Pre-Hispanic Paintings in Mexican Churches Suggest Negotiation

TEPOZTLAN, Mexico — Indigenous symbols found painted alongside Roman Catholic motifs at a 1550s convent near Mexico City suggest Spanish priests negotiated with indigenous rulers in the early years after the conquest, experts said Friday.

The popular belief has long been that the Spaniards simply imposed their religion and system of government after the 1521 defeat of the Aztec Empire.

But the few Spanish priests sent to Mexico faced the monumental task of converting hundreds of thousands of natives in a short time. This may have forced them to consider native preferences in carrying out their task.

This week, the National Institute of Anthropology and History announced that Indigenous symbols like a feather headdress, an ax and a shield were found under layers of whitewash plaster in open-air chapels in a convent in the town of Tepoztlan, just south of Mexico. Town.

Restoration experts were cleaning and stabilizing large painted red circles one meter in diameter on the walls. This kind of circles can be seen elsewhere in the convent, filled with Christian images.

But in open-air chapels they were paired with the same circles bearing native designs. The meaning of pre-Hispanic symbols is still under investigation and may refer to Tepoztecatl or another native god.

Historical restorer Frida Mateos González, who works for the institute, said it was significant that paintings found on two walls of the outer chapels show the letter “M” representing the Virgin Mary. On the opposite walls, at the same size and height, was a circle with the pre-Hispanic symbols.

“Something is happening there that suggests a negotiation at the same level, ‘What did we agree on?'” Mateos González said. “It speaks of a space where negotiations and agreements have been reached.”

The indigenous peoples of Mexico used to hold religious ceremonies outdoors, not in enclosed spaces like churches. To attract them, the priests built open-air chapels: a small vaulted vestibule for officiating mass facing a large open patio surrounded by the four walls of the church patio.

The paintings found this week were in three smaller structures called “laying chapels,” built at four corners of the open patio. Often found in conjunction with open chapels, “posing chapels” contained statues of saints used to mark processions and teach converts. A stone baptismal font and a stone cross stood in the courtyard of the church.

While many people have long believed that natives were somehow afraid to enter the heavy covered spaces of churches, Mateos González said open-air chapels may simply reflect priests’ desire to work the hardest. quickly possible for the conversion of the native population. .

Open-air spaces, perhaps with a few rustic thatched-roof enclosures, were quicker to build than churches, which often took decades to complete.

“It speaks to an urgent need to start using the space while the church is being built,” she said.

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