Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Re-envisioning the Spanish Conquest

Contemporary Mixe Indians

My tour guide in Oaxaca gave me a piece of information that altered my understanding of the Spanish Conquest.  He told me that there was an indigenous group, the Mixes, that had not known about the Spanish Conquest until 150 years after the event.  This group, or at least a part of this group, had been hiding from the marauding Mexica (Aztecs) in the mountains and were so well sequestered that they had missed the big news.

Aztec sacrifice

We all have heard of the Aztecs, but most of our education about the Conquest has been limited and because of this, distorted. What we term the Aztecs (more properly called Mexicas), were a group of relative newcomers to the scene that had emerged as political victors by the time Cortes arrived.  In truth, they had only been top dogs for some one hundred years.   These Nahua speakers had started off centuries earlier as a nomadic group from the north,  as "Chichimecas"( the Mesoamerican equivalent of barbarians), and had migrated to central Mexico, adopting the customs of the more sophisticated peoples they encountered.  They became politically ascendant in 1427 through the "Triple Alliance" they created with two other groups and became severe overlords  exacting tribute both material and human ( sacrificial victims) from those they conquered.  Although many Mesoamerican groups had practiced human sacrifice, the Aztecs, by their own account, brought the practice to new heights.   The statistics cannot be verified, but one report has it that in 1487 for the reconsecration of the Great Pyramid of Tenochtitlan some 84,000 prisoners were sacrificed over a period of four days.  That's a lot of blood.  

Tlaxcalans fighting alongside Spanish

As you can imagine, the Aztecs had made numerous enemies and some of them, most notably the Tlaxcalans but others as well, played an important role in the Spanish victory.  There is a book entitled "Indian Conquistadors"  which explores the indigenous 
participation in the Conquest.  Sources indicate that everyone was happy to be rid of the Aztecs, although the Spanish victory presented them with a whole new set of challenges.  It is these challenges and the many sorts of resolutions and compromises that evolved that have been the focus of this blog.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Oaxacan Baroque: Environment and Architecture

I just returned from Oaxaca, Mexico which is about five hours southeast of Mexico City.  Everything about this diverse region- churches, customs, handicrafts, is phenomenal.  It is an area of Mexico in which the indigenous peoples, largely Zapotec Indians, but Mixtec, as well,  have kept their customs and identities alive.  These are the same groups that Cortes encountered during the conquest.  

Apart from seeing all of the unique churches in Oaxaca City and the nearby valleys, there was one thing I wanted to clarify on my trip. This was, what exactly was  "Oaxacan Baroque"?  It was a term I had come across in my pre-trip reading and for some reason it  intrigued me.  

 The Cathedral of the Virgin of the Assumption in Oaxaca is a prime example of Oaxacan Baroque architecture.

Oaxaca Cathedral

There is nothing delicate about this building or any of the churches you will see below. Oaxaca is not a land of tall elegant bell-towers or spires.  The Oaxaca Cathedral is robust, almost stocky, with wide short towers.  Compare it to the Metropolitan Cathedral in Mexico City below.  The architectural difference is dramatic.

Metropolitan Cathedral, Mexico City

Take a look at two more examples of Oaxacan Baroque style:

Convento of Santo Domingo, Oaxaca

Teotitlan de Valle, Oaxaca

Teotitlan del Valle, side view

In all Oaxacan churches bell towers, if they are present, are short, broad and connected for all or most of their length to the main body of the church.  All have significant side buttresses, a feature designed to support the church nave's vaulted ceiling.  The buttresses in Oaxaca are not the delicate flying buttresses of European medieval churches, but are solid, functional affairs.  Some Oaxacan churches, such as San Augustin seen below, do not have bell towers at all.

San Augustin, Oaxaca

The greenish cantera stone, a volcanic rock,  seen in the above photo is characteristic of Oaxaca's churches. The side view of the same church shows the solidity of the buttress work. 

San Augustin, Oaxaca, side view

I learned that another name for Oaxacan Baroque is "Earthquake Baroque".  Oaxaca is an area, with a considerable amount of seismic activity and the robustness of the church design is an adaptation to the needs of building in an area that is subject to fairly frequent earthquakes.  In the 17th and 18th centuries there were severe earthquakes that required rebuilding in many churches including both the Oaxaca Cathedral and Santo Domingo,which you saw above.   While I was there, one of the churches I had wanted to see, La Merced, was closed for repairs from a recent earthquake.  Advances in engineering have made the churches more earth-quake resistant, but their capacity to survive these has depended upon the basic design features.  

Thursday, April 4, 2013

Mestizo Baroque: the Mexican Church's Magnet

 It was the Baroque style that initially drew me to the art and architecture of the Colonial Latin American World.  I loved the elaborate paintings of the Cusco School in Peru at first sight
(I will have more to say about these paintings in a future post)

"Andean Virgin"
and the incredible gilded altarpieces like the one below that are found throughout Mexico and the rest of the Colonial Latin American world:

Altar of Pardon, Metropolitan Cathedral, Mexico City
 What I did not know then was that my fascination with the Baroque was proof that it "worked", that it was doing what the Church had originally intended for it to do.  Let me explain what I mean.  To do this we have to take a quick look at the history of the Church in Mexico.

By the late 1500's Mexico was no longer Mexico of the Conquest.  The idealistic friars who had spear-headed the evangelization of Mexico were dying-off and with a growing population, the era of cities and cathedrals was starting.  There had also been a significant change in the Church in Europe - a schism in the Catholic Church in Europe that was brought to a head by the 1517 posting of Martin Luther's 95 Theses.   As a result,  the Catholic church was under attack by  Protestants and in danger of losing its sovereignty.  It summoned a council, the Council of Trent, which met from 1545-63 in Trento, Italy and it was from the changes initiated by this council, that the Catholic Counter-Reformation emerged;  Baroque style was one off-shoot of this. 

Faced by the Protestant threat, the Church was under pressure to sell itself and the Baroque style in architecture, music and liturgy was what it needed.  The Church knew how inspirational art could be and spared no costs in building churches that would overwhelm the viewer with complexity and extravagance. The  visually beautiful  spaces, in conjunction with elaborate music and ceremony, kept people coming back for more. The Baroque visual style with its intricate design and curving lines was meant to evoke emotion and to keep people within the church; it worked.   As time went on the Baroque style, as with all artistic styles, became detached from its original purpose and became the standard aesthetic of that time and place.

Let's take a quick tour of the baroque in Mexico and it's antecedents.  The Plateresque is the direct antecedent of the Baroque.  It means in the style of the silversmith and is ornate, but does not have the curving surfaces and movement seen in the Baroque.  This altar is a wonderful example of the Plateresque style in Mexico:

Main Altar, San Bernardino de Siena, Xochimilco, MX 

There were two types of columns seen in Baroque architecture that define its style. 
The first and older of the two is the Solomonic Baroque, whose characteristic are the curving, sinuous columns first seen in Italy in the work the sculptor and architect Bernini and shown in photo below in the magnificent ex-convento of San Juan Bautista in Coyoacan, MX.                       .

San Juan Bautista church, Coyoacan,  MX 

The second and later type of Baroque is defined by the estipite column which is narrower at the base than at the top and is associated with the later, even more elaborate Ultra-Baroque style. 

Side altar, San Bernardino de Siena, Xochimilco, MX 

The Altar of the Kings in the Metropolitan Cathedral in Mexico City seen below is probably the pinnacle of the baroque or ultra-baroque in Mexico.  It needs to be seen in person, because photos can never completely  capture it.

Altar of the Kings, Mexico City

In the title of this post, I used the term "Mestizo-Baroque", which is the way  the Baroque in Mexico is usually referenced.   "Mestizo" refers to the admixture of European and indigenous elements present in these buildings as a result of the fact that they were largely built by indigenous workers whose imprint is unmistakeable in various details.  I will be writing about the Baroque in Mexico at greater length in future posts.

Monday, April 1, 2013

Deciphering Mexico's Marys

Oratorio of St. Felipe Neri, San Miguel d'Allende, MX

When considering the images of Mary in Mexico, the first  question that comes to mind is why so many? In Mexico you are confronted by an assortment of Marys - upwards of 100 different kinds; the diocese of Monterrey claims thirty-nine and that of San Luis Potosi twenty-four.  This array of Marys can be confusing, particularly to the North American eye accustomed to religious minimalism.  Despite the centrality of Jesus in Christianity, it is clear that in Mexico Mary is queen.  Notice the placement of this figure of Mary in the altar below.  Mary is centrally located so that she is your focus  when looking up from a kneeling position. 

San Miguel d'Allende as above

The Spanish brought an intense devotion to Mary with them to the new world.  It was Mary whose image was on their battle standards and Mary was likely the first Christian image seen by many indigenous.  When Cortes claimed Montezuma's temple for himself, a statue of Mary was used to replace that of the deity who had occupied the spot.  Mary was a living presence for the Spanish and became the same for the converted indigenous. 

Yet, theologically, Jesus Christ is the central message of Christianity.  It is Jesus, his birth, ministry and Passion, that are the main concern of the New Testament.   Mary is mentioned and we are told that Mary is a faithful servant of God and that she is the mother of Jesus, but church dogma, doctrines that define Mary's relationship with God and the role that she played in Salvation, took centuries to be settled.

The Church's answer to Mary's identity can be found in the Marian dogmas which took almost 2,000 years to finalize.   These are Divine Motherhood (Council of Ephesus 431),  Perpetual Virginity (end of 2nd century CE), Immaculate Conception (in Spanish, Immaculada),  that Mary was without original sin, 1854, Assumption (Sp. Asuncion), that after her death Mary was taken up body and soul into Heaven, 1950.  All of the artistic representations of Mary that you will see basically fit into one of these categories, although many are hybrid as would be expected with the numerous local representations or advocations of Mary.

 These advocations (and I repeat, there are many)  are specific instances of Mary typically centering on some miracle, that the Church has deemed worthy of belief.   Sometimes a particular religious image involves both a dogma and an advocation.  For instance, La Immaculada (dogma of the Immaculate Conception)  is particularly revered in specific ways in the Yucatan, where she is also the Patron Saint.   

Nuestra Senora de Izamal

To share with you how this all plays out in real life, I turn to  a conversation I had with a local woman in the ex-convento of San Miguel Arcangel in Mani Yucatan the Wednesday of Holy Week last year.  The thin black shawl she wears was characteristic of  the local women I saw in rural Yucatan churches during that week.  She stands in front of the main altar of this beautiful church which dates from the 15th century.

in San Miguel Arcangel, Mani

She was a willing and animated informant and when I asked her about the statues of Mary in the church, she spent some time explaining the Marys, including their special roles and inter-relationships.  Here is her understanding of the Marys in the church, as well as some who were not represented there: 
  • Virgen de la Luz (light) whom she said gave children. 
  • Virgen de los Ojos ("eyes")  who she said cured problems with the eyes. She said this Virgin is a cousin of the next  two in the list.
  • Virgen Asuncion-( Virgin of the Assumption) who is the sister of 
  • Virgen Concepcion (La Immaculada Concepcion or La Immaculada), the Virgin of the Immaculate Conception, also Patroness of the Yucatan whose image was shown above.
Two other Marys that she mentioned by name, but who were not represented in the church, were:
  • Virgen del Carmen (Our Lady of Mt. Carmel)
  • Virgen Dolorosa (Mary dressed in mourning black following the death of Jesus)
Please understand that her list was by no means complete and there may have been some theological and iconographic inconsistencies in her understanding, but I share her information because the intimacy with which she spoke about the images portrays a typical Mexican outlook on Mary. The relationships that people there have with these images are very personal and transactional.  They are approachable figures, almost human, and are regularly asked for favors which they often seem to grant.  My informant's understanding of familial relationships among the Virgin figures was something I had not run into before and perhaps  is more common in rural areas.

Here are some images of the Mary's referenced by my informant.  

"Virgen de los Ojos", Mani, Yucatan
After researching this figure, I think she may have actually been talking about the Virgin de la Salud- health.

Virgen Concepcion, Mani, Yucatan

Virgen de Dolores, Merida, Yucatan

Virgen del Carmen, Cathedral Mexico City

It is interesting that she did not mention Guadalupe, the Patron Saint of Mexico whose altar was present in the church at Mani.  Perhaps she assumed I would know about her or perhaps there was a deeper reason related to the Yucatan identity and the fact that the patron saint of the Yucatan is La Immaculada.   Yet, shrines to Guadalupe are a fixture in the Yucatan as they are all over Mexico. 

To understand the large number of individual identities of Mary,  we need to turn back to the necessities of the evangelization of  Mexico.  In my March 24 post, entitled "Converting Christianity", I wrote about the accommodations the Church had to make to pre-existing local beliefs and deities in order for Christianity to take root.   Scholars believe that the multiplicity of local Marys that evolved were rooted in indigenous goddesses  transformed by conventions of Christian belief and iconography.  This was definitely the case with Guadalupe of Tepeyac, now Patron Saint of Mexico, who will be discussed in greater depth in a future post.