- Christian Texts for Aztecs: Art and Liturgy in Colonial Mexico
This book provides ideas and materials for thinking in a more comprehensive way about the processes of conversion of Amerindians to Christianity. As the author explains, he wants to take a stand not in black and white, but in gray. That is, his ideological position is where a great many scholars are today: trying to understand more than one side of situations in which different cultures come together and how the dissimilarities and similarities evolve into something that is unlike, although rooted in, both. Although well expressed and exemplified here, this aspect of the book is no longer unusual. The particular interest of this study, however, is its emphasis on liturgical practices in the history of the establishment of Christianity in New Spain.
After laying out these premises, the author then affirms in the first chapter the crucial role of liturgy for understanding religious and cultural change, and introduces important conflicts that emerged out of liturgical disagreements in European history. These provide the background for chapter 2, which presents European liturgical reforms of the period immediately before the conquest of Mexico in 1521 and their impact during the early years of evangelization, including comments on the role of the newly invented printed book. The third chapter deals with preaching, which depended not only on skill in speaking but also on performance and the use of certain objectimages, such as the monogram of Jesus, which friars in Europe used to work on the emotions of their hearers. In the New World, the study of metaphor and its representation in visual images is crucial. Lara discusses several examples as well as strategies for translating particular concepts.
Chapter 4, the longest one, provides very valuable information about the administration of the sacraments in New Spain. Besides dealing with analogous practices in pre-Hispanic rituals, Lara reports on how the friars spoke of the sacraments, reviews the texts that gave shape to the ceremonies (the most important are translated in the appendices), and examines the objects that were used, such as baptismal fonts. He presents visual evidence to discuss certain ideas taught by the friars, like wall paintings that show what was to be [End Page 642] considered sinful with regard to the sacrament of penance and how the character of the sacred was materialized in images made of feathers. In the next two chapters he deals with the liturgical calendar, theater, music, and processions. Lara then devotes a full chapter to the celebration of Corpus Christi, a feast in which many of the previously mentioned elements play major roles. Central to his presentation is the metaphor of Christ as the sun. Although not invented in the sixteenth century, the sun metaphor, he maintains, was first fully exploited in the New World in what he calls “a unique conflation of solar imagery and Christ’s eucharistic presence” (p. 199). Next is a chapter that examines the sounds and the objects that accompanied and participated in ceremonies, with discussions of Old and New World variations on similar themes. The last chapter, based on both verbal and visual images, engages in “informed conjecture” on the topic of “holy blood.” A brief closing chapter acknowledges problems and the questions that remain, but insists on celebrating the creativity of friars and natives.
Although the book is centered on the sixteenth century in Mexico, its arguments and the materials presented have direct implications for the study of later periods, as well as for other Latin American contexts. Indeed, the author makes frequent references to contemporary Mexican religious expressions. Finally, the book’s usefulness is considerably enhanced by excellent illustrations.