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Art of the Americas to World War I

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

Lesson 2: Viceroyalty of New Spain

Murals from New Spain, San Agustín de Acolman

Murals, c. 1560-90, large cloister of the ex-convento, San Agustín de Acolman, Mexico. Speakers: Dr. Lauren Kilroy-Ewbank and Dr. Beth Harris. Created by Beth Harris and Steven Zucker.

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Video transcript

We are here in front of murals in the cloister of the convento of San Agustin de Acolman near Mexico City A convento was a place that was established soon after the conquest to begin to convert the natives and the first people to come over to do that with the Franciscans but then the Dominicans and the Augustinians. This one is an Augustinian convento and the Augustinians first arrived in 1533. This convento was established shortly thereafter. The murals that we're seeing are made sometime between the 1560s and 1580s and they're wonderfully preserved. The iconography that we're seeing here is connected to the concerns of the mendicant friars who are coming over from Spain to help in the evangelization process. These conventos were often placed atop or near to previous important sites, and they are intended to convert these massive indigenous populations with usually only a few friars to convert and to teach the indigenous populations about Christianity, which is why we see in the murals or other art forms this didactic quality It's really about teaching individuals to understand Christian dogma. That makes sense in this period after the Council of Trent. The Catholic Church is trying to reform advocating a clarity of message because this was the time of the Protestant Reformation. And I think we get a good sense of that here in these murals. They're simple in composition They're very focused on a few key figures. What's really remarkable about them is that they're primarily in black and white. That seems so odd, but there's a perfectly reasonable explanation. And that is that the artists who are here, the models that they had to work from, were black and white prints. After the Spanish conquest in 1521 with the need for Christians subject matter, the need for teaching Christianity, you don't have the transportation of large-scale objects, and so what is more portable than a small lightweight print. There's this immediate need for images to teach this Indigenous population about Christianity. As we stand and look at these really beautiful murals one of the things that's easy to forget about is the incredible violence that's occurring at the same time because While these are being painted, millions of people who were here before the Spanish came are being wiped out by diseases Which would of course been traumatic as entire families are being wiped out but also of concern to the Friars who were here Who were feeling this urgent need to convert people before they were killed because of these smallpox epidemics. In some instances the Friars were the most sympathetic to the indigenous population, particularly in instances where friars feel that the indigenous population is being treated like children or not even like humans the Pope said the indigenous population that the Spanish had encountered had Souls and therefore should be converted and actually treated like humans versus something lesser than. We've got a whole cycle of the passion the suffering of Christ leading up to the crucifixion. They are murals on both levels of this cloister in the convento, and while typically this area is reserved for the friars who are living here, it is possible that on occasion indigenous individuals or groups were being led through this area particularly because there is this inherently didactic quality to this narrative cycle of the passion and even if the indigenous population is not being brought through here regularly they did paint these so these are all created by indigenous artists. To me these look like they were painted by artists who had been schooled for decades in the styles of the Renaissance and the Northern Renaissance in northern mannerism that were typical of Europe in the 16th century We see a careful attention to the anatomy of the body, a sense of perspective, an illusion of space, modeling of the body; these are things that artist trained decades to learn how to do which is remarkable because these were started sometime in the 1560s were only 40 years after the Spanish conquest and you didn't have these types of perspectival systems or this attention to modeling. These artistic strategies were not seen prior to the conquest. A great example of that as we stand here before the scene of the flagellation would be the floor upon which Christ is standing is a grid floor and it's receding into the background giving us a solution of the recession into space and the foreshortening on the feet of christ this attention to the body and the modeling with light and shadow. It's remarkable how quickly European Renaissance artistic strategies were being mastered and displayed here. Now we've moved to another corner of the second floor of the cloister, and we're looking at a beautiful image of the crucifixion and another image caddy quarter to that of the Last Judgement. So we have a typical Last Judgement scene here We have Christ on the orb of the earth at the top. We see angels blowing trumpets all the standard iconography. Below this the Damned in Hell being tortured, and we can identify specific prints that were being used here because they so closely resemble the scenes here and so we know that a lot of the prints coming over from Europe to the Americas are coming from northern Europe making their way to Seville in Spain and then from there across the Atlantic to Mexico. And Last Judgement scenes were common and conventos. The Last Judgement is frequently depicted in the 16th century and there is a reason for that with the conquest, with the conversion, or the attempt to evangelize peoples of the Americas there were Millenarian concerns or this belief that the indigenous populations needed to be converted in order for the Last Judgement to occur. And so this idea that if they could convert these people, the last peoples on the earth they imagine, this would bring the second coming and this thousand-year reign of Christ on earth. Imagine the zeal that they felt in this mission. What they were attempting to do is actually establish a New Jerusalem in the Americas.