Burning of “idols,” Description of the City and Province of Tlaxcala, ca. 1581-84. Diego Muñoz Camargo.
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.
Copyright 2005, Dana Leibsohn and Barbara Mundy
Please credit as: Leibsohn, Dana, and Barbara Mundy, Vistas: Visual Culture in Spanish America, 1520-1820.