- City, Temple, Stage: Eschatological Architecture and Liturgical Theatrics in New Spain
As objects of scholarly inquiry, utopian projects tend to elicit among historians both indifference and enthusiasm; despite some noticeable changes, these reactions are not very different from the ones that long have accompanied the historical study of ideas be they religious, political, or philosophical. However gross this generalization may be, it appears to hold true for the modern historians who studied the early evangelization of Mexico and the mendicant friars who made it possible. A similar divide appears to exist among the art historians who from George Kubler onwards have shed light on the architectural complexes that served as stages for the Christianization of the Mexican Indians. In his beautifully produced and richly illustrated City, Temple, Stage, Jaime Lara has unapologetically made the ideas and expectations about the end of times held by a select group of friars in sixteenth-century Mexico the key for understanding this unique architectural legacy. [End Page 358]
The title brings to mind Samuel Edgerton's Theaters of Conversion, a by now indispensable study on Mexican religious architecture. Yet for all their similarities, these are two very different books. Whereas Edgerton focused on style and the transfer of artistic motifs, traditions, and techniques to Mexico, Lara makes clear from the outset that he will not concern himself with style but meaning. And meaning, for the author, is to be found by identifying the core metaphors that the friars, drawing on both Christian and native traditions turned into the unifying principle behind their "catechumenal complexes."As expressions of the missionaries' apocalyptic expectations, these complexes, according to Lara, were meant to encompass the past, the present, and the future by evoking and embodying all at once Jerusalem, its Temple, and the heavenly city to come.
The author has a tendency to overstate the hold that millenarian ideas had on the Mexican friars, even among the Franciscans. This impression is corroborated by the lack of a clear distinction between the particular vision of the end of times embraced by followers of Joachim de Fiore such as Mendieta—who arrived in Mexico in 1554 and not in 1529—and the eschatological themes and motifs that by the sixteenth century had become part and parcel of Christian liturgy and art. It is not surprising then that the world of the friars presented in City, Temple, Stage should be an unabashedly medieval one in which the presence of Renaissance techniques and conventions of visual representation barely registers.
Professor Lara has drawn on an impressive body of theological, literary, and artistic sources across time and places in search of the prototypes that may have guided the friars in the planning of the religious complex and the designing of its individual components:posas, open chapels, atrium, atrial crosses, etc. Some readers will find the seemingly endless correspondences in display fascinating; others will be more inclined to question the criteria behind a number of these exercises. Some of Lara's proposals are also likely to generate debate. A case in point is his provocative reinterpretation of the checkerboard plan of colonial towns as a design inspired by Eiximenis' reading of Ezekiel.
As if overwhelmed by the world of possibilities opened by his sources, Lara has privileged accumulation over analysis, suggestion over disciplined speculation, a move that may explain why some sections remain oddly tentative. Yet, this is a valuable if idiosyncratic scholarly contribution in which synthesis and new reinterpretations, images and ideas have not quite managed to work out their differences.