Author, Artist, and MissionaryThe Franciscan order was the first group of mendicant friars to arrive in New Spain after the Spanish conquest. They arrived in 1521 in order to convert the Indigenous populations. At the time Valadés joined the Franciscans, Indigenous converts were not allowed to enter the mendicant orders. This might explain why his name is omitted from some records. His father’s status as a conquistador may have helped the young Valadés gain entry to the Franciscan order.
One of Valadés’s teachers was friar Pedro de Gante (Pieter of Ghent), a well-known Franciscan friar who was among the first three Franciscans to arrive from Spain in Mexico, and who worked at the school of Santiago Tlatelolco. Gante helped to train young Indigenous men in the ways of European artistic conventions and to learn Latin and Spanish. Valadés himself was the product of this school. Gante was highly esteemed by Valadés, as well as the king, Charles V, who at one point asked Gante to become archbishop; in his book, Valadés notes that Gante refused.Rhetorica Christiana reflects Valadés’s classical, humanist education under Gante, with its references to ancient Greco-Roman authors like Plato, Aristotle, Cicero, Virgil, and Horace, among others. One image called the “Great Chain of Being” encapsulates some ideas derived from ancient philosophers like Plato, Aristotle, and Neoplatonic thinkers in its illustration of a hierarchy of existence. God sits at the top of the hierarchy, with angels below him. They are all encompassed in clouds to suggest their spirit form, which was intended to convey their infinite, un-changing, and perfect form.
Lower on the hierarchy are beings that do change and are imperfect: (in order) humans, animals, plants, and finally stones and minerals. Hell is at the bottom of the engraving, with Satan ruling over the realm of the fallen and sinners. The image encapsulates a sophisticated understanding of matter, science, philosophy, and alchemy borrowed from classical and more modern sources, and speaks to Valadés’s own humanist education.Valadés would eventually work at San José de los Naturales (an important early center for conversation in Mexico City) with Gante between 1543 and 1553. Valadés claims in his book that he learned three Indigenous languages: Nahuatl, Tarascan, and Otomí. He, like many other Franciscans, learned Indigenous languages as a way to facilitate communication and conversion. Valadés served as a missionary for years among the Chichimecs in northern Mexico (in the modern states of Durango and Zacatecas) before he eventually traveled to Europe, most notably to Spain and Italy. It was during his time in Rome that he began work on the Rhetorica Christiana.
Rhetorica Christiana is written in Latin, which indicates its use for a learned audience, specifically Franciscan friars who wished to better understand the missionary ventures in the Americas. The book tackled a number of issues and themes, and supported the overall conversion goals of the Franciscans in New Spain. It includes a number of engravings accompanying the written text, suggesting the important role that Valadés accorded to images. Many of them function as visual mnemonic devices, or a means of using images to help cement ideas in a person’s memory.
Friar Preaching to the Indigenous Population
Valadés describes in the text and shows in the image how Franciscans converted the local Indigenous populations, as well as preached to them. One engraving in Rhetorica Christiana shows a Franciscan friar, likely Pedro de Gante, preaching to a large crowd of Indigenous converts. The friar uses a stick to point to images of the Passion, likely on a lienzo, a large painted cloth, and which was similar to the types of murals often found painted within missionary spaces. This engraving reveals the important role that images played in early conversion efforts because language barriers still existed, and using images became a powerful strategy to teach recent converts Catholic dogma.Many of Valadés’s images include letters scattered about the scene to help viewers understand concepts. For instance, the letter A is located on the pulpit where the preacher speaks to the crowd and points to images. In the corresponding text, it notes that the letter A says that the friar speaks to the converts in an Indigenous language. With the letter B, it notes that the friar points to the image to correspond to what he says aloud.
The Ideal Atrium
In his discussions of evangelizing the Indigenous population, Valadés mentions that friars preached outside so that they could reach large crowds of people. The engraving of the “Ideal Atrio” is an image of idealized missionary conversion carried out by the Franciscans in Mexico. Letters included with each scene are connected to a key with explanations of each vignette in the scene.In the center of the image, the founder of the Franciscan order, St. Francis of Assisi, leads a procession, which also includes the principal Franciscan missionary Martin de Valencia who was the leader of the group of twelve Franciscans who came to Mexico in 1524. They lead other Franciscans as carriers of the church. The inscription accompanying the central scene states “The first to bring the Holy Roman church to the New World of the Indies.” Above the Franciscans carrying the church we see the dove of the Holy Spirit framed within the architecture, and above the structure itself is God holding Jesus on the cross, creating a vertical line connecting father, son, and holy spirit, and a common visual reminder of the Trinity. In the rest of the image, Franciscan friars teach young men and women about Catholicism. The image also shows friars administering the sacraments, which include baptism, confession, and marriage. Several friars are shown engaged in teaching, subjects such as the creation of the world and penitence. The long sticks used to point to images on a wooden board or textile are visible, once again revealing the importance of images as teaching aids in the early post-conquest period. Valadés even includes friar Pedro de Gante teaching Indigenous converts in the upper left corner.
At the bottom of the image, inside the arched structure, friars listen to confession, offer communion, deliver justice, and give last rites to a dying individual. We also see men and women separated, each within their own domed structures at each of the four corners. These chapels in the atrium’s corners recall posa chapels that were built in actual Franciscan missionary complexes, like that at Huejotzingo. They were used similarly to what we see in Valadés’s image: for friars to pause and teach Indigenous people about Catholic dogma or was way stations during processions.It is possible that the ideal atrium depicted here was directly borrowed from Valadés’s own missionary experiences during his time at San José de los Naturales under Gante. There, a large atrium and accompanying capilla indio, or chapel for Natives, had been created. This architectural form served as a model for other missionary complexes built throughout New Spain in the sixteenth century.
Indigenous CustomsOther parts of the book illustrate and describe Mesoamerican practices, ceremonies, and ideas. In one image, Valadés attempts to reconcile Indigenous timekeeping with European timekeeping. He tries to match the Mesoamerican calendrical wheel with the Julian calendar, although in the end it is not entirely accurate.
In another image, we see a view of Mexico City with a teocalli, around which people engage in diverse activities. They are identifiable as Amerindians by the ubiquitous use of feathered headdresses. By this point, feathers had become a symbol for America and of the Indigenous peoples living there.
Valadés depicts the teocalli as an elevated platform, on top of which is an open air space and a rounded, apsidal space. Below the elevated platform, people dance in a slightly sunken courtyard. Surrounding the teocalli we find buildings, trees, pathways, and people engaged in day-to-day activities. This particular engraving was actually a fold-out image.
The importance of education
Rhetorica Christiana asserts the success of the Franciscan mission to convert Native peoples in New Spain. For Valadés the proof lay in Native peoples’ understanding Catholic dogma and liturgy. Throughout his text, Valadés argues for the education of Indigenous peoples, and in so doing also argues for their humanity. After the Spanish conquest in 1521, and throughout the sixteenth century, there were arguments over whether Indigenous peoples of the Americas qualified as human beings, as people with souls.Valadés makes his position clear—Native peoples needed to be educated. For Valadés, a Christian humanist education brought with it a civilizing influence, and so he argued for the need to educate the Indigenous population. One of his engravings shows the seven liberal arts, which included grammar, dialectic or logic, rhetoric, arithmetic, music, geometry, and astronomy. An engraving like this one reminded readers once again of the importance of a liberal arts education in an American context, and the images clearly played an important role within Valadés’s own vision of education and evangelization.
Read more about mission churches as theaters of conversion in New Spain
Learn more about how friars used atrial crosses to educate the Indigenous population of Mexico about Catholicism
Read more about how other artists invented visions of America in the sixteenth century