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The Americas 59.3 (2003) 409-410

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Theaters of Conversion: Religious Architecture and Indian Artisans in Colonial Mexico. By Samuel Y. Edgerton. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2001. Pp. xviii, 350. Illustrations. Photos. Notes. Bibliography. Index. $60.00 cloth.

On the façade of the Augustinian church at Cuitzeo, in Michoacán, a decorative element was signed by an indigenous artisan F. Io. Metl me fecit [F. Johannes Metl made me]. Regrettably, such identification is rare and the vast majority of indigenous artisans who built and decorated the nearly four hundred large mission complexes and over a thousand smaller churches (visitas) between 1530 and 1600 remain anonymous. Despite such anonymity, Samuel Edgerton's primary concern is "to celebrate the indigenous contribution to the Christianized visual arts." A secondary purpose is to persuade readers to "see for themselves the magnificence of these masterpieces of accommodation between foreign Spanish and native Indian artisanry" (p. 35). He provides a close examination of religious architecture in colonial Mexico, its indigenous influences, and its uses as a vehicle for conversion to Christianity.

The major themes explored are the construction of missions and churches (chapters two, three, and seven), the training of indigenous artisans (chapters four and five), and the convento as religious theater (six, seven, eight, and nine). Edgerton's case studies are the missionary conventos in central Mexico, the open visita chapels and the palapa ramada (a native-style pole-and-thatch construction) in theYucatán peninsula, and the desert conventos of New Mexico (the latter constructed between 1598 and 1700).

Edgerton casts a cool eye over arguments that suggest that pre-conquest religious architecture had no significant influence on convento design or that privilege the survival of preconquest elements of style and iconography and present Renaissance art as a negative intrusion of Spanish colonialism. Rather, what Edgerton finds in his wide-ranging analysis of religious architecture is the deployment of what he terms "expedient selection" by the friars. Such a strategy involved the friars' self-conscious choice of Christian forms that resembled pre-conquest indigenous visual symbols and forms. The post-conquest convento patio, the placement of new churches close to sacred cenotes and on top of former temple platforms in the [End Page 409] Yucatán peninsula, and the incorporation of the sunken kiva into the center of the cloister in the case of the New Mexican pueblo church are the author's main examples of expedient selection. In all cases, the primary purpose was to encourage indigenous peoples to make connections between the church and former sacred spaces and shrines and to fuse Christianity with the quincunx cosmology of indigenous peoples. The end result so the author argues is that "the new style, no matter how alien or harshly imposed at first, nonetheless successfully evoked in the Indians a profound and sincere feeling of 'divine presence' . . . just as numinous as their own traditional language of forms" (p. 3).

As a vehicle of conversion Edgerton discusses how the conventos served as religious theater full of spectacle and pageant and as a "theater of memory" according to the popular Renaissance revivial of Ciceronian ars memorativa. The architectural design of a convento not only accommodated the traditional sacred direction of Indian processions but provided space for native plays with live actors, pictorial backdrops, movable scenery and props. Edgerton provides a particularly suggestive discussion of the ways in which friars in New Mexico experimented with different ways to illuminate church interiors, particularly the altar sanctuaries, to create dramatic effects.

Samuel Edgerton provides an engaging, often impassioned, informative study. His analysis of the training indigenous artisans received based on the conventions of the Renaissance artistic style such as geometric perspective, light-and-shadow rendering, and Renaissance-style figure drawing is a model of clarity. It is clear where the author's sympathies lie and his tendency to eulogize the friars and indigenous artisans and demonize the Spanish (including immigrant Spanish artisans who are judged to be provincial and second-rate) will undoubtedly irritate some readers. It is regrettable that although Edgerton alludes...


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