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Issue Date:  October 28, 2005

By Jaime Lara
University of Notre Dame Press, 299 pages, $65
Christian mission and art in New Spain


According to Jaime Lara, associate professor of Christian art and architecture at Yale and author of City, Temple, Stage, 98 percent of Latin Americans are Christians. The “contact” that occurred when missionary friars traveled from Europe to Mexico in the 16th century was not simply a matter of two worlds touching. Instead, Dr. Lara writes in his introduction, it was a “tragicomical human drama of the encounter and collision of peoples, cultural patterns, world hypotheses and cosmologies.” And, as the numbers show, Christianity proved to be pretty persuasive.

In his oversize book, Dr. Lara analyzes the art, architecture and liturgy used to evangelize New Spain. He says that friars often “recycled” Aztec religious symbols, which were then “Christianized” by a simple change in root metaphors. For example, an ancient Aztec fertility ritual in which an individual was tied to a scaffold, a cross or a tree and shot with arrows transitioned nicely to the crucified Christ of Christianity. “By changing the root metaphor, it appears, [the friars] Christianized a continent,” Dr. Lara writes. His text is accompanied by numerous photographs and illustrations.

Dr. Lara focuses on the similarities used to fuse paganism with Christianity but acknowledges other less accommodating periods of colonization. The end of the 16th century, he argues, signified the end of the “utopian” visions that the first Franciscans, Dominicans and Augustinians had for the New World. Enter European hegemony.

Dr. Lara concludes from his iconographic studies that by responding to or rejecting metaphors created or adapted by the Europeans, the Amerindians were active in creating their church -- what is now essentially Mexican Catholicism.

Rebecca Beyer is a graduate student in journalism at New York University. She was an intern at NCR this past summer.

National Catholic Reporter, October 28, 2005

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