Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
December 5, 2005
Jaime Lara City, Temple, Stage: Eschatological Architecture and Liturgical Theatrics in New Spain Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 2005. 312 pp.; 239 color ills. Cloth $65.00 (0268033641)

For much of the last half-century, the few North Americans interested in the extraordinary ecclesiastical architecture erected during the 1500s south of the U.S. border had to depend on just two monumental tomes in English: George Kubler’s Mexican Architecture of the Sixteenth Century (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1948) and John McAndrew’s The Open-Air Churches of Sixteenth-Century Mexico (Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1965). Perhaps because the scholarship of these works was so weighty, gringo aficionados didn’t deem it necessary to add anything further. Moreover, the colonial arts of Latin America were receiving little attention in general after World War II, when educational emphasis was largely concentrated on the reviving cultures of Western Europe. North American publishers, not sensing a market for what was then considered second-rate provincial Hispanic art crudely imposed on even cruder, “primitive” Indian art, were hardly encouraging.

But recently a rash of new books and new ideas on this neglected subject have begun to appear, stimulated initially perhaps by Elizabeth Wilder Weismann’s uncommonly beautiful black-and-white photographs of sixteenth-century Mexican architecture and sculpture published in a number of collections in the 1970s and 1980s (far exceeding in quality the grainy, small-size illustrations in Kubler and McAndrew). Valerie Fraser weighed in provocatively from the left in 1990, writing on the imperialist politics of Spanish Renaissance architecture in South America. Serge Gruzinski followed in the same decade with several more books equally critical of European stylistic influence in Mexico. Also in the 1990s appeared James Early’s much more neutral study of Mexican colonial architecture and Richard Perry’s sympathetic and wonderfully useful travel guides to the several Mexican states where mission buildings are still extant. The high point came in 1995 when Jeanette Favrot Peterson’s provocative volume on the “Paradise Garden” cloister in Augustinian Malinalco won the Charles Rufus Morey Book Award, the College Art Association’s annual book prize. Two more studies of central Mexican architecture, focusing specifically on Dominican Oaxaca, were published in 1975 and 1995 by Robert Mullen. In 1999, Gauvin Bailey offered an excellent examination of the Jesuit contribution to the art and architecture of the Spanish colonial dominions in both Asia and the Americas. Yet another, reemphasizing the mendicant friars’ initiatives in central Mexico, the Yucatan, and into New Mexico in the present southwestern United States, was added by myself in 2001. Finally, the book here under review by Jaime Lara and published in 2004 explores the sixteenth-century mission architecture in the post-conquest, former Aztec Empire.

Why this sudden spurt? Certainly, it has something to do with reaction to the brouhaha surrounding the Columbian quincentenary of 1992, which deconstructed the European “discovery” of America, raising new questions especially about subsequent Christian “conversion” of the Indians. It also stems from the increasing realization of how sophisticated the pre-conquest art, architecture, and religious rituals of indigenous civilizations of Central and South America originally were, as revealed through the recent decipherments of the writing systems, mathematics, and astronomical record-keeping of the native peoples. More and more the questions arise: How did these sophisticated native societies fare under the suddenly introduced foreign styles of Renaissance Europe? Were their ancient traditions simply aborted, or were they somehow woven back into the imposed fabric, creating new patterns just as complex and wonderful as the old?

In response to these questions, the recent literature seems to be divided into two camps. One side, exemplified perhaps in the extreme by Valerie Fraser and Serge Gruzinski, sees the imposition of European art and architectural forms as both inimical to traditional native aesthetic sensitivities and deliberately intended to flaunt the conquerors’ technical and artistic skills—the keystone arch and perspective realism, for instance—as culturally, even racially, superior, thus justifying their policy of colonization. The second camp, on the other hand, and as exemplified by myself—and now joined by Lara—seeks to explain the obvious hybridization of Hispanic and indigenous Indian forms less as insensitive imposition and more as negotiated assimilation, resulting in the American Indian version of its own “Renaissance,” what Thomas Kaufmann has called the worldwide “diffusion of the Italianate” in his essay “Italian Sculptors and Sculpture Outside of Italy (Chiefly in Central Europe): Problems of Approach, Possibilities of Reception” (in Claire Farago, ed., Reframing the Renaissance: Visual Culture in Europe and Latin America, 1450-1650, New Haven: Yale University Press, 1995, 47-66).

Lara’s book was actually completed as early as 2000 but languished in galley proofs while my Theaters of Conversion: Religious Architecture and Indian Artisans in Colonial Mexico (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press) went to press in 2001. Strangely, we were each unaware of the other’s simultaneous research, which is why there is so little cross-referencing. Nevertheless, and much to our mutual if accidental credit, we arrived at many of the same conclusions quite independently, the most important of which is that the nearly six-hundred monastery complexes (called conventos in Spanish) erected in Mexico during the sixteenth century served not just as residences for the Franciscan, Dominican, and Augustinian mendicant orders (designated by the pope and Holy Roman Emperor as the primary apostolic missionaries in the newly discovered lands) but as didactic theaters for plays, processions, and musical and dance performances with painted scenery and even special-effects machinery. The friars quickly realized that their proselytism strategy needed to co-opt the Indians’ traditional love of spectacle. Indeed, the friars allowed many of the natives’ old rituals to be recycled, cleansed of overt pagan references and infused instead with Christian content.

Thus, as early as the 1530s, and with unusual inter-order cooperation, the friars had collectively established a uniform monastic architectural plan, in external appearance still similar to the old European Romanesque model but with discrete features added—most notably, a spacious walled courtyard (termed the patio or atrio, sometimes as large as twenty joined tennis courts) to which an arched or vaulted chapel abutted. Indian catechumens gathered by the thousands in front of this open-ended chapel to receive religious instruction, often presented in the form of medieval-style miracle plays with sequential scenes in which the Indians themselves acted and spoke the parts in their own language. There were mezzanine platforms decorated to look like heaven, to which actors could be raised by ropes and pulleys, and trapdoors in the stage below through which they could be dropped into a similarly decorated, “fiery” hell.

Around the inside perimeter of the patio, often squared to the cardinal directions, the friars constructed a processional path around which the Indian neophytes would march on important feast days such as Corpus Christi; they almost always walked in counterclockwise direction, as was the ancient indigenous custom. In the center of the patio, a tall stone cross was generally erected, but never with the crucified Jesus attached. Instead, it was covered with hieroglyph-like symbols of the Instruments of the Passion. Sometimes an obsidian mirror, believed by the Indians to be an occult portal to their spirit world, was inset between the arms of the cross. Indeed, what the friars had constructed here was a Christian likeness of the ancient Indian universe, believed to have been shaped at Creation as a gigantic quincunx with the great World Tree in the center, metaphysically linking the divine powers in the sky with human beings on earth. To Indian converts the convento patio represented a comforting continuum between their ancient traditions and new Christian expectations. The Christian cross itself was just the latest manifestation and metamorphosis of the eternal World Tree.

His corollary argument, however, is that every mendicant convento, including its theatrical stage and didactic murals and even the friars’ “Indian Jerusalem” community plans (very much modeled after St. Augustine’s “City of God”), were deliberately suffused with eschatological meaning to keep the Indians ever aware of the imminent Apocalypse and Last Judgment. The iconographical message, implicit as well as explicit in all these configurations, was that recalcitrant souls who refused to accept the word of Christ would be cast into hellfire forever. Nevertheless, while the author has certainly heeded the current de rigueur requirement of colonial-period historians to sympathetically hear the “native voice” and give credit to Indian contributions to such enterprises as much as possible, his own knowledge of indigenous Aztec ideology and culture is hardly equal to his vast, and therefore much more emphasized, knowledge of European Christian ideology and culture. His broad knowledge of Roman Catholic doctrine and liturgy is the best reason to read this book. Indeed, his discussion in City, Temple, Stage of the convento in the medieval European street-theater context, so richly detailed and beautifully illustrated in color with many images from contemporary manuscripts, is the most comprehensive yet written.

Yet, Lara hasn’t really pondered the consequences of what sixteenth-century indigenous Indians, only recently converted from paganism, might read into the friars’ orthodox messages. This does not mean that the natives might always have been subversive, secretly adoring “idols behind the altar” as some critics have claimed. Rather, the Indians often interpreted Christian images and doctrines according to still deeply held, traditional pre-conquest associations, but just as reverently Christian. A good example is the aforementioned patio cross, which, as Lara observes, frequently featured the disembodied head of Christ inset between the cross-arms. Lara explains that the friars who commissioned the crosses intended this symbol to represent simply the imprint of the Savior’s face on “Veronica’s Handkerchief,” one of the canonical Instruments of the Passion. However, he doesn’t inquire why the sculptors, who were probably trained Indians, would have chosen this unique placement, as if the iconic head were meant to signify not so much an applied symbol as an organic growth from the cross itself. Fellow Indian worshippers, no less devout than the friars, had already conflated the cross with their traditional World Tree. The Savior’s face in this position underlined that Christ is not just on but actually is the cross, fused inseparably with the new World Tree.

I have a few more quibbles, but Lara will probably have discovered as many in my book. In any case, we complement each other remarkably. I hope our joint contributions will encourage still more independent study in this vastly underworked field.

Samuel Y. Edgerton
Amos Lawrence Professor of Art History, Art Department, Williams College

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