The house of the dean of the cathedral of Puebla is a colonial monument that has languished for lack of scholarly investigation, until now. Penny Morrill has happily unlocked its secrets in an eminently readable work of archival sleuthing and meticulous observation. She has approached the building, built in 1580 by the secular priest Father Tomás de la Plaza, and its mural paintings with a detective’s eye.
On the night of October 12, 1953, two university students entered a condemned building where they had been told by their professors they might find a sixteenth-century mural cycle. Removing layers of wallpaper and whitewash, the students uncovered a portion of what is now considered one of Mexico’s artistic treasures. But mid twentieth-century government bureaucracy had little interest in preserving monuments of colonial culture, much less those of the Church. Morrill tells the story of the almost complete destruction of the Casa del Deán, sold to a movie chain to be demolished and replaced by a cinema. Indeed, only a fraction of the original mansion remains, but the murals of the two extant rooms have revealed a rich cooperation of a priest’s literary interests with the artistic talents of indigenous painters who were proactive and creative in inventing the iconographic program.
After two initial chapters considering the architecture of the house and what we know of Father Tomás, Morrill launches into an excellent treatment of the native artisans who were trained in the Franciscan evangelization schools of the Tlaxcala-Puebla region. Art historians are aware of the school that Fray Pedro de Gante established in Mexico City, but Morrill wants to accent the artists in the immediate vicinity, and she sees the influence, perhaps overstated, of Fray Diego Valadés, author of the illustrated treatise on oratory and evangelization, Rhetorica Cristiana (Perugia, 1579). Taking up the topic of rhetoric allows Morrill to scrutinize the wall paintings in each room, the Salon of the Sibyls and the Salon of the Triumphs, for their implied theological content. What follows is an analysis of the Greco-Roman lore that came into patristic and medieval usage to articulate conversion from paganism to Christianity, a topic that would of course interest a man like Father Tomás, who spoke Nahuatl and Mixtec and had spent years in the missionary field. Morrill presents the priest as one who regularly hosted a salon (in the French sense of a gathering for intellectual conversation and stimulation).
The images of the sibyls in procession offered a discussion of salvation history by citing pagan prophecies of Christ’s coming and the hope of a golden age. The murals of the second room, that of the Triumphs—chariots with personified figures—allowed for a discussion of morality and mortality, and the ethical basis of the convert’s new life in Christ. An interesting detail here is the fact that, as dean of the Puebla cathedral, Father Tomás was responsible for the city’s liturgical processions and catechetical dramas, some [End Page 669] of which included the classical themes of the sibylline prophecies and the victory of morality.
Morrill then examines the image of the “wild man,” the civilized vs. the uncivilized, in the murals. Father Tomás seems to have given the Amerindian artists great latitude in the programmatic details, which makes all the more interesting the opportunity to study how they may have internalized the notion of Christian civility. Throughout these chapters, Morrill observes painted details that come from preconquest Mexica and Mixtec religious iconography. This is particularly evident in the interspersing of animals between the processional images of sibyls and virtues, where they are used as moralistic emblems. The end result of Morrill’s work is a thoughtful exposé of two pictorial cycles evidencing tireless archival research and great theological acumen.
There are however some frustrating elements. Some sources are dated. For example, the author seems unaware of recent European scholarship on Diego...