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

Lesson 2: Viceroyalty of New Spain

The convento of Acolman

A conversation between Dr. Lauren Kilroy-Ewbank and Dr. Steven Zucker in the atrium of the ex-convento, San Agustín de Acolman, Acolman de Nezahualcóyotl, Mexico. Created by Smarthistory.

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Video transcript

(gentle piano music) - [Man] We're about 25 miles outside of Mexico city at Acolman, which was a site that has had a long history of being sacred. - [Woman] This Augustinian convento was a missionary complex, a place where the indigenous population was being converted to Christianity. - [Man] These were established almost immediately after Spain conquered the Aztecs and the Spanish set about to convert this enormous population. These would have been manned by a very small staff of friars. Here originally Franciscan, but ultimately Augustinian. - [Woman] After the conquest, there were hundreds of these conventos built around new Spain. So they wouldn't have only been used by the Nahua population here in central Mexico, but far down into the Yucatan. This was largely built starting in the 1540s. - [Man] And it shows that the conquest was not only about political power, but it was about saving souls. We're in a walled enclosure and it slopes down gently towards the church itself. We have the facade of the church to the left. To the right, we see raised up on the second floor, just behind a balcony, an arched interior space where a priest would lead a sermon. Just behind the priest would have been an altar, and behind that on the wall, a painting. The painting itself is almost a drawing, and it shows the large elegant figure of Saint Catherine of Alexandria. - [Woman] She has just killed the king of Egypt and she's holding a sword that is about to pierce his severed head. The reason she is displayed here we assume is that she is defending Christianity. And she's also responsible for converting many people to Christianity. Both messages which would have incredible relevance for what's happening in the mid 16th century in new Spain. - [Man] Imagine this courtyard filled with indigenous peoples. People who had grown up in a pre-Christian context. They're listening to mass that's being offered from this balcony. The friar is facing away from them, but saying mass towards the alter and Saint Catherine faces them over his head. - [Woman] Among the conventos, you don't always have a raised open balcony chapel but you had some type of chapel from which the friar could deliver a sermon and teach these newly converted populations about Christianity. - [Man] The question is, why are they all outside? Why aren't they in the church? - [Woman] Early on the indigenous peoples, whether they were converted or not were actually not allowed into the church. It was only slightly later that that happened. The church itself is a single nave church. So this very simple plan. - [Man] Which recalls ancient churches, but is also important at this historical moment of the Counter Reformation. That is in the years immediately after Martin Luther began the reformation in Europe. And that carries over here where we have this simplified plan. - [Woman] The friars, including the Augustinians who established this convento, saw themselves as analogous to the apostles as wanting to return to the early church, and they saw the single nave church as an opportunity to do that, to essentially establish their own new Jerusalem here in the Americas. - [Man] Let's take a really careful look at the facade itself. The stone part is heavily ornamented and doesn't remind me of the Franciscans at all. - [Woman] The Franciscan and Dominican conventos in general that you would be seeing at this time would be less ornamented on the facade. They would have more austere, more sober decorative elements. - [Man] And that's appropriate because both the orders of monks, the Franciscans and the Dominicans were mendicants, that is the begging orders. These were people who had taken vows of poverty. - [Woman] And the Augustinians were a mendicant order but they actually didn't take that vow of poverty and so they tend to have more elaborate facade decorations which we're seeing here. - [Man] It's so classicizing, we see four attached columns and a triumphal arch. This is Roman architecture. - [Woman] This triumphal arch motif is used in the 16th century after the conquest to demonstrate the triumph of Catholicism here in a formerly pagan area. - [Man] Perhaps having a political aspect as well, the military triumph of the Spanish over the indigenous peoples in Mexico. - [Woman] Beyond this triumphal arch motif we're seeing all of these other motifs and elements here on the facade. - [Man] So let's start in the upper right. We see a shield that represents a severed arm. - [Woman] What you're seeing is the symbol for Acolman that was used prior to the arrival of Europeans. - [Man] This would have been used by the local indigenous population. This was part of their written language. - [Woman] That we see prominently displayed on the facade reminds us of the indigenous labor that built this structure. - [Man] The craftsman who actually did the carving, who actually did the building, these were indigenous people. The audience that was looking at it were indigenous, and in fact, the vast majority of people who occupied this area were indigenous. It was only the very few friars that were from Europe. - [Woman] If we look at some of the other elements on the facade, we see decorative whimsy that the Augustinians were famous for. One of the whimsical qualities that you see here include seahorses in the frieze. - [Man] Just above that you see a small Christ child, and on either side musical angels who seem really playful. - [Woman] Some other elements that we see include putti, who are at the base of the columns holding up garlands, and it looks as if they're supporting the columns, which is playful. - [Man] Well, because columns are much heavier. - [Woman] Overall, the impression we get is lots of detail. This plateresque or silver smithing style is one that is associated with universities back in Spain and so it relates this idea of intellectual life and it's one that Augustinians tried to cultivate. - [Man] It's interesting to think about why that was appropriate for the indigenous population for whom this is being displayed. - [Woman] And if we move away from the facade and we return to the atrium, you would often have precessions that might leave from the church or start there and process around the atrium, say on feast days, you also had a very large atrial cross or a cross that was in the center of this atrium that was used as a didactic tool to teach these new converts about Christianity. - [Man] There's another interesting aspect to the facade of the church. It seems to represent the fortifications of a castle. There's crenellation, there are high walls, it does feel defensive. - [Woman] We understand this is example of one of these symbolic fortress monasteries, where, we don't think that they were intended to be defensive but they're more communicating this idea of defending Christianity, even the really solid thick buttressing that you see, indicates the solidity of the Catholic church. - [Man] Well, there's also a sense that the sacred is precious and must be protected. - [Woman] Which brings us back to the open balcony chapel with St. Catherine of Alexandria, that is reinforcing this same message again. - [Man] Here we have an important religious personage that is also a warrior. - [Woman] Who is not only converting, but literally defending the faith with the sword. (gentle piano music)