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How the centaurs arrived to Ixmiquilpan

Text by Brenda Chávez

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Convent of Ixmiquilpan, Hidalgo

On the walls of the church of the city of Ixmiquilpan in the state of Hidalgo, we can distnguish a peculiar scene that defies our imagination: Mesoamerican warriors confronting mythological Greco-Roman creatures in a battle of vices against virtues. Centaurs, eagle warriors and Chichimecans fighting the endless battle of the Christian good against pagan evil.

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Church of Ixmiquilpan. Photograph by José Luis Pérez Flores

Where do these eclectic murals from two very different worlds come from and “coexist” in time and space? How did these beings from ancient Greece get to such a distant province in the New Spain?

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Church of Ixmiquilpan. Photograph by José Luis Pérez Flores

The trip itself is paradoxical and in my opinion, fascinating. At the end of the 15th century in Italy, the fall of a distracted pedestrian resulted in one of the most astonishing archeological discoveries of the Renaissance era, the Domus Aurea, emperor Nero’s palace. This Roman enclosure from the 1st century AD zealously guarded rooms decorated with majestic Pompeii style mural paintings, made of hybrid, fantastic and monstruous beings. Many curious artists – Rafael among them – would descend to the chambers to make copies, sketches and drawings. Because they were located in dark, humid halls with grotto-like appearance, they came to be known as “grotesque;” in turn, these paintings inspired thousands of workshops and artists to produce murals, sculptures, tapestry, books and engravings that were scattered all over Europe.

These fantastic and extravagant forms soon caused resentment amongst treatise writers and Notables. In many ways they were the antithesis of the aspirations of Renaissance art: mimesis, naturalism, perfection. Amidst criticism, its classic origin, which caused so much fascination among the humanists of the time, allowed them to make way through Italy, the Netherlands, France and the Iberian Peninsula. The next stop was the New World. During the 16th century, the first conquistadors and missionaries brought along with them small personal book collections whose covers and interiors were decorated with grotesque. Along with engravings of religious content and the representations of Christ and the Virgin, the grotesques were the first images of the Old World that the indigenous people encountered.

Although it is oftentimes forgotten, the recently converted indigenous people were the driving force for the construction and decoration of spaces where the new faith was practiced. The tlacuilos – specialists in the production of codex before the conquest – would be commissioned to execute and direct the mural paintings in the new temples. Organized in teams, these painters produced hundreds of grotesque designs in the New Spanish walls, inspired in the classic shapes discovered decades before in the Domus Aurea.

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Convent of Acolman, District of Mexico

The genre quickly spread throughout the New Spain; by the end of the 16th century, every convent would have a representation in sculpture or painting inspired by the European grotesque. The convents in the cities of Actopan, Oaxtepec and Malinalco are a few examples of monuments plagued with these fantastic forms. In the coming and going of the New Spanish convent life, friars and indigenous people contemplated these images in their daily lives: chimera, tritons, angels with vegetable limbs, Pegasus and many other products of the Greco-Roman imaginary.

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Convent of Huatlatlauhca, Puebla

As a result of the Bourbon reforms, hundreds of baroque pieces were destroyed during the 18th century in Europe and moreover in America, an attack which the convent murals were not able to escape from since they were covered in thick layers of lime to give way to the coarse Neoclassical style. This unfortunate censorship, which condemned the grotesque to more than two centuries of oblivion, also protected it from deterioration and allowed many of these paintings to come to light a few decades ago, although many other remain under the it. Inevitably, any discovery of this nature brings with it gradual deterioration. These murals are no exception: in spaces of continuous use, they are preys to vandalism, improvised remodeling and absurd modernizations of religious precincts.

Hence today, among the humidity and deterioration, the contemporary visitors rediscover these classical forms, which they know so little of; their origin, the kind of events that led them to the convent walls. The grotesque is a genre that not only crossed spatial and temporal frontiers but it also managed to reinvent the New Spanish territory, to acquire new meanings. Among the nostalgia and longing for their ancient gods, it might be possible for the indigenous people of the New Spain to find in these hybrid and monstruous forms, a link between their thoughts and the emerging horizon filled with confluences, not exempt of disagreements, between two or more worlds.

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Convent of Ixmiquilpan, Hidalgo

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