Indochristian art

Last updated
The Potosi Madonna depicts the Cerro Rico in Potosi with the face of the Virgin Mary, evoking the Andean earth mother Pachamama. The Holy Trinity, Christian angels and saints, and the Sun and Moon (which the Incas saw as gods) are shown at the top of the painting, and Spanish authorities look on from below, while an Inca in royal garb is seen on the hill itself. PMa BOL 107 Potosi.jpg
The Potosí Madonna depicts the Cerro Rico in Potosí with the face of the Virgin Mary, evoking the Andean earth mother Pachamama. The Holy Trinity, Christian angels and saints, and the Sun and Moon (which the Incas saw as gods) are shown at the top of the painting, and Spanish authorities look on from below, while an Inca in royal garb is seen on the hill itself.

Indochristian art, arte indocristiano, is a type of Latin American art that combines European colonial influences with Indigenous artistic styles and traditions.


During the Spanish colonization of the Americas, Franciscan, Dominican, and Augustinian monks extensively converted indigenous peoples to Christianity, introducing them to European arts and aesthetics. The arts of this period reflect a fusion of European and indigenous religious beliefs, aesthetics, and artistic traditions.

The term Indochristian art was coined by Constantino Reyes-Valerio, a scholar of pre-Columbian Mesoamerican culture and arts, in his book, Indochristian Art, Sculpture and Painting of 16th Century Mexico. Reyes-Valerio's work focused on the painting and sculpture of churches and monasteries in New Spain, but had broader implications for the analysis of art throughout Latin America. [3]

Origins of the term

Coinage of term Indochristian Art

The term indochristian art was coined by Constantino Reyes-Valerio in his 1978 work, Arte indocristiano: escultura del siglo XVI en México [4] . This work was followed by an analysis of indochristian mural painting, [5] and the two books were re-published in combined form in 2000. [6] In this work, Reyes-Valerio defines indochristian art as art that is indigenous in its production but Christian in its themes, [3] using the term as a designation for artwork that blended symbolic elements of Christian and pre-Hispanic cultures. An expert in pre-Columbian Mesoamerican sculpture, Reyes-Valerio focuses his studies on art produced in monastic settings in New Spain, primarily examining sculptures and paintings that ornament monasteries and convents, and identifying iconographic connections to earlier indigenous works.

Reyes-Valerio's coinage of the term indochristian art was based on his 45 years of experience studying pre-Columbian and colonial monuments throughout Mexico. [7] In tracing the indigenous influence on colonial art, Reyes-Valerio relies primarily on close analysis of artistic details and motifs, a process he calls “speaking to the art”, but supports this analysis with documentary sources such as the journals of Augustinian, Franciscan, and Dominican friars. [7]

Reyes-Valerio not only discusses indigenous artistic production, but ties this art to the educational systems created by European monks. He argues that the use of traditional native religious imagery by Indian artists is a form of rebellion intended to keep their traditions alive.

Criticisms of the term

Although the significance of Reyes-Valerio's contribution to the identification of indigenous iconography within colonial monastic art is widely recognized, a number of art historians have criticized the implications of the word "indochristian" as well as Reyes-Valerio's analysis of the cultural context in which the art was produced.

In the book, Mestizaje and Globalization : Transformations of Identity and Power, Stefanie Wickstrom argues against the use of the term "indochristian". Wickstrom claims that the term oversimplifies colonial monastic art and the intentions of the artists by categorizing each element as either Indian or Christian in symbolism, failing to account for the evolution of a mestizo art form as Christian symbolism made contact with new cultures and evolved. [8]

Others have objected to Reyes-Valerio's discussion of colonization; in discussing the colonization of New Spain, Reyes-Valerio makes the controversial claim that the spiritual conquest of Europeans over indigenous people was more damaging than the armed conquest. [7] Further, in his descriptions of the interactions between monks and indigenous people, Reyes-Valerio focuses primarily on the psychological harm done to the indigenous people as they lost their ancestral religious beliefs.

Throughout the twentieth century, there were a number of movements to re-evaluate the role of indigenous peoples in creation of Latin American national identities. In Mexico following the revolution, the Indigenismo movement placed increased value on indigenous culture and historical significance. This shift was reflected in a shift in art historian’s attitudes towards indigenous art and aesthetics. These influences on colonial art had largely been overlooked up until this point. [8]

Recognition of indigenous artistic influences varied widely, with art historians only gradually recognizing the existence of an indigenous influence on Mexican colonial art. In 1939, Agustin Velazquez Chavez described the art of New Spain as the product of a mixing of Indian and Spanish cultures in conflict, placing special significance on the “Mexican” nature of this entwining of cultures. [9] In describing the Churrigueresque art of Mexico, Miguel Toussaint used the term “mestizo,” recognizing the participation of Indigenous people in the art of colonial Mexico.

The term “Tequitqui” was created by Jose Moreno Villa to categorize artistic works with a fusion of Spanish and Indigenous elements. With this term, which in Nahuatl means “tributary,” Moreno Villa drew a comparison between the art of colonial Mexico and the Mudéjar art of Muslims in Spain during the Reconquista. [10] Tequitqui was the first term used specifically to identify art combining colonial and indigenous influences, however, Moreno Villa limited its application to works in which the indigenous artist represents atavistic religious symbols. In later works Moreno Villa elaborates on his interpretation of Mexican colonial art, stating that the indigenous contribution to the genre was limited to the non-Christian deities represented, while claiming that the artistic style of colonial artworks was not tied to indigenous artistic traditions. [11]

Examples of Indochristian Art

Murals at the mission church of San Salvador, Malinalco, Mexico use native flora and fauna and indigenous concepts of the afterlife to depict the Christian garden of paradise. Malinalco Hallway.jpg
Murals at the mission church of San Salvador, Malinalco, Mexico use native flora and fauna and indigenous concepts of the afterlife to depict the Christian garden of paradise.

Although the term "indochristian art" was originally only used to describe Mexican monastic sculpture and murals, by definition, it applies to any art that is created by indigenous artists and contains Christian themes. It can be applied to a wide variety of artistic traditions from colonial Latin America. The term becomes increasingly difficult to apply to art in the late colonial and post-colonial periods, however, as it relies upon a clearly defined opposition between indigenous artist and Euro-Christian themes. The way that indochristian art is defined overlooks the entanglement of Native and European identities and the mixing of cultures that gradually developed throughout Latin America. [8]

Religious artworks from colonial Latin America often demonstrate indochristian influence in a variety of ways. Indochristian art often includes depictions of atavistic deities and religious symbols, hieroglyphs, figures with indigenous features and traditional indigenous dress, and native flora and fauna. In addition, it may use traditional artistic styles of representation. [3]

Monastic Art

In the early years of colonization, art was primarily commissioned by the church. As Augustinian, Dominican, and Franciscan missionaries attempted to convert the native populations of the Americas, their techniques varied widely, but frequently involved threats of violence. Missionaries generally attempted to eliminate indigenous culture, converting native people not only to Christianity, but also to European social practices.

Much Latin American monastic art of the colonial period could be designated as indochristian. Murals, paintings, architectural designs, sculptures, and ornamental objects all were frequently created by native craftspeople and incorporated indigenous iconography.

Cuzco School

The Cuzco School was an artistic tradition associated with Cusco, Peru. Following the Spanish conquest of the Incan empire, a group of Spanish religious artists were sent to Cusco to aid in the conversion of Inca people to Catholicism. This group of artists began a school, teaching Quechua and mestizo people to draw and use oil paints according to European styles. [13]

An example of a crowned nun, combining traditional Mesoamerican flower art with Christian iconography Sor Maria Juana de Senor San Rafael y Martinez.jpg
An example of a crowned nun, combining traditional Mesoamerican flower art with Christian iconography

Based on pre-columbian artistic traditions, Cusqueño painters created artworks anonymously and included native flora and fauna in their works. They also created a tradition of painting Inca monarchs – a departure from Christian religious themes and an expression of cultural pride. [14]

Ángel Arcabucero (Arquebusier Angel)

Ángel arcabucero is a genre of painting tied to the Cuzco school. These paintings depict angels holding an arquebus, or early firearm, and dressed in clothing reminiscent of that worn by Andean nobility. These angels are believed to be connected to pre-Hispanic winged warriors. [15]

Monja Coronada (Crowned Nun)

Monja Coronada (Crowned nun) is a genre of portrait paintings common among Mexican convents. These commemorative portraits of nuns wearing bridal clothes and floral crowns were common in the 18th century. [16] From a Euro-Christian perspective, the nuns' bridal trappings allude to the Virgin Mary crowned, symbolizing mystical marriage to God and victory over sin. This Christian symbolism is, however, combined with Mesoamerican imagery; the paintings frequently replace the traditional European palm frond with a Mesoamerican flower staff, and ornament the crown with flowers according to traditional flower art practices. In addition, the bird and butterfly imagery that is frequently included in crowned nun portraits may symbolize indigenous beliefs regarding the soul and the afterlife. [17]

Related Research Articles

Culture of Mexico Culture and traditions of the country of Mexico

The culture of Mexico reflects the country's complex history and is the result of the gradual blending of native culture with Spanish culture and other Mexican cultures.

Bernardino de Sahagún

Bernardino de Sahagún was a Franciscan friar, missionary priest and pioneering ethnographer who participated in the Catholic evangelization of colonial New Spain. Born in Sahagún, Spain, in 1499, he journeyed to New Spain in 1529. He learned Nahuatl and spent more than 50 years in the study of Aztec beliefs, culture and history. Though he was primarily devoted to his missionary task, his extraordinary work documenting their worldview and culture has earned him the title as “the first anthropologist." He also contributed to the description of the Aztec language Nahuatl. He translated the Psalms, the Gospels, and a catechism into Nahuatl.

Indigenous peoples of Mexico, Native Mexicans or Mexican Native Americans, are those who are part of communities that trace their roots back to populations and communities that existed in what is now Mexico prior to the arrival of the Spanish.

Juan Soriano (artist)

Juan Soriano was a Mexican artist known for his paintings, sculptures and theater work. He was a child prodigy whose career began early as did his fame with various writers authoring works about him. He exhibited in the United States and Europe as well as major venues in Mexico such as the Museo de Arte Moderno and the Palacio de Bellas Artes. His monumental sculptures can be found in various parts of Mexico and in Europe as well. Recognitions of his work include Mexico's National Art Prize, the Chevalier des Arts et Lettres and membership in France's Legion of Honour.

José Villa Soberón

José Ramón Villa Soberón is a Cuban artist, particularly known for his public sculptures around Havana. He studied at the Escuela Nacional de Arte in Havana, Cuba and the Academy of Plastic Arts in Prague. He is a professor at the Instituto Superior de Arte in Havana. His sculptures, paintings, engravings, drawings and designs are held by the Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes de La Habana, and in 1996 he was one of the selected artist in the second Trienal Americana de Escultura in Argentina.

Latin American art is the combined artistic expression of South America, Central America, the Caribbean, and Mexico, as well as Latin Americans living in other regions.

Maya blue Azure blue pigment made in pre-Columbian Mesoamerica

Maya blue is a unique bright azure blue pigment manufactured by cultures of pre-Columbian Mesoamerica, such as the Maya and Aztec.

Mexican muralism 20th century art movement in Mexico

Mexican muralism was the promotion of mural painting starting in the 1920s, generally with social and political messages as part of efforts to reunify the country under the post-Mexican Revolution government. It was headed by "the big three" painters, Diego Rivera, José Clemente Orozco and David Alfaro Siqueiros. From the 1920s to about 1970s many murals with nationalistic, social and political messages were created on public buildings, starting a tradition which continues to this day in Mexico and has had impact in other parts of the Americas, including the United States, where it served as inspiration for the Chicano art movement.

Painting in the Americas before European colonization

Painting in the Americas before European colonization is the Precolumbian painting traditions of the Americas. Painting was a relatively widespread, popular and diverse means of communication and expression for both religious and utilitarian purpose throughout the regions of the Western Hemisphere. During the period before and after European exploration and settlement of the Americas; including North America, Central America, South America and the islands of the Caribbean, the Bahamas, the West Indies, the Antilles, the Lesser Antilles and other island groups, indigenous native cultures produced a wide variety of visual arts, including painting on textiles, hides, rock and cave surfaces, bodies especially faces, ceramics, architectural features including interior murals, wood panels, and other available surfaces. Many of the perishable surfaces, such as woven textiles, typically have not been preserved, but Precolumbian painting on ceramics, walls, and rocks have survived more frequently.

Constantino Reyes-Valerio

Constantino Reyes-Valerio was a prominent Mexican scholar of pre-Columbian Mesoamerican cultures, particularly the Aztec and the Maya as well as the Colonial Art.

Quito School

The Quito School is a Latin American artistic tradition that constitutes essentially the whole of the professional artistic output developed in the territory of the Royal Audience of Quito – from Pasto and Popayán in the north to Piura and Cajamarca in the south – during the Spanish colonial period (1542–1824). It is especially associated with the 17th and 18th centuries and was almost exclusively focused on the religious art of the Catholic Church in the country. Characterized by a mastery of the realistic and by the degree to which indigenous beliefs and artistic traditions are evident, these productions were among of the most important activities in the economy of the Royal Audience of Quito. Such was the prestige of the movement even in Europe that it was said that King Carlos III of Spain (1716–1788), referring to one of its sculptors in particular, opined: "I am not concerned that Italy has Michelangelo; in my colonies of America I have the master Caspicara".

Mexican art

Various types of visual arts developed in the geographical area now known as Mexico. The development of these arts roughly follows the history of Mexico, divided into the prehispanic Mesoamerican era, the colonial period, with the period after Mexican War of Independence, the development Mexican national identity through art in the nineteenth century, and the florescence of modern Mexican art after the Mexican Revolution (1910-1920).

María Luisa Reid

María Luisa Reid is a Mexican artist from Zacatepec in the state of Morelos. She is a member of the Salón de la Plástica Mexicana.

Traditional metal working in Mexico

Traditional metal working in Mexico dates from the Mesoamerican period with metals such as gold, silver and copper. Other metals were mined and worked starting in the colonial period. The working of gold and silver, especially for jewelry, initially declined after the Spanish conquest of the Aztec Empire. However, during the colonial period, the working of metals rose again and took on much of the character traditional goods still have. Today, important metal products include those from silver, gold, copper, iron, tin and more made into jewelry, household objects, furniture, pots, decorative objects, toys and more. Important metal working centers include Taxco for silver, Santa Clara del Cobre for copper, Celaya for tin and Zacatecas for wrought iron.

Chilean art

Chilean art refers to all kinds of visual art developed in Chile, or by Chileans, from the arrival of the Spanish conquerors to the modern day. It also includes the native pre-Columbian pictorial expression on modern Chilean territory.

Deyanira África Melo

Deyanira África González Melo is a Mexican sculptor who generally works in ceramics, depicting elements of the human form, especially the torso, generally with mutilations and other disturbing elements to dispute the otherwise traditional and sensual depictions of the human body. She has exhibited her work since studying at the Escuela Nacional de Artes Plásticas (ENAP) in Mexico as well as in Europe and the Caribbean. Her work has received recognition in Mexico and abroad, and is a member of the Salón de la Plástica Mexicana.

Mario Reyes Castillo is a Mexican printmaker, painter and sculptor best known for his work with the Taller Libre de Grabado Mario Reyes, which he founded in 1965. This workshop has collaborated with and done work for a number of notable Mexican artists. Much of his artwork is dominated with depictions of the female form, with the artist stating he can see it in many places and objects. His work has been recognized with tributes and retrospectives in places such as the Museo Nacional de Estampa and the Palacio de Bellas Artes. He is also a member of the Salón de la Plástica Mexicana.

Juan Gerson

Juan Gerson was a high status indigenous Nahua painter, named after the French theologian Jean Gerson, working in Tecamechalco, Puebla. Not until 1962 when a group of Mexican scholars found documentation to his high status indigenous heritage was Gerson identity revealed. It was previously thought he was Flemish, trained in Italy, working from entirely within the European tradition before coming to colonial Mexico. Art historians Carolyn Dean and Dana Leibsohn consider Gerson's case of misrecognition as "reveal[ing] once again our refusal to recognize the indigene unless his or her work is visibly pre-Hispanic. Further, the revisions of scholarship that follow the discovery of these artists' genetic make-up involve a literal re-seeing of their work." Mexican art historian Francisco Pérez Salazar considers his work "mediocre and defective."

Mendicant monasteries in Mexico

Mendicant monasteries in Mexico were one of the architectural solutions devised by the friars of the Mendicant orders in the 16th century to the evangelization in the New Spain. The religious function of these buildings was thought for an enormous number of Amerindian indigenous people to evangelize although soon, due to the policy of reduction, the whole became the social center of the pueblos de indios, transmitting to them the civil modes of the West, Castilian, various arts and crafts, health, and even funeral services.


  1. "La Virgen Del Cerro" (in Spanish). Casa Nacional de Moneda. Retrieved 23 October 2019.
  2. Leibsohn, Dana; Mundy, Barbara (2005). "Vistas: Visual Culture in Spanish America, 1520-1820" . Retrieved 23 October 2019.
  3. 1 2 3 Reyes-Valerio, Constantino (2000). "Arte Indocristiano: Pintura y Escultura en la Nueva España". Retrieved 2017-04-07.
  4. Reyes-Valerio, Constantino (1978). Arte indocristiano: escultura del siglo XVI en México. Escuela Nacional de Conservación, Restauración y Museografía "Prof. Manuel del Castillo Negrete", SEP, Instituto Nacional de Antropología e Historia.
  5. Reyes-Valerio, Constantino (1989). El pintor de conventos: los murales del siglo XVI en la Nueva España. Instituto Nacional de Antropología e Historia.
  6. Reyes-Valerio, Constantino (1989). Arte indocristiano. Instituto Nacional de Antropología e Historia.
  7. 1 2 3 Rosquillas Quiles, Hortensia (Spring 2008). "Constantino Reyes-Valerio, Arte indocristiano, México, INAH (Obra diversa), 2000, 486 pp., epílogo, apéndice y bibliografía". Boletín de Monumentos Históricos. 12: 159–168.
  8. 1 2 3 Wickstrom, Stefanie; Young, Philip D. (2014). Mestizaje and Globalization : Transformations of Identity and Power. Tucson: University of Arizona Press.
  9. Velázquez Chávez, Agustín (1939). Tres siglos de pintura colonial mexicana. Mexico: Editiorial Polis.
  10. Moreno Villa, Jose (1942). La escultura colonial mexicana. Mexico City: Fondo de Cultura Economica.
  11. Moreno Villa, Jose (1948). Lo Mexicano en las artes plasticas. Mexico City: Fondo de Cultura Economica.
  12. Dominguez Torres, Monica (2004). Frames for conversion: The assimilation of native motifs in the monastic decoration of New Spain (1540–1580). Canada: University of Toronto.
  13. Bailey, Gauvin Alexander (2005). Art of Colonial Latin America. Phaidon.
  14. Bethell, Leslie (1995). The Cambridge History of Latin America. Cambridge University Press.
  15. Mujica Pinilla, Ramon (1992). Ángeles apócrifos en la América virreinal. Lima: Fondo de Cultura Economica.
  16. "Monjas Coronadas. Vida conventual femenina". Museo Nacional de Virreinato. Retrieved 2017-04-21.
  17. Cordova, James M. (2011-12-01). "Clad in Flowers: Indigenous Arts and Knowledge in Colonial Mexican Convents". The Art Bulletin. 93 (4): 449–467. doi:10.1080/00043079.2011.10786018. ISSN   0004-3079.