TEPOZTLAN, Mexico — Indigenous symbols found painted next to Roman Catholic motifs at a 1550s-era convent near Mexico City suggest Spanish priests negotiated with Indigenous leaders in the first years after the conquest, experts said Friday.
The popular belief has long been that the Spanish simply imposed their religion and government system after the 1521 defeat of the Aztec empire.
But the few Spanish priests sent to Mexico were faced with the monumental task of converting hundreds of thousands of Indigenous people in a short period of time. That may have forced them to take Indigenous preferences into account in order to complete their task.
This week, the National Institute of Anthropology and History announced that Indigenous symbols like a feather headdress, an axe and a shield have been found under layers of lime plaster at open-air chapels in a convent in the town of Tepoztlan, just south of Mexico City.
Restoration experts were cleaning and stabilizing large, one-yard (meter) diameter painted red circles on the walls. Those kind of circles can be seen elsewhere in the convent, filled with Christian imagery.
But in the open-air chapels they were paired with the same circles bearing Indigenous motifs. The meaning of the pre-Hispanic symbols are still being studied and may refer to Tepoztécatl or some other Indigenous god.
Historical restorer Frida Mateos González, who works for the institute, said it was significant that the paintings found on two walls of the outdoor chapels showed the letter “M” representing the Virgin Mary. On the walls opposite, at the same size and the same height, was a circle with the pre-Hispanic symbols.
“Something is going on there that suggests a negotiation at the same level, ‘What have we agreed on?’” Mateos González said. “It speak of a space where negotiations and agreements were made.”
Indigenous peoples in Mexico were accustomed to holding religious ceremonies in the open air, not in enclosed spaces like churches. To attract them, the priests built open-air chapels: a small arched vestibule for officiating Mass facing a large open patio surrounded by the four walls of the church patio.
The paintings found this week were in three smaller structures known as “Posing Chapels,” built in the four corners of the open patio. Often found in conjunction with open chapels, the “posing chapels” held statues of saints used to mark processions and teach converts. A stone baptismal font and a stone cross stood in the church courtyard.
While many people have long believed Indigenous people were somehow afraid of entering the heavy roofed spaces of churches, Mateos González said the open-air chapels may have been a reflection simply of the priests’ desire to work as quickly as possible at converting the native population.
Open-air spaces, perhaps with a few rustic thatched enclosures, were quicker to build than churches that often required decades to complete.
“It speaks of an urgent need to start using the space while the church was being built,” she said.