An update from Anne, a graduate student in history with a focus on the U.S. Southwest and Mexico who is doing research on Indian history:
After Hernan Cortes’ defeat over Tenochtitlan, the Aztec Empire, in 1521, a fierce colonial war erupted and conflict continued for three more centuries. Tenochtitlan became Mexico City, the capital of the Viceroyalty of New Spain. Building on pre-existing indigenous political structures, viceregal officials began the construction of cities and towns, and this applies to Oaxaca as well.
But in order to gain the attention and devotion to Catholicism of the local indigenous population, colonizers needed to offer something familiar to their new counterparts. Therefore, an ongoing process of cultural negotiation took place, which allowed Indians, such as the Zapotec, to incorporate aspects of their culture into the art and architecture, such as painting indigenous faces on the angels and filling the statues of Jesus with corn, an essential component of Meso-American identity.
Cultural negotiation did not only apply to the indigenous population, but the colonizers also evaluated, accepted and rejected aspects of native life and art forms.
What emerged is distinctive to Latin America; therefore, art from colonial Latin America, including Oaxaca, must be understood within a colonial context.
Art and architecture in colonial Oaxaca, and Latin America in general, clearly demonstrate the role of religion in everyday life. Colonial churches stood as large testaments of colonial order and power. Although the cathedrals used European cathedrals as models, stylistic choices varied depending on the location within Latin America – therefore, applying European labels, such as mannerists, is not always appropriate. But sometime such labels help us make sense of what we are seeing.
Leslie, an honors student, led a discussion on Santo Domingo Yanhuitlan and showed us the various European and outside influences in the architecture. Her talk over this church allowed us to apply what we learned to the other cathedrals we visited on the trip, including the one we would see later that day.
Church officials, such as the Dominicans, attempted to make Christianity appealing to the indigenous population. Images of the Virgin Mary played a role in the colonization of indigenous communities. Her image became localized, and therefore people could relate to her better, than if her image had remained European in style.
Also, friars used mediums such as murals as teaching tools. Murals provided a space to teach ideas about Christianity. Indian artists, trained at academies, incorporated traditional ideas surrounding their precolonial culture into the iconography. This is part of the negotiation process that existed for both Indian and European parties.
Indians were used to building mission complexes. Friars created open-air chapels as a way to make the space appealing to Amerindians, and this allowed Indians to take aspects of their culture and apply it to their new faith. We saw this firsthand when we visited San Pedro y San Pablo in Teposcolula, where we not only took in the magnificent layout of the church, but we also ate lunch and played Frisbee.