Monday, July 16, 2012

Cross-Cultural Comparisons Between Colonial Latin America and the Islamic World

"Threads of Every Color" 
by Michael Schreffler 

Ceiling,  16th century, Spain
(Metropolitan Museum of Art)

The exchange of ideas, the fusion of diverse cultures and the expressions that emanate from the extension of these influences are some of the most fascinating aspects of art history.  One excellent example of this exchange is the wooden sixteenth century Spanish church ceiling in the Koc Family Galleries (Gallery 459) at the Metropolitan Museum of Art's newly renovated galleries for Islamic art.  The Met gallery label states "The ceiling covering this gallery is a testament to the resilience and persistence of traditional Islamic design in Andalusia after the Christian Reconquista."  This exquisite ceiling, a representative of the influence of Islamic design in art and architecture on non-Muslim societies, however, is not the first of its kind that has made its way across the Atlantic between Spain and the Americas.  Actually the mudejar style, was transported to the "New World" at the end of the sixteenth century with the arrival of the Spanish conquerors. This in itself might not be a surprising revelation, but I found the discourse on the transference of the concept of "the Other" by the colonialists onto the people and the culture of Latin America outlined with fascinating examples in a research paper by Dr. Michael Schreffler quite revelatory.

Last February I did a book review about And Diverse are Their Hues: Color in Islamic Art and Culture  on 3 Pipe Problem which was composed of twelve research papers presented at the Hamad bin Khalifa Symposium, on the role of color in Islamic art and culture. One of the contributors Dr. Schreffler  whose primary focus is Latin America, in his article, "Threads of Every Color",  focuses on recent scholarship exploring the connections between the style and techniques of colonial Latin America and the Islamic world .
Michael Schreffler starts his paper by referring to a book published by Manuel Toussaint about Mudejar Art in America, citing examples of Islamic inspired architectural details found in portals, naves and ceilings of churches in Latin America. Included in the introduction of his article is an image of a dazzling seventeenth century ceiling from the church of Santa Domingo, in Quito, Ecuador, which is reminiscent of the Metropolitan's sixteenth century ceiling from Spain.

Ceiling in the church of Santo Domingo, Quito, Ecuador,
early 17th century

One of the most interesting parts of this article was the reference to sixteenth century letters written by his administrators to Charles V, describing their surroundings and the native inhabitants of the places they had conquered. In these texts, the local population and architecture are likened to their Moorish counterparts in the Iberian peninsula.  Schreffler states:
"It is, however, impossible to ignore the larger context in which these passages were penned and its relationship to conflict, as well as to intimacy and fascination between Christians and Muslims on the Iberian peninsula."
He includes a quote from Hernan Cortes where the conqueror of the Aztec capital, Tenochtitlan, refers to temple-pyramids in Central Mexico as "mosques" and the market in the Aztec capital being similar to the silk market in Granada.  It is at this point that we encounter the concept of "the other" as Dr. Schreffler points out "underlying this comparison is ... (an) unstated similarity: the Aztecs, like the Muslims of Granada, are not Christians."  

By pointing out a map of Tenochtitlan that was included with the 1524 Nuremberg edition of Cortes' letter, Schreffler draws our attention to the similarities in representation between European cities with Islamic structures and the printer's visual interpretation of Cortes' descriptions. According to Schreffler " suggests that the author's textual comparisons between the Aztec world and the Islamic world caught the attention of at least some of those (European) readers." 

Hernan Cortes, Praeclara Ferdinandi Cortesii de Noua maris Oceani...
Map of the Gulf of Mexico and Aztec Tenochtitlan
(Newberry Library, Ayer)
Another unique object Dr. Schreffler mentions in reference to cross cultural comparisons is an adarga made in Mexico in the later sixteenth century. This type of shield, which originally came from North Africa to Spain by the thirteenth century, in this example is made by materials and technique that was especially used by Aztec artists. Objects made with this technique involving forming a mosaic by using colorful bird feathers was admired and collected by the Spaniards according to Schreffler.  Another example of this type of artistry can be seen in the painting Portrait of Moctezuma II  where the Aztec Ruler that surrendered to Cortes is depicted holding a ceremonial feather mosaic shield.  In the adarga, that is thought to be a gift for King Phillip II of Spain commemorating the birth of an heir to the throne, the surface is divided into four sections, each depicting the Christian victory over the Muslims in various confrontations.  The band around the edges of the shield consists of decorative vegetal motifs and grotesques and in the middle are two winged creatures fighting off a serpent with a scroll above them that is a line from a poem by Thomas More ("There is only one hope for old age").   When pondering what this object might have meant to the people living in sixteenth century Madrid, Dr. Schreffler reasserts:
"The message conveyed by the adaga's imagery, however, is complicated by its materiality, for its makers used traditional American materials and techniques to display images of Spanish Christians fighting against Muslims on a type of object whose origins are in the Islamic world." 

Adarga with Historical Episodes, after 1571
Made in Mexico
(Palacio Real, Real Armeria, Madrid)

Antonio Rodriguez (att.), Portrait of Moctezuma II, ca. 1680-97
(Museo degli Argenti, Palazzo Pitti, Florence)

In the end, Dr. Schreffler remarks on the Franciscan complex in Mexico City, San  Jose de los Naturales, where these feather mosaics were produced. According to scholars who researched the original plans of this complex, in addition to a chapel and a monastery there was supposed to be an open chapel (capilla abierta), a partially enclosed building that would become a standard feature of early colonial monastic complexes in Mexico. This complex, which is believed to be the first of such centers built in the Americas for the purpose of converting the native inhabitants to Christianity is referred to in the writings of George Kubler (Kubler 1948, 332) and John McAndrew (McAndrew 1965, 388-93)) as a "Moorish or a Mexican mosque."  But Dr. Schreffler does point out, to his knowledge, there is no description of this building making such an association in the descriptions of sixteenth or seventeenth-century witnesses and how such a building was conceived in sixteenth-century Mexico is also open for debate.  A hypothesis by John McAndrew (1965, 388-89) considers one of the early Franciscans from Andalusia as the creator.  

 The Royal Chapel (Capilla real of Cholula, also containing an open chapel, however was recognized by Jesuit priest Bernabe Cobo, in 1630 as being similar to the mosque of Cordoba, which he would have been familiar with since he grew up in Andalusia.  Dr. Schreffler consistently questions the very intriguing point of the significance of these structures to the local inhabitants who were not familiar with the comparisons modern art historians seem to be making about these structures. 

Michael Schreffler, concludes by emphasizing the question of "how those forms may have been perceived by distinct individuals  or social groups." The transference of styles and ideas between the diverse cultures on both sides of the Atlantic seems to have been a two-way exchange but it still does not seem to be clear if some of the associations projected onto these artifacts are only a part of the trajectory of modernist art history. After reading Dr. Schreffler's article, one is left with a sense of wonder and curiosity about the different social and cultural implications of the exchanges taking place in sixteen-century society between Spain and colonial Latin America.

As with every aspect of the social sciences, there can be multiple explanations for the intentionality of artifacts from five centuries ago. Just to give one example, Vera L. Peacock in her article "The Open Chapel in Mexico" refers to the resemblance of Royal Chaple of Cholula to the mosque of Cordoba as accidental since the primary goal of the monks was to care most effectively for the thousands of converts in the absence of structures big enough to house them.  None of the different interpretations lessen the appeal of these structures however. 

Writing about artifacts bearing the influence of different cultures, the fusion of many styles brought to mind the Ani ruins I visited in Kars, Turkey, a couple of years ago. It is possible to find the traces of all the different dynasties, civilizations- Byzantine, Armenian, Georgian, Seljuk Turks in the structures left standing in the city that has been uninhibited since the beginning of the seventeenth-century.   Even if they did not live together in perfect harmony, and one side was the conquered while the other conquerors, these structures are still the testament of the cultural exchange that took place as well as the people who lived side by side in this geography and will remain so till scholars start to research and propose theories as to how and why they were built.

Church of Saint Gregory, late 10th century
Ani, Kars


Metropolitan Museum of Art, Gallery Label

Michael Schreffler, "Threads of Every Color",  And Diverse are Their Hues:  Color in Islamic Art and Culture, New Haven and London, Yale University Press, 2011

George Kubler, Mexican Architecture of the Sixteenth Century, 2 vols, New Haven: Yale University Press, 1948

John McAndrew, The Open-air Churches of Sixteenth-century Mexico:  Atrios, Posas, Open Chapels, and Other Studies, Cambridge, MA:  Harvard University Press, 1965

Vera L. Peacock, "The Open Chapel in Mexico," Journal of Inter-American Studies, Vol 1, No 3. (July 1959) p 277-280. 


  1. Nice review, Sedef! I appreciate that the author keeps questioning whether or not people who lived at the time the structures were built (or objects were made) would have understood or even seen the associations between the Latin American and Spanish objects. The image you show at the end from Kars is AMAZING. What does "Ani" mean? I've never heard that before.

  2. Thanks Karen,

    I really appreciate the perspective Dr Schreffler put forth as well.

    Ani is a medieval Armenian city and it supposedly got its name from the Armenian fortress-city and pagan center of Ani-Kamakh. It has a very long and convoluted history and the remains are breathtaking. It is worthy of any art historians 'bucket-list'


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