Members' Research Report Archive
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
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? He is God the
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
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
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