Survival of Early Christian Symbolism in Monastic Churches of New Spain and Visions of the Millennial Kingdom

By Schuetz-Miller, Mardith K. | Journal of the Southwest, Winter 2000 | Go to article overview

Survival of Early Christian Symbolism in Monastic Churches of New Spain and Visions of the Millennial Kingdom


Schuetz-Miller, Mardith K., Journal of the Southwest


The architectural arrangement of sixteenth- and seventeenth-century monastic establishments founded in the New World for the conversion to Christianity of indigenous people was the ultimate development of traditions whose origins date to the very beginning of the Christian church. The plan of monasteries was systematized under the first viceroy of Mexico, Antonio de Mendoza (1535-1550). The church was to have the traditional east-west orientation of sacred structures formulated in pre-Christian times. The house of the ministers was generally attached to the south wall of the church and a porter's lodge (porteria) also faced the atrium (atrio) from the same east side. The atrio in front of the church was walled and three gateways defined directional axes, the portal of the church serving as the fourth gate. At the intersection of the axes stood a tall cross. An open chapel (capilla abierta or capilla de Indios) abutted the church facade on one side or the other, or was located along a perpendicular wall. In the four corners were small chapels known as posas (Toussant 1967: 23-26). This model of the monastery was not necessarily followed in execution and, according to Kubler (1982: 390-93), sites having both open chapels and posas are rare.

This basic monastic plan was embraced by the three mendicant orders: the Franciscans who arrived in 1524, the Dominicans who followed two years later, and the Augustinians in 1533. The center of activity was the atrium and a sixteenth-century quotation from the Franciscan chronicler Geronimo Mendieta reveals the importance of the open chapel:

   The monasteries have a large walled patio in front of the Church ... made
   to be used mainly on holy days, so that when all the towns-people are
   gathered together they can hear Mass and be preached to in the patio, for
   they will not fit inside the body of the church, which they use only when,
   through piety, they come to hear Mass on week days. (quoted in McAndrew
   1965: 203)

The patio met other needs. It was used for performing baptisms, teaching the catechism (doctrina), as a classroom for training Indians, and sometimes as a cemetery. The quadrants with their posas were sometimes associated with particular confraternities or equated with the four barrios of the ideal sixteenth century town derived from pre-conquest calpulis of Aztec organization. The atrio was the setting of pageantry beloved by Indians and Spaniards alike. According to McAndrew (1965: 279), "Elaborate religious processions had been conspicuous in Indian religious ceremonies and, as the Spaniards were more given to outdoor religious parading than any other people in Europe, a double heritage made processions a major event on important festival days in Mexico. Bishop Zumarraga found it worth his really precious time to translate and add to Dionysius the Carthusian's Brief Compendium Treating of the Manner of Making Processions (1544) and see that it was printed in Mexico." The most elaborate processions were those on Corpus Christi, but also important were others associated with Holy Thursday, Easter Morning, Epiphany, and Twelfth Night. Additionally there were religious dramas or morality plays with such themes as the Expulsion from Eden. In fact "the Indians made themselves so very much at home that orders had to be issued (1555) to stop them from sleeping in the atrios. They had to be forbidden to play cards, or ball, or other games they had learned from the Spaniards--even bull-baiting" (McAndrew 1965: 208). It is worth noting survivals of colonial pageantry in the Christmas pastorela and Easter celebrations of the Tarahumara and Yaqui Indians, to mention only those performed in the Southwestern United States and bordering states of Chihuahua and Sonora. To place the New World pattern of mendicant establishments in its historical perspective, an outline of monastic development will demonstrate the origins of the model.

The concept of monasticism did not begin with Christianity: Buddhist monks and nuns, the Essene sect of Judaism, Greco-Roman Stoics and Neoplatonists, and cloistered women in Inca and Tarascan societies can be cited as examples. …

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