Theaters of Conversion: Religious Architecture and Indian Artisans in Colonial Mexico

By Bailey, Gauvin Alexander | The Catholic Historical Review, January 2002 | Go to article overview

Theaters of Conversion: Religious Architecture and Indian Artisans in Colonial Mexico


Bailey, Gauvin Alexander, The Catholic Historical Review


Latin American

Theaters of Conversion: Religious Architecture and Indian Artisans in Colonial Mexico. By Samuel Y. Edgerton with photographs by Jorge Perez de Lara; drawings by Mark Van Stone, James E. Ivey, and the author. (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press. 2001. Pp. xviii, 350. $60.00.)

It would be hard to find a period in Latin American art as delightful-or controversial-as the early colonial era in New Spain (Mexico); yet so much of its art and architecture is still regrettably unfamiliar to the English-speaking public. It is difficult even to find passable pictures of the fabulous conventos built by indigenous masons and artists, and most of the substantive literature in English is decades old. It was therefore very satisfying to read Edgerton's new and original study of the monastic architecture and decoration of early colonial Mexico and New Mexico. Theaters of Conversion, adorned with over eighty exquisite color photographs by Jorge Perez de Lara, is one of the most beautiful art books I have seen in a long time. The photographs in Chapter Three alone, of littleknown churches in rural Yucatan, gave me enough "anagogical delight" (see pp. 83-85) to satisfy any post-Tridentine theorist. More importantly, the text is written with an elegance, authority, and clarity seldom found in a field where theoretical jargon increasingly holds substance and intelligibility in a stranglehold.

Edgerton, a celebrated scholar of Italian Renaissance art, gives us his first book-length foray into colonial Mexico, a subject to which he has devoted most of his energies since the late 1980's. By looking at the first 175 years after the Spanish conquest, Edgerton illuminates one of the most flourishing periods of cultural cross-fertilization in Latin American history and one of the grandest building campaigns in the history of the world. Some 400 conventos and over 1,000 visita chapels were constructed in Mexico alone by 1600, and all of them were built and decorated almost entirely by Indians. The book's purpose is twofold: to shed fight on the motives of the mendicant friars and the "promiscuous mixture" of European styles they brought with them, and to reveal the resilience of the indigenous iconographic and stylistic traditions, which transformed what would have been second-rate Spanish architecture into some of the most original and spiritually-enriching monuments in the world.

The friars operated according to what Edgerton calls "expedient selection," the use of European forms and traditions that resonate with pre-Conquest indigenous parallels. Here he expands on an idea first raised by the anthropologist George M. Foster, who wrote in the 1950's and '60's about how friars carefully filtered out aspects of Catholicism that would not work in the Mexican context, resulting in what he termed a "conquest culture." One seminal figure in this movement who emerges in Edgerton's book is the visionary Flemish friar Pedro de Gante, founder of the Indian arts academy of San Jose de los Naturales in Mexico City in 1529. …

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