When a band of Spanish conquistadors, athirsi for glory and fired with ambition, achieved the conquest of Mexico, there came about a great change in the culture of the country. Mexico was plunged headlong into western civilization, her arts, customs and religion became those of Renaissance Europe. The difference observable between Mexican and Spanish work of this early period is due to the inalienable style of the craftsmanship of the Indian hands which place their unmistakable stamp on whatever they make. (Pl. 61.) The indigenous spirit that had previously dominated the creation of works of art was now restricted merely to their actual execution.
Early 16th Century : Medieval. The first period of Mexican colonial art dates from the Conquest, in 1521, to the middle of the century, when the last tribes in the center of the country were subdued. To this period belongs a series of survivals from the Middle Ages: many vigorous structures show elements of the romanesque; gothic architecture persists in the ribbed vaulting of numerous buildings. (Pl. 44.) and mudéjar* art, brought to America by Spaniards and converted Moors, is found in certain celebrated carved wood ceilings. Examples of this first period are the early fortress-houses of the conquistadors and, later, the most typical monuments of mid-sixteenth century New Spain, the fortified churches -- clever political devices combining the warlike spirit of the conquest with the meekness and pity of the friars. (Pl. 43.)
In painting, there was a series of attempts made by the Indians themselves, in schools established by the monks, culminating in the frescoes on the walls of the many monasteries erected throughout the country. Lacking examples of fresco, or other kinds of painting, the native pupils copied wood cuts from religious books. As a result, many of the frescoes are in black and white; all are linear in character; and many imitate, on a large scale, the cross-hatched shading of the original wood-blocks.
Native influence expressed itself strongly in sculpture, for stone-carving had been the major art of the Indians. There are still a number of these carvings in which, although the subject matter is European, the technique and even some ornamental motives are Indian. (Pl. 62.)
The Renuisscmce . The second stage of colonial art corresponds to the Spanish Renaissance. It is the product of a changed society that had been able to lay down its arms and devote itself profitably to agriculture and mining; the conquistador had become a colonist. This period extended from the middle of the sixteenth century down through the first third of the seventeenth.
In architecture, the style known as plateresque in Spain* flourished in churches, in public buildings and the mansions of the colonial nobility. Their great baremedieval walls were relieved by charmingly ornamented plateresque portals.
By the middle of the century, European painters, began to arrive. Their style was that prevalent in Spain (they were Italianized Flemings), but later their methods became more frankly Spanish. These three influences, Spanish, Flemish, and Italian, never wholly ceased to contend with one another during the rest of the colonial period. Renaissance monasteries continued to be decorated as heretofore; but that simplicity and ingenuousness so characteristic of the earler medieval monuments was lacking; there was a new love of luxury, exuberance, and sumptuousness. When we look at a work like the great staircase in the monastery at Actopan, we are thrilled: here the Renaissance conquers Mexico.
Sculpture, in the first century of the vice-regal period, was wholly under Andalusian influence, and by the end of the sixteen century, Renaissance____________________