Murals from New Spain, San Agustín de Acolman

Why are these murals in the cloister of Acolman painted in only black and white?

Murals, c. 1560–90, large cloister of the ex-convento, San Agustín de Acolman, Acolman de Nezahualcóyotl, Mexico

[0:00] [music]

Dr. Lauren Kilroy-Ewbank: [0:05] We are here in front of murals in the cloister of the Convento of San Agustín Acolman, near Mexico City.

Dr. Beth Harris: [0:13] A convento was a place that was established soon after the conquest to begin to convert the natives. The first people to come over to do that were the Franciscans, but then the Dominicans and the Augustinians.

Dr. Kilroy-Ewbank: [0:25] This one is an Augustinian convento. The Augustinians first arrived in 1533. This convento was established shortly thereafter. The murals that we’re seeing are made sometime between the 1560s and 1580s. They’re wonderfully preserved.

[0:40] The iconography that we’re seeing here is connected to the concerns of the mendicant friars who are coming over from Spain to help in the evangelization process. These conventos were often placed atop or near to previous important sites.

[0:54] They are intended to convert these massive Indigenous populations, with usually only a few friars to convert and to teach the Indigenous populations about Christianity, which is why we see in the murals or other art forms this didactic quality. It’s really about teaching individuals to understand Christian dogma.

Dr. Harris: [1:13] That makes sense in this period after the Council of Trent. The Catholic Church is trying to reform, advocating a clarity of message, because this was the time of the Protestant Reformation.

Dr. Kilroy-Ewbank: [1:24] I think we get a good sense of that here in these murals. They’re simple in composition. They’re very focused on a few key figures. What’s really remarkable about them is that they’re primarily in black and white.

Dr. Harris: [1:36] That seems so odd, but there’s a perfectly reasonable explanation. That is, that the artists who were here, the models that they had to work from were black-and-white prints.

Dr. Kilroy-Ewbank: [1:45] After the Spanish conquest in 1521, with the need for Christian subject matter, the need for teaching Christianity, you don’t have the transportation of large-scale objects. What is more portable than a small, lightweight print?

Dr. Harris: [1:59] There’s this immediate need for images to teach this Indigenous population about Christianity. As we stand and look at these really beautiful murals, one of the things that’s easy to forget about is the incredible violence that’s occurring at the same time. Because while these are being painted, millions of people who were here before the Spanish came are being wiped out by diseases.

Dr. Kilroy-Ewbank: [2:22] Which would, of course, [have] been traumatic as entire families are being wiped out, but also of concern to the friars who were here who were feeling this urgent need to convert people before they were killed because of these smallpox epidemics.

Dr. Harris: [2:36] In some instances, the friars were the most sympathetic to the Indigenous population.

Dr. Kilroy-Ewbank: [2:41] Particularly in instances where friars feel that the Indigenous population is being treated like children or not even like humans.

Dr. Harris: [2:48] The pope said the Indigenous population that the Spanish had encountered had souls and therefore should be converted.

Dr. Kilroy-Ewbank: [2:55] And actually treated like humans versus something lesser than.

Dr. Harris: [2:58] We’ve got a whole cycle of the Passion, the suffering of Christ leading up to the Crucifixion.

Dr. Kilroy-Ewbank: [3:03] There are murals on both levels of this cloister in the convento. While typically this area is reserved for the friars who are living here, it is possible that, on occasion, Indigenous individuals or groups were being led through this area, particularly because there is this inherently didactic quality to this narrative cycle of the Passion.

[3:23] Even if the Indigenous population is not being brought through here regularly, they did paint these, so these are all created by Indigenous artists.

Dr. Harris: [3:32] To me, these look like they were painted by artists who had been schooled for decades in the styles of the Renaissance and the Northern Renaissance and northern Mannerism that were typical of Europe in the 16th century.

[3:44] We see a careful attention to the anatomy of the body, a sense of perspective an illusion of space, modeling of the body. These are things that artists trained decades to learn how to do.

Dr. Kilroy-Ewbank: [3:55] Which is remarkable because these were started sometime in the 1560s, we’re only 40 years after the Spanish conquest, and you didn’t have these types of perspectival systems or this attention to modeling. These artistic strategies were not seen prior to the conquest.

[4:11] A great example of that, as we stand here before the scene of the Flagellation, would be the floor upon which Christ is standing is a grid floor, and it’s receding into the background, giving us this illusion of the recession into space and the foreshortening on the feet of Christ.

[4:27] This attention to the body and the modeling with light and shadow, it’s remarkable how quickly European Renaissance artistic strategies were being mastered and displayed here.

Dr. Harris: [4:37] Now we’ve moved to another corner of the second floor of the cloister, and we’re looking at a beautiful image of the Crucifixion and another image catty-corner to that of the Last Judgment.

[4:46] We have a typical Last Judgment scene here. We have Christ on the orb of the earth. At the top we see angels blowing trumpets, all the standard iconography. Below this, the damned in hell being tortured.

Dr. Kilroy-Ewbank: [4:59] We can identify specific prints that were being used here because they so closely resemble the scenes here. We know that a lot of the prints coming over from Europe to the Americas are coming from Northern Europe, making their way to Seville in Spain [and] then from there across the Atlantic to Mexico.

Dr. Harris: [5:17] Last Judgment scenes were common in conventos.

Dr. Kilroy-Ewbank: [5:19] The Last Judgment is frequently depicted in the 16th century, and there is a reason for that. With the conquest, with the conversion or the attempt to evangelize peoples of the Americas, there were millenarian concerns, or this belief that the Indigenous populations needed to be converted in order for the Last Judgment to occur.

Dr. Harris: [5:38] This idea that if they could convert these people — the last peoples on the earth, they imagined — this would bring the Second Coming and this thousand-year reign of Christ on earth. Imagine the zeal that they felt in this mission.

Dr. Kilroy-Ewbank: [5:50] What they were attempting to do is actually establish a new Jerusalem in the Americas.

[5:55] [music]

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Cite this page as: Dr. Lauren Kilroy-Ewbank and Dr. Beth Harris, "Murals from New Spain, San Agustín de Acolman," in Smarthistory, May 15, 2018, accessed May 23, 2024,