- Theater of a Thousand Wonders: A History of Miraculous Images and Shrines in New Spain by William B. Taylor
Theater of a Thousand Wonders: A History of Miraculous Images and Shrines in New Spain.
Cambridge UP, 2016. 654 Pp.
SCHOLARLY STUDIES OF SHRINES AND DEVOTION in the early modern Catholic world have tended to focus on one shrine or one devotional cult. While such a focus provides an in-depth exploration of cultic devotion, it impedes our ability to see larger-scale patterns. In contrast, Taylor’s monumental tome provides a comprehensive—even breathtaking—overview of the important shrines of New Spain, from their first foundation in the sixteenth century through the early decades of the eighteenth century.
Taylor’s focus here is on the role that shrines played in constructing “place” in New Spain. Rather than emphasize critical synthesis, his “principal aim, then, is to understand shrines and sacred images during the colonial period in terms of finding, making, and maintaining a place in the world” (5). His use of the concept of “place” highlights its constructed nature. As such, it is not constructed once, but shifts in time as people and objects circulated and moved. “Place” as a conceptual category is inevitably geographical, but instead of examining cities, as many studies of space and place do, Taylor’s work focuses on landscapes, the lived environment of the countryside. This focus on the countryside is essential, because it is here that we find the “web” of shrines that created regional nodes of interconnectedness. Moving beyond the walls of the city, then, helps us to understand the structures and changes in devotional patterns among people, the majority of whom lived in the countryside. And it is ultimately people whom Taylor wishes to draw forward. “Place,” then, provides a way to access the experience of people who created and sustained shrines.
The book is organized into two parts, “Bearings” and “Soundings,” accompanied by three appendices. Part 1 (chapters 1–4) locates the reader in a specific spiritual landscape, detailing the shrines, their locations, and shifts in patterns of devotions over time. Here and throughout the book, Taylor focuses exclusively on shrines devoted to cults to the Virgin Mary and to Christ, because these figures acted as patrons to the vast majority of shrines. [End Page 209] (He helpfully lists shrines dedicated to additional saints in appendix 3.) Each shrine had a miraculous image that inspired its foundation and served as its devotional centerpiece.
Part 1 is largely taken up with an exhaustive presentation of information about the location and avocations of various shrines. Taylor argues that such shrines did not follow a European pattern of decline during the Enlightenment (though whether such a decline occurred in eighteenth-century Portugal and Spain is debatable), but rather could, in some cases, increase in popularity. Understanding the establishment and continuity of shrines in the countryside of New Spain also requires an examination of the specific topic of Indian evangelization and devotion, since many of the villages included in Taylor’s webs of community were Indian pueblos.
Because Taylor’s primary interest is the webs of community created and recreated by shrines, he de-centers the shrine itself. While he meticulously researches and maps for the reader the locations of the shrines he discusses, the shrines themselves are less important than understanding how the shrines connect to the landscape and the communities therein. For example, in chapter 2, which focuses on miraculous images of Mary and Christ at the center of shrine devotions, Taylor briefly presents the narrative of the most famous of all Mexican shrines, Our Lady of Guadalupe, before offering a detailed discussion of other prominent shrines. The chapter acknowledges the primacy of Guadalupe in the scholarship and in the devotional imagination of New Spaniards while at the same time signaling the existence of significant cultic presence outside of it.
The images presented alongside the discussion of shrines in the chapter are devotional prints, engraved images printed on individual sheets. While examination of print culture becomes a key feature of chapter 7, here the prints function largely as illustrations, leaving the reader to wonder whether...