Christian Texts for Aztecs

Art and Liturgy in Colonial Mexico
Jaime Lara


Published by University of Notre Dame Press.

Christian Texts for Aztecs: Art and Liturgy in Colonial Mexico is a cultural history of the missionary enterprise in sixteenth-century Mexico, seen primarily through the work of Catholic missionaries and the native populations, principally the Aztecs. Also known as the Mexica or Nahuas, speakers of the Nahuatl tongue, these Mesoamerican people inhabited the central plateau around Lake Texcoco and the sacred metropolis of Tenochtitlan, the site of present-day Mexico City. It was their language that the mendicant missionaries adopted as the lingua franca of the evangelization enterprise.

Conceived as a continuation of his earlier, well-received City, Temple, Stage, Jaime Lara’s new work addresses the inculturation of Catholic sacraments and sacramentals into an Aztec worldview in visual and material terms. He argues that Catholic liturgy—similar in some ways to pre-Hispanic worship—effectively “conquered” the religious imagination of its new Mesoamerican practitioners, thus creating the basis for a uniquely Mexican Catholicism. The sixteenth-century friars, in partnership with indigenous Christian converts, successfully translated the Christian message from an exclusively Eurocentric worldview to a system of symbols that made sense to the indigenous civilizations of Central Mexico. While Lara is interested in liturgical texts with novel or recycled metaphors, he is equally interested in visual texts such as neo-Christian architecture, mural painting, feather work, and religious images made from corn. These, he claims, were the sensorial bridges that allowed for a successful, if not wholly orthodox, inculturation of Christianity into the New World.

Enriched by more than 280 color images and eleven appendices of translations from Latin and Nahuatl, Lara’s study provides rich insights on the development of sacramental practice, popular piety, catechetical drama, and parish politics. Song, dance, flowers, and feathers—of utmost importance in the ancient religion of the Aztecs—were reworked in ingenious ways to serve the Christian cause. Human blood, too, found renewed importance in art and devotion when the indigenous religious leaders and the mendicant friars addressed the fundamental topic of the Man on the cross.

An important work on worship, liturgy, and the visual imagination, Christian Texts for Aztecs: Art and Liturgy in Colonial Mexico is a vivid look at a unique cultural adaptation of Christianity.

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About the Author

Jaime Lara is associate professor of Christian art and architecture and chair of the Program in Religion and the Arts at Yale University Divinity School and Yale Institute of Sacred Music. He is the author of City, Temple, Stage: Eschatological Architecture and Liturgical Theatrics in New Spain (University of Notre Dame Press, 2004).