December 2008

December 2008

Piety and patriotism in late colonial Mexico
by Peter Villella

Mesoamerican Christianity
Philip of Jesus

José María Montes de Oca, Vida de San Felipe de Jesus, Protomartyr de Japon y patron de su patria Mexico..., Mexico, 1801.

Image from the collections of the
John Carter Brown Library.
Not to be reproduced without permission.

Patriotism in Spanish-ruled Mexico often combined, in very creative and counter-intuitive ways, an embrace of Mesoamerica’s pagan antiquity along with a deeply pious Catholicism.  As a result, symbols that marry Catholic and indigenous themes inhabit a prominent place in Mexican iconography and national identity.  At the John Carter Brown Library, I researched how colonial elites in Mexico sought to achieve this synthesis by examining patriotic (and anti-patriotic) tracts published in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.

In what ways did patriotic thinkers manage to celebrate the legacy and heritage of Aztec Mexico, as well as the Hispano-Catholic creed that replaced it?  Some argued that the conquest (and Catholicism) made a good thing even better.  Others stressed how quickly and completely native peoples converted following the conquest, thereby demonstrating their underlying virtue and rationality.

However, there is a third strain of colonial “patriotic piety” that is, I believe, the most original and creative.  Some Mexican thinkers – especially in the last fifty or so years before Mexican independence – argued, both explicitly and implicitly, that preconquest Mesoamerica was already a fundamentally “Christian” place, in practice if not in name.  According to them, there was no contradiction in simultaneously embracing Mesoamerica and Catholicism, because native peoples already mostly lived in harmony with Catholic principles before they knew the revelation of the gospel.  In short, rather than a savage land conquered and civilized by Europeans, the lands and peoples of Mexico were, essentially and fundamentally, Catholic (and therefore could be celebrated in the spirit of patriotism without offending Christian sensibilities). 

This attitude, which is counterintuitive or perhaps even offensive to us today, is neatly represented in a small, but beautiful, volume titled, The Life of San Felipe de Jesús, Proto-Martyr of Japan and Patron of Our Fatherland Mexico..., published in Mexico City in 1801 by the artist José María Montes de Oca.  Montes de Oca was a prolific artist before and during the struggle for Mexican independence, who maintained a studio in Mexico City.  The book consists of twenty-nine engravings illustrating the life and martyrdom of Saint Philip of Jesus, the first Mexican saint, who, with others, was martyred in Nagasaki in 1597 during a purge of Christianity. 

The image at the right, in particular, illustrates the desire among many patriots of that era to blend Mesoamerican themes with Christianity. The image, which invokes the pre-Christian Mesoamerican symbol of the eagle atop the nopal cactus, is engraving 24, in which San Felipe actually stands on top of the eagle and the cactus, representing his patronage of Mexico City, the city “that gave him birth.”  In this engraving, he is venerated by two princely figures, one native and one European.

Thus, Montes de Oca expresses the unique patriotic attitude that married native and Catholic themes into one national identity.  Twenty years after he published his engravings, the independent Mexican republic was proclaimed; the prominence of the Catholic Church was guaranteed by its constitution, while the eagle atop the nopal is emblazoned upon its national flag.

In December 2008, Peter Villella was a José Amor y Vázquez Fellow and a doctoral candidate in the Department of History at the University of California, Los Angeles.


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