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Course: Art of the Americas to World War I > Unit 4

Lesson 2: Viceroyalty of New Spain

Atrial Cross, convento San Agustín de Acolman, mid-16th century

Atrial Cross, convento San Agustín de Acolman, mid-16th century Speakers: Dr. Lauren Kilroy-Ewbank and Dr. Beth Harris For more on this cross and more art history: http://smarthistory.org/atrial-cross-acolman/.

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Video transcript

(piano music) - [Narrator] We're looking at the famous Atrial Cross at the site of a very early mission or convento. A place where the indigenous population was converted very soon after the Spanish conquest. And this cross at Acolman would have originally been in the center of the atrium. But today it's actually just across the street from the entrance to this missionary complex, this convento. An atrium was an important part of the convento. It was this very large open courtyard where you would have processes, where newly converted individuals would be taught about Christianity, they'd be preached to from this open elevated balcony chapel here at the convento. So it was a multi-purpose, very important space. So right in the middle of that space would be the cross. And this particular cross is decorated in such a way that it's very didactic meaning that it's this exceptionally important teaching tool to help the newly converted indigenous population learn about Christianity and particularly the passion of Christ of the events leading up to the Crucifixion. We read a series of symbols that tell us more about Christ's suffering. So while inside the convento, particularly in the cloisters, you have these wonderful murals that are displaying for us the various scenes of the passion. Here we have this condensed symbolic version of that where we see symbols associated with the passion. Things like the rooster that was supposed to crow three times as a sign that Saint Peter would denounce Christ. We see the crown of thorns that Christ wore when he was on the cross. And a variety of these other instruments. Right above Christ's head, I see that symbol associated with the Augustinians of the pierced heart, marking this atrial cross as being part this Augustinian convento. The arms of the cross end in flowers. The arms are actually covered in foliate imagery. There's a particular type of marigold which in Nahuatl, the language of the Nahua population is called cempaxochitl which is a particular type of marigold that you still see used for day of the dead and it had this relationship to death. So there might have been multiple ways of reading this image. So if you're an indigenous viewer using these flowers associated with death might have relevance in relation to the martyrdom of Christ. What's also important to keep in mind is that there could have been this bilingual process or what we could even call visual bilingualism. The symbol of the cross is not something introduced by the Europeans, it's a longstanding ancient symbol here in Meso-America that had associations with fertility, with the cosmos, with the center of the universe. So an indigenous viewer looking at this could have read these images or this cross simultaneously in two different ways. And the artist was likely an indigenous artist. The labor used to build these conventos and to decorate them were drawn from the indigenous population. And down at the bottom of the cross we seem to see an image of Mary and other symbols related to the passion of Christ. We think this is the virgin Mary in part because her arms are crossed over her chest which is at this point in time at Europe how Mary is usually shown when she's grieving for her dead son. And some of the other symbols that we see include a skull, a twisted snake and even what looks like a disc of some sort. So the date of this cross is so early in the history of New Spain. This cross was probably constructed sometimes between the 1540s and 1560s. And it's representative of atrial crosses that you would see at other conventos. And just to go back to what we said earlier about this being an education tool in the center of the atrium speaks to the need for educating people about the tenants of Christianity, about what it means to be Christian in the wake of the conquests and the evangelization that's following. And the important role of images in doing that. Images were crucial to the conversion process because they were a primary means of teaching people about Christianity in the face of language barriers. (upbeat music)