Art of the Americas to World War I
- An introduction to New Spain
- Hispaniola’s early colonial art, an introduction
- Prints and Printmakers in Colonial New Spain
- The Bug That Had the World Seeing Red
- The Medici collect the Americas
- Virgin of Guadalupe
- Virgin of Guadalupe
- Corn pith sculptures
- Defensive saints and angels in the Spanish Americas
- Elite secular art in New Spain
- Classical Architecture in Viceregal Mexico
- Hearst Chalice
- Puebla de los Ángeles and the classical architectural tradition
- La Casa del Deán in Puebla
- Mission churches as theaters of conversion in New Spain
- St. Michael the Archangel in Huejotzingo
- The convento of Acolman
- Murals from New Spain, San Agustín de Acolman
- Atrial Cross, convento San Agustín de Acolman, mid-16th century
- Atrial Cross at Acolman
- The Codex Huexotzinco
- Miguel González, The Virgin of Guadalupe
- Frontispiece of the Codex Mendoza
- Images of Africans in the Codex Telleriano Remensis and Codex Azcatitlan
- The Convento of San Nicolás de Tolentino, Actopan, Hidalgo
- Bernardino de Sahagún and collaborators, Florentine Codex
- Remembering the Toxcatl Massacre: The Beginning of the End of Aztec Supremacy
- Featherworks: The Mass of St. Gregory
- A Renaissance miniature in wood and feathers
- A shimmering saint, St. John in featherwork
- “Burning of the Idols,” in Diego Muñoz Camargo’s Description of the City and Province of Tlaxcala
- Map of Cholula, from the relaciones geográficas
- Engravings in Diego de Valadés’s Rhetorica Christiana
- The manuscripts of Luis de Carvajal
- Testerian Catechism, The Egerton Codex
- Baltasar de Echave Ibía, The Hermits
- Mission Church, San Esteban del Rey, Acoma Pueblo
- Sebastián López de Arteaga, Marriage of the Virgin
- Cristóbal de Villalpando, View of the Plaza Mayor of Mexico City
- Talavera poblana
- Biombo with the Conquest of Mexico and View of Mexico City
- Screen with the Siege of Belgrade and Hunting Scene (Brooklyn Biombo)
- Screen with the Siege of Belgrade and Hunting Scene (or Brooklyn Biombo)
- The Virgin of the Macana and the Pueblo Revolution of 1680
- Miguel de Herrera, Portrait of a Lady
- José Campeche, the portraitist of 18th-century Puerto Rico
- José Campeche y Jordán, Portrait of Governor Ramón de Castro
- José Campeche, Exvoto de la Sagrada Familia
- Juan Patricio Morlete Ruiz, Christ Consoled by Angels
- Mission San Antonio de Valero & the Alamo
- Nativity group, from Guatemala
- Jerónimo de Balbás, Altar of the Kings (Altar de los Reyes)
- Miguel Cabrera, Virgin of the Apocalypse
- Cabrera, Portrait of Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz
- Casta paintings: constructing identity in Spanish colonial America
- Spaniard and Indian Produce a Mestizo, attributed to Juan Rodriguez
- Church of Santa Prisca and San Sebastian, Taxco, Mexico
- Crowned nun portraits, an introduction
- Crowned Nun Portrait of Sor María de Guadalupe
- Escudos de monjas, or nuns’ badges, in New Spain
- Christ Crucified, a Hispano-Philippine ivory
- Saintly violence? Santiago in the Americas
- What does the music of heaven sound like?— St Cecilia in New Spain
By Dr. Elena FitzPatrick Sifford
The conquest and colonization of the continents we now call the Americas was a time of immense upheaval and violence as two distant cultures, previously unaware of the others’ existence, came into contact for the first time. Despite coming from different cultural, ethnic, and linguistic backgrounds, somehow Europeans and Indigenous peoples managed to communicate through gestures, objects, and spoken language.
Cortés and Moctezuma
The encounter in 1521 of the Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés and the Mexica (Aztec) emperor Moctezuma II is one of the earliest such exchanges in Mexico. It is illustrated in a 1581 manuscript compiled by Dominican friar Diego Durán entitled, The History of the Indies of New Spain. The image, which was created by an unnamed Indigenous artist-scribe who was not witness to the event, features Moctezuma flanked by two courtiers. The Mexica , Moctezuma II, hands what looks like a large beaded necklace to Cortés, who has dismounted his horse, the reins of which are held by an African attendant. The conquistador holds his hat behind him in a gesture of respect to the Mexica ruler.
This is a moment of exchange between the two leaders, a cross-cultural exchange wherein they recognize each others’ elite status. The necklace, likely made of green stone, is just one example of the types of objects that were used to communicate across linguistic and cultural boundaries. Objects and images continued to play an important role in the early contact period, and soon new types of objects, such as the Testerian catechisms, were created to aid in communication.
A hybrid script
The Testerian catechisms are visual teaching tools that were used by missionaries to aid in converting the Indigenous population of Central Mexico to Christianity. These manuscripts were named after a Franciscan named Jacopo de Testera who reportedly, upon arriving in Mexico in 1529, faced difficulties learning Nahuatl. In response, he developed a drawing style, referred to as the Testerian “script," to communicate Christian doctrine visually. This featured simplified figures, usually rendered in profile and outlined in black against flat backgrounds. Alongside each section of figures, the corresponding message is translated into Nahuatl, written in . Used for the recitation of Catholic doctrine, the Testerian “script” used symbols and simplified figures as a mnemonic system, meaning that they were memory aids for reciting doctrine rather than a formalized writing system. The manuscripts might remind one today of comic books in their organization of scenes into horizontal registers. The idea was to create visual aids that would transcend language barriers, creating visually legible translations of Christian beliefs as part of the Franciscan evangelical agenda.
One particularly elaborate example is a manuscript called Egerton 2898, now housed in the British Museum and signed by Dom Locas Matheo Escriuano. Like other Testerian catechism manuscripts, the Egerton manuscript’s visual translation of Christian doctrine echos the style of the ancient Mesoamerican writing system seen in manuscripts like the Codex Borgia, an Mexica manuscript made before the Spanish conquest.
Reading the manuscript
The Egerton 2898, like the Codex Borgia, features figures outlined in black sometimes filled in with flat areas of color. The figures are organized into clearly delineated registers (horizontal bands). Stylistic similarities to the Codex Borgia are purposeful, as the artists aimed to create manuscripts that were recognizable for Indigenous audiences. Not only does the Egerton codex render the Lord’s Prayer (a central Christian prayer) in a , the actual translation of the prayer is altered and augmented for an Indigenous audience.
Read from left to right across both pages, the first group of figures shows a friar wearing a cross pendant and a winged figure in an elevated half circle, representing “Our Father who Art in Heaven.” The prayer goes on from there and is interspersed with large upright hands in red (see image of entire page above), which scholars believe comes from Nahuatl, the Mexica language. In Nahuatl the word for hand begins with the same sounds as the , “ma,” therefore the hand sign is used at the start of the compulsory clauses of the prayer. 
There is also an addition to the prayer. In the upper right hand corner a friar smells a flower alongside a flower-filled circle with a cross on top. This has been interpreted to represent an additional clause of the prayer, “on earth the Father smells the flower; let flowers multiply in the Christian universe.” Flowers were sacred in Mesoamerican world view. The Mexica associated them with the gods, poetry, and music. The addition of this flowery reference within the iconic Christian prayer shows the ways that the conversion efforts were not mono directional. Aspects of Indigenous culture and religion were combined with Christian ideas in order to more successfully bridge the cultural divides.
Teaching Christian doctrine
We get a sense of how the friars used the Testerian catechisms, or at least other, similar images, in an image within a book called the Rhetorica Cristiana. Written by a Franciscan named Diego Valadés, it served as a sort of guide-book for Christian missionary work in the Americas. At the top left corner of the page called the “Allegorical Atrium,” a friar instructs a group of Indigenous students in Christian doctrine. The friar, a leader of the Franciscan order named Pedro de Gante, holds the 16th century version of the laser pointer—a long stick that he uses to point at a symbol inscribed within a larger, hanging manuscript. Whether this is a Testerian style catechism, or some other type of visual teaching aid, is not immediately clear. But the message is clear: the friars placed high value on images as tools of communication. The accompanying Latin inscription reads: “Fray Pedro de Gante explains everything.”
The “explaining,” of course, was an act of conversion of which Indigenous peoples did not have a choice. The colonial period was one of power differentials, and also of a push and pull whereby the new society being created did not replicate either of the original two, but ultimately formed something new. The Testerian catechisms are fascinating documents for the ways that they visually display encounter and burgeoning transformation into a new, multiethnic society.
 Samuel Edgerton, Theaters of Conversion: Religious Architecture and Indian Artisans in Colonial Mexico (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2001), pp. 29–30
Samuel Edgerton, Theaters of Conversion: Religious Architecture and Indian Artisans in Colonial Mexico (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2001).
Elena S. Schneider, “Testerian Hieroglyphs: Language, Colonization, and Conversion in Colonial Mexico,” The Princeton University Library Chronicle, volume 69, number 1 (Autumn 2007), pp. 9–42.
Essay by Dr. Elena FitzPatrick Sifford