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  • Foundational Arts: Mural Painting and Missionary Theater in New Spain by Michael Schuessler
  • Anna M. Nogar
Schuessler, Michael. Foundational Arts: Mural Painting and Missionary Theater in New Spain. Tucson: U of Arizona P, 2013. 224 pp.

Michael Schuessler’s study of two murals and a play dating from the first epoch of Spanish conquest in New Spain provides valuable insight into the mestizo nature of the forms, and their complementarity as colonizing instruments. Schuessler posits that the murals were sites of “palimpsestic synthesis” (29): instances where indigenous elements were interwoven into European structures and principles. Schuessler urges this concept forward, proposing that the mural artwork, likely painted by indigenous artist-scholars or tlacuilos, manifests a complex fusion of native worldviews with Spanish modalities; as he terms it, “a foundational example of… Indo-Christian syncretic iconography” (21). Schuessler lays out the parallelism between artwork and drama, asserting that each didactic tool sought to “instill the Christian faith by using elements that the Nahuas recognized as belonging to their own culture” (142).

Schuessler purposefully limits the scope of his investigation to the artwork located at two Augustinian monasteries in Hidalgo, Mexico: the mural program at the Monastery of San Miguel Arcángel in Itzmiquilpan, and the murals in the open chapel at the Monastery of San Nicolás Tolentino in Actopan. Both buildings were designed by Augustinian friar Andrés de Mata, and their murals were hidden under whitewash until the later twentieth century. In the case of the Itzmiquilpan murals, Schuessler reveals a subtext to their religious primary subject matter: the Chichimec raids that fulminated nearby. Schuessler reads the latter, whose massive structure is heavily decorated with artwork representing apocalyptic themes, in the context of what many consider the first New Spanish dramatic work, El juicio final (The Last Judgment), a play in Nahuatl penned by Franciscan Andrés de Olmos in the 1530s. Schuessler argues that the commonalities between mural and play suggest that the moral drama may have been performed in the chapel for an audience of native neophytes, and pinpoints the intersections between them.

Schuessler foregrounds his study in chapter one, “Towards a Literature of Foundations,” with a discussion of early hybrid/mestizo New Spanish cultural production. Starting with a survey of scholarship on the drama genre in early post-con-quest Mexico, Schuessler draws comparisons between Spanish theater before and up to the sixteenth century, and the “hypothesis of an incipient Mesoamerican theater” (43): indigenous dramatic performances prior and contemporaneous to Spanish conquest. The discussion continues with an historical exploration into how religious theater was used to evangelize in early New Spain, and how it was adapted to new environs and audiences. [End Page 226]

Schuessler’s second chapter examines the development of mural art and drama as instructional instruments in New Spain. Schuessler traces back the European prototypes for both genres, and is quick to cite the many colonial-era sources (among them Franciscans Toribio de Benavente, Diego Valadés, and Dominican Bartolomé de las Casas) that reported native artists painting, including an outdoor chapel decorated by indigenous artists. Schuessler suggests that these murals were often inspired by images in printed Spanish-language texts. In most of these cases he maintains that “images with pre-Columbian influences, frequently limited to the marginalia of the pictorial program, may be found in vines, flowers, plants and other leitmotifs that adorn the portraits of saints, the Crucifixion, the Tree of Jesse, and the Apocalypse, among other frequent subjects” (82). Yet Itzmiquilpan and Actopan deviate from this tendency, as indigenous influence there is more extensive, from the colors and dyes used to saturate the images (the sacred turquoise green invoking Quetzalcoatl), to the paintings’ images, in which “classic figures from Greek and Roman cultures [are] combined with gods, animals and magical beings that pertain to Nahua polytheistic religion” (85).

Schuessler proceeds with a close examination of the murals at Itzmiquilpan in chapter three, which he asserts are “an extraordinary synthesis of the icono-graphic depiction of several principles of Catholic dogma, Indian mythology, and a recent historical and political event” (99). Schuessler discusses Itzmiquilpan’s fascinating image of a centaur, in which the fusion of European themes with...


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