Burning of “idols,” Description of the City and Province of Tlaxcala, ca. 1581-84. Diego Muñoz Camargo.
Glasgow University Library, Department of Special Collections, Scotland.

This scene depicts one very physical and dramatic way pre-Hispanic religious practices were transformed by Christian friars in New Spain. In pre-Hispanic times, Aztec priests and select performers would transform themselves into deities for religious feasts. They would do so through elaborate ritual preparation, and then don their deity’s mask and paraphernalia for both public and private ceremonies. After the conquest, Catholic priests tried to close down this conduit to an indigenous otherworld by banning ceremonies, destroying paraphernalia and punishing participants. In this scene from a historical manuscript, tonsured Franciscans put such masks and regalia to the torch. Similar bonfires were held across Spanish America in the 16th century, and painted books, ancestor bundles and other relics sacred to indigenous peoples were publicly destroyed.

While Catholic priests would write triumphantly about these conflagrations as successes in their war against native “idolatry,” this manuscript account is somewhat different, and offers a window onto the attitudes of the native elite to their own pre-Columbian (and pre-Christian) past. The painting and accompanying account were created by Diego Muñoz Camargo (ca. 1529-99), a mestizo born into an elite family in Tlaxcala—home to the indigenous allies who fought alongside Spanish conquistadors.

While some indigenous accounts focus upon the horror and public grief at the burning of pre-Hispanic objects, expressed through tears and cries, Muñoz Camargo takes a different position. As a Catholic and a loyal servant of the Spanish crown, he supported this destruction of the “idols,” as he called them. Yet through meticulous rendering of masks above the flames—where specific Nahua deities like Quezalcoatl/Ehecatl are visible—the Description preserves their memory and appearance. The style of drawing, as well, owes much to pre-Hispanic manuscripts where figures were distinguished by a clear and precise frame line, as they are here. Thus, Muñoz Camargo’s account both preserves the pre-Columbian past, a history and artistic legacy that makes him and his community distinct, at the same time that he records its destruction and the dawn of a new Christian age.


Mignolo, Walter. 1987. “El mandato y la ofrenda: la Descripción de la ciudad y provincia de Tlaxcala de Diego Munoz Camargo, y las Relaciones de Indias.” Nueva Revista de Filologia Hispanica 35 (2): 451-84.

Miller, Marilyn. 1997. “Covert Mestizaje and the strategy of ‘passing’ in Diego Muñoz Camargo’s Historia de Tlaxcala." Colonial Latin American Review 6 (June): 41-59.

Muñoz Camargo, Diego. 1982-1988 [c. 1581-84]. "Descripcion of the City and Province of Tlaxcala." In Relaciones geográficas del siglo XVI, vol. 4. René Acuña, ed. Mexico City: Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México.


Aztecs: (Nahuatl) A pre-Hispanic empire that controlled much of central Mexico, with a capital in Tenochtitlan, up until the Spanish conquest. The Aztecs called themselves the Culhua-Mexica. “Huey Tlatoani” or “Great Speaker” was the title of their supreme ruler. back to text


Conquistador: (Spanish) A Spanish soldier who participated in the conquest of the New World in the 16th century. back to text

  Franciscans: (English) An order of Catholic priests; Franciscans were the first of the regular orders the Spanish crown sent to convert the indigenous people of the Americas. They arrived in Santo Domingo before 1500 and landed in New Spain in 1524. They began evangelization in Perú circa 1546, and founded the first Franciscan college in Quito, Ecuador in 1555. back to text

Mestizo: (Spanish) A person of indigenous and European descent. The female form is mestiza.: back to text

Nahua: (Nahuatl) An ethnic group from Central Mexico whose pre-Hispanic empire, the Aztec empire, was defeated by the Spanish in 1521. The language they spoke, Nahuatl, was the indigenous lingua franca in the colonial period in New Spain, and is still spoken today in Mexico. back to text

New Spain: (English) The name that Spain gave to her northern Viceroyalty, which comprised the modern regions of Mexico, Central America, Venezuela, and the Caribbean. The capital city was Mexico City. back to text

Pre-Hispanic: (English) The time before America's discovery and conquest by Spain; synonymous with pre-Columbian (before Columbus). back to text

Quetzalcoatl: (Nahuatl) A pre-Hispanic deity whose name translates to “Feathered Serpent.” Often the patron of rulers, he was worshipped across ancient Mexico. back to text

Spanish America: (English) The areas of the New World under Spanish control. From the 16th to 18th centuries, Spanish America comprised most of South America (except Portuguese-held Brazil), the Caribbean, Central America, and southern and western North America. back to text

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Copyright 2005, Dana Leibsohn and Barbara Mundy
Please credit as: Leibsohn, Dana, and Barbara Mundy, Vistas: Visual Culture in Spanish America, 1520-1820.
https://www.smith.edu/vistas, 2005.