The Medieval Review 11.05.13

Lara, Jaime. Christian Texts for Aztecs: Art and Liturgy in Colonial Mexico. Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 2008. Pp. 392. $75 ISBN 978-0-268-03379-8. .

Reviewed by:

Frances Ramos
University of South Florida, Tampa

In Christian Texts for Aztecs: Art and Liturgy in Colonial Mexico, Jaime Lara seeks to redress an imbalance in the historiography of central Mexico's evangelization. Despite many recent studies illustrating how indigenous people negotiated their own acculturation, Lara notes the pervasiveness of works that uncritically embrace the Black Legend, which labeled Spanish colonizers murderous tyrants, or conversely, the White Legend, which characterized Spanish missionaries as the spiritual and often material saviors of native people. Neither approach attributes much agency to central Mexico's Aztec or, better-stated, Mexica subjects. So, to better capture the nature of the sixteenth-century evangelization process, Lara employs a "Grey Legend" approach; despite a large degree of coercion and a marked imbalance of power, he illustrates how indigenous people adopted Christian practices according to their own cosmological frameworks. While perhaps not an entirely novel contribution, Lara advances the literature in significant ways by focusing on external religious behavior. Realizing the impossibility of providing definitive assessments of how native people internalized Catholic doctrine, Lara boldly engages in informed speculation, exploring the complex evolution of conversion strategies throughout the Middle Ages, as well as the prehispanic beliefs and conceptions that would in turn shape how the Mexica adopted Catholic rituals. Through his erudite handling of discursive sources (including Spanish, Latin, and Nahuatl sermons, breviaries, and catechisms) and visual sources (including architecture, pictographs, paintings, and liturgical objects), he argues that a "grammatical compatibility" between both worldviews facilitated the evangelization process (4).

Lara frames his study as a continuation of City, Temple, Stage: Eschatological Architecture and Liturgical Theatrics in New Spain where he first illustrated how specific root metaphors common to both the European Catholic and Mesoamerican worldviews allowed for a kind of symbolic proximity. In his most recent book, Lara again focuses on root metaphors, but instead of analyzing those tied to a cosmological center, the subject of his previous book, he now focuses primarily on those metaphors and rituals tied to the human body and the sun and how these may have been perceived, understood, and assimilated by native converts. Because metaphors help the mind to order experience "using intuitive comparisons whereby the less familiar is assimilated to the more familiar and the unknown to the known," Lara sees overlapping metaphors as crucial to the sixteenth-century evangelization campaign and the development of a particularly Mesoamerican form of Catholicism (4).

As Lara deftly shows, metaphoric proximity likely facilitated the acceptance of a variety of Christian practices. The prehispanic Mexica, for example, had a ritual similar to baptism whereby newborn infants were cleansed in water, a liquid life-force that Mesoamericans regarded as metaphorically synonymous with blood. The ritual, therefore, immediately confirmed the infant's place within the Mesoamerican cycle of sacrifice; just as they would grow to eat from the earth, the gods that were themselves natural elements would, in turn, eat them. Lara shows how Franciscan, Dominican, and Augustinian missionaries encouraged slippage between Mexica and Christian conceptions of baptism, noting how one of the sixteenth century's most influential friars, Bernardino de SahagĂșn, referred to baptism as the method through which God provided sunlight to converts, thereby linking in to a central metaphor of the Mexica. Lara relies as much on visual sources as on textual sources and refers to various photographs (some of which were taken by him) of sixteenth-century baptismal fonts made out of recycled prehispanic ritual objects to support his interpretation; he identifies some that had once served as chacmool receptacles, the large ritual containers for the storing of sacrificed hearts.

The root metaphors of the body and the sun are reflected in the majority of the practices analyzed by Lara. Through an impressive discussion of late-medieval evangelization strategies and a specific examination of Bernardino of Siena's (1330-1444) promotion of the sunburst design surrounding Jesus' initials (JHS), Lara shows how the sunburst became an iconic representation of Christ and how in central Mexico, solar symbolism found a receptive audience. He notes how solar imagery permeates scripture, citing, for example, Psalm 72:17 "May God's Name be forever blessed and endure like the sun" (45). Similarly, the sun proved central to Mesoamerican religion. The Mexica regarded Huitzilopotchtli, or the "Hummingbird on the Left," as their primary god; he was, of course, not only the god of war, but the sun that required constant blood sacrifice to rise every morning. The pervasive use of solar imagery among missionaries likely made candidates more receptive to Christianity and facilitated their acceptance of the Eucharist. A correspondence between Christian solar imagery and Mesoamerican sun worship also helped to make the festival of Corpus Christi exceedingly popular; many scholars now believe that Corpus Christi's celebration of the Eucharist and God's spiritual triumph over heterodoxy resonated intensely with not only the natives of central Mexico, but also the people of colonial Peru. Spain's festival incorporated many militaristic components, such as mock battles, referencing its long history of fighting against infidel. Because Corpus Christi associated Christ with the sun and cast him as militaristic, it likely effected how novitiates interpreted and shaped the festival. Significantly, Lara notes how solar associations with the Eucharist were first made explicitly in the New World and were only then exported to the Old World primarily in the form of the sunburst design of the Eucharistic monstrance.

Lara identifies overlap between popular Christian and Mesoamerican metaphors through an analysis of a variety of religious practices. The Mexica likely proved receptive to the central tenet that Christ sacrificed himself through his death, as sacrificial impersonators of deities (gods incarnate) often died for the well-being of a community during elaborate ritual performances. This parallel not only informed the Mexica's basic understanding of Christianity, but likely influenced how converts regarded the practice of communion. The Mexica had engaged in various types of ritual cannibalism, including the ingestion of maize dough in the shape of specific gods, as human flesh was considered synonymous with maize flower. It is likely then no coincidence that sixteenth-century codices and pictographic prayers designed by friars frequently referred to the Eucharist as a tortilla, and eventually, native artisans would design sculptures of Christ made out of corn paste. Likewise, while the Mexica had little understanding of the Christian version of sin and its emphasis on individual responsibility, many converts embraced the sacrament of confession, likely perceiving it as similar to the prehispanic practice of "straightening the heart" through confession to a local shaman (106).

While acknowledging that friars abetted syncretism, Lara also reminds the reader that they adapted their strategies according to the willingness, understandings, and flexibility of their candidates, thereby crediting the sixteenth-century Mexica with shaping their own religious practice. Lara notes, moreover, that young novitiates trained by the friars also participated in the evangelization process and speculates regarding their importance to campaign. Yet, with some central aspects of Christianity, missionaries did not have to work hard to convince Mexica candidates. Christ's crucifixion, which by the later Middle Ages had become vividly bloody in its depiction, could not have but resonated with Mesoamericans who, as Lara shows, became devoted to images of Christ and, specifically, to what would eventually be referred to as the Sacred Heart of Jesus. As the "vessel of a human being's soul," the heart was the most powerful sacrifice that people would render to the gods (239). In central Mexico, native artisans represented Christ's heart in a "biologically accurate manner" and the custom of realistically portraying the heart (like the crafting of monstrances as sunbursts) migrated from the New World to take root in the Old (245).

Lara makes a compelling argument. Both sixteenth-century missionaries and the native people of central Mexico engaged in a form of guided syncretism and, through their efforts, recycled aspects of prehispanic Mexica religion. Christian Texts for Aztecs is a sophisticated study of a complex process, but while guiding the reader through the different meanings of various sacramentals and liturgical practices, Lara does not always makes specific parallels overtly clear. But dealing with such difficult subject matter, Lara should not be faulted for what some might regard as less-than-perfect organization. This, after all, is not a linear tale. Lara's intellectual meanderings, moreover, are always interesting, never off point, and in the end, support his objective. While empirically dense and intellectually challenging, the book is also a pleasure to read and its numerous illustrations of church atriums, codices, baptismal fonts, engraving, paintings and sculptures, help to support Lara's contention that "The missionary efforts of the friars were surprisingly collaborative and creative and, for the most part, successful in what they attempted to do in partnership with the Nahua Christians" (262)