- Foundational Arts: Mural Painting and Missionary Theater in New Spain by Michael K. Schuessler
In Schuessler’s ambitious book, a modified translation of a work originally published in Spanish in 2010, he opens a broad lens onto creative works, both dramatic and pictorial, that were undertaken to evangelize Mexico’s indigenous peoples in the sixteenth century. He argues that dogmatic plays with Christian themes, written by friars in Nahuatl, as well as woodcut and engraved images in printed books imported from Europe, inspired the great mural programs that indigenous artists were called upon to create in monastery complexes built during the course of the century. The result Schuessler terms “bookish architecture” (p. 3). These plays and paintings were, in his view, “syncretic expressions,” (p. 31) drawn from pre-Hispanic religious practice and late medieval Christianity, which together formed a new synthesis. Dramas, in particular, provided the narratives that were then represented on monastic walls, in “a communicative practice that combines plastic and dramatic elements” (p. 55).
To explore the relation between painted murals and church drama, he turns to two mural programs at Augustinian churches in the present state of Hidalgo, one at San Miguel, Ixmiquilpan, the other in the enormous barrel-vaulted open chapel, at San Nicolás de Tolentino, Actopan. Both are extraordinary painted programs: at Ixmiquilpan, a battle erupts along the nave: warriors, some wearing jaguar skins (the uniform of elite Aztec warriors) and holding severed heads, are painted at nearly life size; they use traditional indigenous clubs (macahuitl) and bows and arrows. A dense foliation of acanthus leaves appears in this mural at huge scale, to merge with monstrous figures who are the enemies of the jaguar warriors, and they seem to be growing out of it, or growing into it, like martial Daphnes. The other mural, at Actopan, is equally vivid. The back wall of the vault shows biblical scenes, but arrayed in framed panels below the vault are scenes of hell, in which an army of long-limbed, red-fleshed devils set to work tormenting the damned, in ways that fever the imagination.
As Schuessler interprets them, the Ixmiquilpan murals may have been inspired by “dramatic performances of the wars waged between the Nahua and their Otomi allies against the fearsome Chichimecs” (p. 121). Recast on Church walls, they offer “a battle [End Page 153] between good and evil, in the form of mythopoetic allegory” (p. 123). At Actopan, the friars drew on another type of morality play, the Auto de juicio final. A version of such a play, written in Nahuatl and attributed to the Franciscan Andrés de Olmos, survives and is reproduced in an appendix. Schuessler argues that it is not apocalyptic imagery in general (and there was much of it circulating in sixteenth-century Mexico) that inspired Actopan’s inferno but this play. The key piece of evidence is a damned female figure named Lucía in the play, whom Schuessler connects to a tormented woman appearing three times at Actopan. He contends also that she is a thinly veiled rendering of Cihuacoatl, a female earth deity he describes as a “Mother Goddess” (p. 156).
Schuessler offers a broad synthesis of existing scholarship: the idea that printed books had a deep influence on the painting of New Spain is by now a foundational premise. Schuessler’s other thesis—relating the paintings to plays—is certainly very plausible; indeed, it has already been discussed by Elena Estrada de Gerlero for Ixmiquilpan. Schuessler is somewhat new to the party when it comes to sixteenth-century Mexico (he also writes on twentieth-century literature), but freshness is often a virtue: new eyes can see things that more narrowly focused scholars have missed, and good writing can make familiar ideas spring to life. However, the current work does not reveal Schuessler as a particularly gifted prose stylist, and his seeming uncertainty with the material leads him to write chapters dominated by block...