Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Italian Renaissance in Colonial Mexico: Casa de Dean, Puebla

Casa de Dean, Puebla, MX

This house, the oldest in the city of Puebla, from 1564-1589 was the residence of the third Dean of its Cathedral, Tom├ís de Plaza .  Both of its official reception rooms are covered with paintings taken straight out of the Italian Renaissance.  Since the Middle Ages,  Sibyls, ancient pagan prophetesses. had been popular in art being re-interpreted from  a Christian point of view as foretelling the coming of Christ.  Michelangelo's painted eleven of them on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. Here is one.

Sibyl from Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel ceiling
The sibyls in Casa de Dean are portrayed differently, as European ladies on horseback, but their significance is the same.   In the religious thinking of the time, which was narrow according to modern understandings,  all history was seen only as leading to the coming of Christ.  Everything before, the "pagan" beliefs of Greece and Rome and the Old Testament was seen as inferior to the truth of Christ. This way of thinking is reflected below in the picture of the sibyl who represents the Old Testament who carries a stone tablet with Hebrew letters and is blindfolded.  This was a visual way of stating their perception that the Hebrew people were blind to the truth of Christ. In modern theology this way of thinking is no longer the norm, although Christian fundamentalists, as well as the fundamentalists of all faiths are, unfortunately, narrow in their outlook.

Sibyl, Casa de Dean, Puebla, MX

The next Sibyl foretells the Annunciation, the event in which the angel tells Mary that she is to bear a son (Jesus).

Sibyl, Casa de Dean, Puebla, MX
 The following sibyl foretells the birth of Jesus, as can be seen in the small oval to the left above the figure on horseback.                                       

Sibyl, Casa de Dean, Puebla, MX

The next sibyl, seated in a chariot,  holds the Sacred Heart of Jesus, which is very central in Roman Catholic theology. Devotion to the Sacred Heart (also known as the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus) is one of the most widely practiced and well-known devotions, taking Jesus Christ's physical heart as the representation of his divine love for humanity.

Sibyl, Casa de Dean, Puebla, MX

The Renaissance-style floral border around the sibyls is interesting and contains both European and pre-hispanic Mexican elements. (You can enlarge both photos by clicking on them to see more detail). In the border can be seen bare-breasted female centaurs and monkeys. Monkeys were often portrayed in European art of the time, but here they are wearing earrings, which is a unique Mexican touch.  Monkeys were important in pre-hispanic mythology and in this mythology, at one point in history, humans were changed into monkeys as a kind of punishment for transgressions. The monkey was also one of the figures in the ancient pre-hispanic ritual calendar.  The centaurs come from classical mythology by way of European art.  Scholar Serge Gruzinski believes that the flowers are local plants that are hallucinogenic. 

Foliate border, Casas de  Dean, Puebla, MX

Foliate border, Casa de Dean, Puebla, MX
Hallucinogens were used in pre-hispanic rituals and reflect the input of the indigenous painters who executed these works, overseen by Europeans.   These painters apparently had some freedom in interpretation or adding touches of their own. The Casa de Dean is not the only place that hallucinogenic flowers are present in foliate borders.  

Classical Greek/Roman mythology did have a significant influence in Colonial Mexico, as can be seen in the centaurs in the borders in the Casa de Dean and in murals in other locales. In fact, books by the Roman poet Ovid who is  perhaps best known for his "Metamorphoses", were widely read in early colonial Mexico, both by the Spanish as well as by the educated indigenous elite, many of whom had been taught to read and speak Latin in the schools the Spanish had set up for them. The training of indigenous painters, as well,  made them familiar with images from classical pagan mythology. 

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