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Abstract

Between 1574 – 1581, the Dominican friar Diego Durán collaborated with multiple painters to produce an account of the Aztec past that comprised a catalogue of gods, a description of the ancient calendar, and a granular history of Aztec imperial politics. Ostensibly created as a guide for extirpating idolatry, the Durán paintings consistently placed Aztec image cults in historical time, narrating transformations to Aztec practices of image use over the long trajectory of the empire’s history. Their narrative of the idol’s historical emergence assimilated both the Aztec past and Aztec images to Old Testament models. At the same time, narrating the history of idolatry provided the Durán artists with a language for intervening into period debates surrounding the Christian potentiality of indigenous subjects, the proper relationship between mendicant orders and indigenous communities, and the humanity of the peoples of the Americas. Building from the close observation of the Durán paintings, this dissertation argues for a vision of the illuminations as images alive to their moment, reconstructing the aspirations of these paintings to use the history of idols toward political ends. Attention to the Durán painters’ pictorial choices reveals that style played a major role in the construction of these histories, broadening the paintings’ argumentation by facilitating their resonance within their context. Reading the Durán paintings’ history of idolatry in light of period sources, this dissertation argues that the manuscript’s painters produced a view of the past that simultaneously functioned as a fervent argument on behalf of the inherent rationality of indigenous peoples and as a critique of contemporary abuses of royal power. These findings reveal the political entanglements that colored the history of ancient images as it could be constructed ‘on the ground’ in the context of Early Colonial New Spain.

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