Sunday, March 24, 2013

Converting Christianity: the Catholic-Indigenous "Dialogue"

Crucified Christ, San Bernardino de Siena, Xochimilco, MX

As strange as it may seem, the indigenous peoples' major difficulty was not in accepting this new god, Jesus Christ.  In their culture it was expectable to take the conqueror's god or gods into the old pantheon.  The way they understood it,  the conquerors had won because their gods were more powerful and given this, why wouldn't they  want the more powerful god on their side? According to their game plan, they got a new god , acquired extra power and kept their old gods as well. But, this was not what the Spanish had in mind.  They expected the indigenous  to immediately see the truth and superiority of Christianity and give up their native gods, customs and beliefs.  

What the Spanish got was resistance- armed uprisings in many places as well as resistance in the form of holding onto idols and concealing them and clandestine practice of old religious rituals and customs.  The Spanish became aggressive and vigilant in their effort to root out the old ways, for instance the tragic burning of the Mayan codices at Mani in 1562.

After a while, the bishops realized that conversion to Christianity was not going to happen over night and altered their policies.  They lengthened their conversion time-table and began to look within the indigenous beliefs and practices for places where they might form connections between the old faith and the new one. The process of conversion slowly changed into a kind of  dialogue in which, as it turned out,  visual elements played a central role.

The friars did not have to search far for points of contact between the two religious systems,  because  sacrifice was a central idea of both- Christ's sacrifice on the cross for Christianity and the centrality of human sacrifice in many Mesoamerican groups.  The indigenous could easily identify with the ideas of eating Christ's body and drinking his blood ( ritual cannibalism had been practiced by some groups), so much so that the Catholic clergy initially put this whole issue on a back burner until they felt their converts were far enough along in the faith to understand it appropriately.   

But, don't get the wrong idea, sacrifice was not the only bond between the two religious systems.  The cross, the central symbol of Christianity, was also a significant symbol in Mesoamerican religions, where it was referred to the Tree of Life, a symbol also found in many religions throughout the world.

Mayan Tree of Life, Palenque, Chiapas, MX

The Christian cross, as it evolved in Mexican christianity, was different than its European counterpart, at least in the early days of the Conquest.  In these early days Christ was never shown hanging on the cross, as would have been the case in the typical crucifix.  This would have been too close to the indigenous experience of human sacrifice and the friars took care to eliminate this comparison.  The early crosses you see in Mexico are unique.

Atrial Cross, Jilotepec
Atrial Cross, Las Monjas, Merida, Yucatan

In both of these atrial crosses (crosses in the atrium or patio or a convent or church), 
you see a head in the center of the cross.  This is the head of Christ, with Christ being in the Cross, not on the Cross, as we discussed previously, to eliminate any comparison between Christ's sacrificial death on the cross and pre-Hispanic sacrifice.  Both of these crosses are covered with the symbols of the Passion (the sequence of events leading up to and including Christ's crucifixion) as a teaching device. Some scholars believe that putting Jesus in the cross is also way of stating that Jesus is within the World Tree, which was center of the universe for the Mesoamerican indigenous peoples. 

The changes in the Cross are just one instance of the adaptations in Spanish Catholicism that were necessary in its encounter with the indigenous and the effort to bring them within the fold.  In fact, one could argue that  the unique visual culture of Mexican Catholicism is a by-product of this encounter,  that it is a record of the process of on-going dialogue between the two faith-systems.  The Christianity that the friars brought to the Americas was  a different one than emerged and we will continue to explore this fascinating topic. 


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