churches in the American southwest, where he finds a continuation of the concept of expedient selection as the friars adapted Christian forms to accommodate and co-opt indigenous practice. Here he explicitly raises an issue implicit throughout the book: “How were friars able to convince Indians to build churches, much less adopt Christianity?” (261). He reasons that, contrary to the suggestion by other scholars that Indians were forced against their will to participate, “Everything about the pueblo churches reveals pride of craft and joy of creation. The artisanship and engineering of these remarkable buildings, setting an architectural style that has continued to be followed in the region right through to the present century, are just too inspired to have been the work of halfhearted or sullen laborers” (261–62). And yet, toward the end of the seventeenth century, a massive indigenous uprising led to the destruction of these very buildings. Perhaps “pride of craft and joy of creation” and “halfhearted and sullen laborers” existed side by side, but they remain unexplored in this book.

Theaters of Conversion: Religious Architecture and Indian Artisans in Colonial Mexico is a fascinating book in which Edgerton’s compelling case for the concept of conventos as theaters of memory animates these magnificent masterpieces and provides new insights into their use. His lively prose and Pérez de Lara’s eloquent photographs allow the reader to envision the conventos anew. However, even as Edgerton is at pains to explore the collaborative artistic venture between European friars and native artisans and the idea of indigenous agency, the term “expedient selection” speaks to the power differential as does his uncritical use of the ambiguous and troublesome term “tequitqui” (literally “tributary,” used to describe colonial art that is thought to be indigenous in style and authorship). In other instances, the effort to make the friars’ work in Mexico relevant to today is somewhat off-putting as Edgerton describes them as the sixteenth-century equivalent of the twentieth-century Peace Corps. He also engages in a short, passionate polemic, lashing out at scholars who treat European Renaissance art as an “imperialist intrusion” in Mexico (108), attributing this attitude to “a rationale born from the triumph of ‘modern art’ ” (110).

If, at times, Edgerton draws conclusions unsubstantiated by the arguments and evidence he presents, the depth of knowledge and insight that he has with regard to relevant European topics bearing on the Mexican colonial missionary enterprise is a welcome addition and greatly enriches our understanding of the colonial process from the European perspective. His passionate and sometimes provocative statements speak to the lively state of debate and inquiry that exists in the field of colonial Mexican art and architecture and will certainly spark further debate.

Ellen T. Baird
Department of Art History, University of Illinois, Chicago

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