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Catechetical Pictography and the Art of Being Indian in Late-Colonial New Spain

Louise M. Burkhart, University at Albany, State University of New York
Paul Mellon Senior Fellow, 2012 – 2013

People of central Mexico embraced the alphabetic literacy first taught to them by the Franciscan friars in the 1520s, and by 1600 pre-Columbian methods of pictorial writing had largely disappeared. Therefore, alongside the reams of native-language alphabetic texts surviving from New Spain, pictographic catechisms appear anachronistic. These handmade booklets present Christian doctrinal texts — the Lord’s Prayer, Hail Mary, Apostles’ Creed, Ten Commandments, and others — as rows of tiny images. Each pictograph represents a word or phrase from the standard catechismal texts, adapted into a native language, usually Nahuatl, and then into pictures. Indigenous people were obliged to memorize these standard texts in their native languages as children and, as adults, to participate in weekly recitations led by a Catholic priest or a native religious official.

The anomalous character of these catechisms is even more striking than I first realized. Scholars have long tied the genre to the early evangelization of Mexico and have asserted that at least some of the texts date to the sixteenth century, even to the 1520s. Pictures were used in sixteenth-century catechesis — this is a favorite topos in evangelization histories — but records describe nothing precisely consistent with the extant pictographic catechisms. From my research this winter into the history of a catechetical dialogue included in nearly all the manuscripts, I have concluded that the purportedly early texts cannot predate the mid-seventeenth century. The genre as represented in surviving manuscripts must be reevaluated as a later phenomenon, a deliberate, archaizing renewal of pictorial writing.

Such a pictographic catechism is the focus of a book I am preparing in collaboration with Elizabeth Boone and David Tavárez. This exceptionally detailed manuscript, now in the Bibliothèque nationale de France, comes from one of the indigenous districts of Mexico City. On folios 21v – 22r, arrayed left to right, are the first five questions and answers from the Catecismo breve (1644) of Jesuit father Bartolomé Castaño (1601 – 1672), a doctrinal questionnaire adapted into many indigenous languages in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Reading the images into Nahuatl and then English, I translate as follows, line by line:

How many deities are there? Just one deity, God. Where is
    the deity, God?
He is in heaven and on earth, in all places he is. Who made
    heaven and earth? It is he, the deity, God.
Who is the deity, God? He is the most holy Trinity. Who is the
    most holy Trinity? He is God the father, God the child, God
    the Holy Spirit, three persons, just one deity, God.

Nahuas of the city were staunchly pro-Franciscan: hence the elevation of a frater minor to the status of the Trinity in the pictograph in the fourth and fifth lines.

The later seventeenth century saw the emergence of other archaizing textual practices, but catechisms are the only fully pictographic genre. The choice of Christian doctrine as the forum for a revived pictographic literacy made perfect sense, for, in New Spain as in Spain, doctrinal handbooks served as reading primers. They were also the most widespread genre of printed book. Catechismal texts were the only writings people had to recite by heart, and the catechetical pictographs, which were never standardized, are readable only as mnemonic props for fixed, known texts. The pictography thus had a single textual and performance context.

As later-colonial community leaders petitioned for privileges and pressed claims to lands lost during the violence and plagues of the sixteenth century, they strategically rewrote history: their conquest-era forebears became instant allies of the Spanish invaders and queued for baptism as soon as a friar reached their town. This desire to represent themselves and their subjects as the Native American equivalent of what Spaniards considered Old Christians may have also fostered the use of pictographic catechisms. The manuscripts evoked the lost picture writing of the pre-Columbian past but also the early evangelization, when the ancestors learned Christian doctrine assisted by images because they were picture-literate but had not yet mastered the alphabet. Indeed, an anonymous Nahua writer inscribed such a scenario on BnF 399: he imagined the first Franciscans using these pictures to teach doctrine to don Pedro de Moteucçoma Tlacahuepan — a son of Emperor Moteucçoma — and other nobles back in 1524.

The manuscripts support the enactment of an identity that is Christian but also assertively “Indian.” Native catechists who taught children with these pictures taught them to value pictography as well as to say their prayers. The memorization and recitation enforced by the Catholic church were among the many onerous burdens that colonized Mesoamericans had to bear. Some of them responded by turning the catechism into visual art that honored their ancestors while legitimizing their Christianity.

Louise M. Burkhart returned to her position as professor of anthropology at the Uni­versity at Albany, State University of New York.

Related Publications

The image found in the original report can be accessed in Center 33.