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.
“I have deeply enjoyed and have been intellectually enriched by reading Jaime Lara’s Christian Texts for Aztecs: Art and Liturgy in Colonial Mexico. This book will transform how we understand the process of evangelization of Mexico in the sixteenth century. Clearly written and persuasively argued, Lara reveals how metaphor allows for cross-cultural communication at the deepest level of the human experience, religious belief. This is demonstrated by a nuanced but richly documented history of the period. Drawing upon architecture, painting, and a variety of different kinds of primary sources, this study blends a deep understanding of Aztec religious beliefs so as to articulate the very complex development of colonial Mexican Christianity. Most important, Lara demonstrates not only how Aztec beliefs and practices were incorporated into Catholic teaching and ritual practice, but how they transformed that teaching and practice. Moreover, Lara makes so very evident the centrality of music and art in this complicated interaction.” —Thomas Cummins, Dumbarton Oaks Professor of the History of Pre-Columbian and Colonial Art, Harvard University
“. . . A superb study that will benefit by being read in conjunction with the author’s previous book, City, Temple Stage: Eschatological Architecture and Liturgical Theatrics in New Spain. . . . In enthralling detail, Lara makes it clear that the indigenous Christian culture that emerged from this interaction was neither a covert survival of pre-Hispanic paganism nor a pessimistic surrender to conquest. Rather, it was a marvelously spontaneous outpouring, fed by the imagination of a group of remarkable mendicant friars who, Lara tells us, ‘dared to use the metaphors, symbols, and values of the peoples of Mesoamerica’ to bring about a ‘rich transfusion of the message into the very blood of a sophisticated culture.’ ” — Times Literary Supplement
“Superbly illustrated, Jaime Lara’s book thematically and pictorially illustrates a historical process from which evolved a syncretic culture in Mexico. This book is much more than a collection of illustrations; Lara is worth reading because he brings a fresh approach to an old storyline. This book is highly recommended.” — Colonial Latin American Historical Review
“This book is a rich portrait of the early Christian liturgy in Central Mexico . . . Readers acquainted with the work of Robert Ricard, George Kubler, Louise Burkhart, Osvaldo Pardo, and other scholars of colonial Mexican Christianity . . . will find in this book a treasure trove of new insights and information because of Lara’s extensive knowledge of liturgical history, his emphasis on the real-shape and real-time experience of Christian worship, and the attention he dedicates to European precedents.” — American Historical Review
“. . . Christian Texts for Aztecs focuses on the script, symbols, and props that made the sacred come alive. Lara proves himself a very engaging guide when it comes to directing the reader’s attention to the visual legacy of Mexican Christianity so richly captured in its images.” — Hispanic American Historical Review
“Jaime Lara makes a major contribution to our understanding of evangelization in sixteenth-century Mexico in this richly textured and illustrated study. He pays particular attention to the affinities between teoyoism (Mexica religion) and Catholicism in the use of metaphoric language and visual metaphor and the process of inculturation that underlay the missionary endeavors in sixteenth-century Mexico." — International Bulletin of Missionary Research
“This volume emphasizes the liturgical and performative activities that took place within the ambitious complexes built to Christianize and civilize the indigenous population. This work is a monumental achievement, as hefty in content as in weight, and luxuriously illustrated. A host of readers will benefit from the author’s insightful scholarship and the intertextuality of his sources, from murals and codices to morality plays.” — The Americas
“In this much-anticipated second volume of explorations into the mindset of the mendicant missions to New Spain, Jaime Lara again applies his formidable command of patristic and medieval sources to the subtle dynamics of the integration of Christianity with Nahua religion (teoyoism).” — Renaissance Quarterly
“The particular interest of this study . . . is its emphasis on liturgical practices in the history of the establishment of Christianity in New Spain. . . . Although the book is centered on the sixteenth century in Mexico, its arguments and the materials presented have direct implications for the study of later periods, as well as for other Latin American contexts.” —_The Catholic Historical Review_
“This book explores the rich potential of religious material culture for inculturated theology in over 280 glorious color images of objects not widely published. Also helpful for the specialist are the eleven appendices of contemporary descriptions of liturgical practice.” —_Worship_
“Like Lara’s City, Temple, Stage: Eschatological and Liturgical Theatrics in New Spain (2004), this book does much to illuminate the character and consequences of Spain’s Christian evangelisation in sixteenth-century Mexico. . . . This book is an important contribution to the study of Christian evangelisations, particularly in sixteenth-century Spanish America, and is indispensable reading for anyone interested in the formation of Mexican religious culture. Throughout the book, discussions are vastly enriched by many excellent, relevant reproductions of contemporary texts, buildings, liturgical artifacts and religious art.” — Ecclesiastical History
“Lara clearly and persuasively demonstrates that the pre-Tridentine Catholic liturgy—similar in some ways to pre-Hispanic worship—effectively ‘conquered’ the religious imagination of its new Mesoamerican practitioners. . . . He provides rich insights on the development of sacramental practice, popular piety, catechetical drama, and parish politics.” — Theological Studies
“Lara addresses historiographical arguments with great clarity and evinces a deep affection for his subject matter and sources. This thoughtfully illustrated and well-documented book will engage theologians, art historians, anthropologists, and historians. Christian Texts for Aztecs provides an essential reevaluation of the state-of-the-field of the dramatic and complex Christianization of early Mexico.” — Catholic Library World
“Jaime Lara follows his well-received City, Temple, Stage . . . with a sumptuously illustrated Christian Texts for Aztecs. This is a study of the Christian missionaries in the new World in the sixteenth century. The two cultures learned from each other, and you will learn a lot from this big, beautiful, and erudite book.” — Bibliotheque d’Humanisme et Renaissance
“To say that this text offers much to those interested in transatlantic cultural transactions, colonial evangelization, or sixteenth-century religious art would be an understatement. . . . [T]he arguments are reliably thorough, clear, and convincing. Indeed, one is left with little more to want from this study than more of it.” — Religion and the Arts
Selected as one of the Fifteen Outstanding Books of 2008 for Mission Studies, International Bulletin of Missionary Research