Colonial Mexican Art: 4 Key Formats and Themes

Mexican art during the colonial period crossed cultures and captured the minds of millions. Its themes and formats were varied and extraordinary.

Feb 21, 2024By Greg Pasciuto, BA History
colonial mexican art formats themes

 

Modern Mexico was forged in the fires of conquest and cultural exchange. The invasion of Mesoamerica by the Spanish in the 16th century was one of the defining events of human history. Yet amid all the violence, destruction, and disease outbreaks that followed, Mesoamericans engaged with the arts. During the Mexican colonial period, new art forms sprang up from across the globe. Older forms were transformed by the dramatic cultural interactions brought about by the meeting of entirely different continents. From this (often violent) mixture, Mexican art was born.

 

1. Mesoamerican Codices: Mexican Art Before the Conquest

codex borgia replica mexican art
Page 18 from a replica of the Codex Borgia, 2018, via University of Texas at Austin College of Fine Arts

 

Our examination of Mexican art has to start somewhere. Let’s start by winding back the clock to before the Spanish Conquest. Long before the arrival of Spain’s conquistadores, Mesoamerican people already excelled in the arts. They produced grand pyramid-like structures for religious purposes and crafted enormous sculptures. One art form that they had perfected was manuscript production. This Mesoamerican manuscript culture evolved entirely independently from that of the Old World. It was practiced by a number of diverse peoples — the Mayas, Aztecs, and Mixtecs being chief among them.

 

Mesoamerican manuscripts (called codices by some modern historians) combined art with history, religion, and glyph-based writing. Grand narratives recounted the rise of kings, important battles, a huge pantheon of deities, and vital religious rituals. Scribes crafted these manuscripts from local paper into a screen-type format — completely different from the bound books produced in Europe at the same time. Extant manuscripts are far larger than any contemporary books from Europe or Asia.

 

dresden codex maya manuscript
Scenes from the Dresden Codex (note the damage at the top of the pages), by Mayan artists, c. 11th or 12th century, via National Geographic

 

Unfortunately, the vast majority of Mesoamerican codices have not survived. The Spanish conquerors destroyed them wherever they found them. Catholic missionaries were especially committed to this mission, viewing the manuscripts as containing demonic imagery. This means that only a small number remain intact, especially ones dating from before Spain’s invasion.

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Although the Europeans went to great lengths to annihilate Mesoamerican manuscripts, this form of Mexican art actually persisted during the early colonial era. The format evolved to accommodate the new social and political realities of colonialism. The Nahua peoples, in particular, adopted the Latin alphabet to suit their own needs. Newer manuscripts detailed episodes from the Spanish Conquest and its aftermath, such as devastating epidemics of disease.

 

nahua smallpox victims codex
Scene from the Florentine Codex depicting Nahua people dying from smallpox, 16th century, via The Conversation

 

One of the most famous post-Conquest manuscripts is the Florentine Codex. This monumental project was created in the late-16th century by Nahua artists and scribes collaborating with Bernardino de Sahagún, a Spanish Franciscan priest. The Codex consists of twelve “books” and over 2,400 illustrations and took its creators decades to complete.

 

Other Mesoamerican manuscripts were looted by the Spanish and taken back to Europe. One such work, the Codex Borgia, was actually owned by the prominent Borgia family of Catholic clergymen during the 1700s. The Vatican archive currently houses the manuscript.

 

2. The Virgin of Guadalupe: Art and Catholic Devotion

juan diego engraving
Engraving of Juan Diego showing the bishop the Virgin of Guadalupe, c. 1666-69, via Wikimedia Commons

 

One of the most notable contributions the Spanish made to modern Mexican culture is the propagation of the Roman Catholic faith. Mexico remains a majority-Catholic country in the 21st century, despite the growth of other religions. In colonial Mesoamerica, Catholicism fundamentally influenced Mexican art. Nowhere is this more apparent than through the Virgin of Guadalupe.

 

Mexican Catholic tradition holds that in December 1531, a Nahua man named Juan Diego saw an apparition of the Virgin Mary while on his way to church. Mary told Juan Diego to go to the bishop of Mexico City and ask him to build a shrine on the hill. The bishop was originally skeptical of Juan Diego’s miraculous claim, but he came to believe him after Mary left an image on Juan Diego’s cloak. He ordered that a shrine be built on Tepeyac Hill, where Juan Diego had first seen the Virgin.

 

Not too long after the event supposedly occurred, colonial Mexicans started to revere the image of Mary. By the end of the 17th century, the Virgin of Guadalupe had evolved into a sort of proto-nationalistic symbol of New Spain. She became an icon of both Catholic and New Spanish identity.

 

virgin guadalupe shell mexican art
Virgin of Guadalupe, by Miguel González, c. 1698, via Los Angeles County Museum of Art

 

The painting shown above is a late 17th-century creation by prominent Mexican painter Miguel González. It depicts all of the major scenes from the story of Juan Diego in each of its corners. Angelic figures support these scenes, confirming their nature as a miracle. In the bottom center of the work, an eagle perches on a cactus. This symbolism references an older Aztec legend about the founding of Mexico City. It indicates González’s sympathies with the story and his belief in a direct connection between the Virgin of Guadalupe and New Spain.

 

The most eye-catching quality of González’s Virgin is the mother-of-pearl inlaid in the Virgin Mary’s cloak and the borders of each scene. This technique of integrating ornate shells with oil painting is called enconchado. It was inspired by East Asian art styles, which reached Mexico via trade networks during the early 17th century. Some of the most vibrant examples of colonial Mexican art owe a debt to Japanese techniques. We will explore this in more depth soon.

 

3. Casta Paintings: An 18th-Century Fixation

casta painting mexican art
From Spanish and Indian, Mestizo, early 18th century, via Brooklyn Museum

 

Compared to our previous two topics, casta paintings represent a more secular turn in Mexican art. The word casta means “lineage” in Spanish. As its name suggests, the casta genre focused on categorizing different types of colonial Mexican families. In the context of the times, this inevitably meant cataloging families by racial and ethnic mixture.

 

Casta paintings were all the rage among colonial elites during the 18th century. Their popularity overlapped with the Enlightenment movement in Europe and its focus on an orderly society. The paintings usually consisted of sixteen panels, with each panel depicting a particular interethnic marriage. Artists and their patrons devised highly specific labels to describe the children of these families. Especially during the later 18th century, casta paintings were organized hierarchically. Families with Spanish ancestry occupied the first panels of the paintings, followed by Indigenous Mexicans and then Africans further down.

 

casta painting interracial alcibar
From Spaniard and Black, Mulato, by José de Alcíbar, c. 1760-70, via Assemblage

 

In spite of their focus on illustrating racial hierarchy and a paternalistic social order, casta paintings were more idealistic than they were practical. Authorities in colonial Mexico lacked the means to crack down extensively on interracial unions. Casta paintings were instead intended for colonial officials to show off their social prominence and the idea of racial purity. This was especially true for Mexican-born Spaniards (Criollos), who felt ignored by their European-born counterparts.

 

Yet as prominent Criollos came to identify with their homeland over Spain, they sought to reinforce notions of Spanish racial superiority for their own gain. This was a major impetus for the proliferation of casta paintings in 18th-century Mexico. Crafted predominantly by Criollo artists, many were shipped across the Atlantic Ocean for elite Spanish viewing.

 

4. Biombo Folding Screens: Where Mexican Art Meets Japan

biombo folding screen native
Folding Screen with Indian Wedding and Flying Pole, c. 1690, via Los Angeles County Museum of Art

 

In our final exhibit on colonial Mexican art, we continue down the path of secular artwork. As we saw with Miguel González’s Virgin of Guadalupe, Mexican art came into contact with Asian influences during the 17th century. This was most apparent in biombo folding screens.

 

Japan and colonial Mexico first established ties during the early 1600s. At the time, the Spanish were the dominant power in the Pacific Ocean trading network, so goods flowed between Asia and Mexico via the Spanish Manila galleons. In 1614, a Japanese diplomat named Hasekura Tsunenaga traveled through Mexico with his entourage on their way to Europe. Their ship may well have carried biombos in its cargo.

 

The Spanish word biombo comes from the Japanese byōbu (meaning “wind wall”). Every biombo consisted of a series of paper panels. They could be painted on both the front and the back and were most popular in indoor settings. Like casta paintings, the biombo format was usually the domain of colonial Mexican elites.

 

biombo mexican art sothebys
Biombo de la Conquista de México y Vista de la Ciudad de México (first side), 17th century, via Sotheby’s

 

The biombo took on a slightly different role in colonial Mexican art than it had occupied in Japan. Japanese byōbu tended to focus most on scenery; depictions of human figures did exist, but they often took a secondary place compared to animals, plants, and the environment. In Mexico, the biombo format was often used to depict historical episodes. Colonial artists might paint scenes from the conquest of the Aztecs or create allegorical renditions of human life on the known continents. They combined European and Indigenous Mexican artistic techniques to build on the original Japanese structure, creating a new genre in Mexican art.

Author Image

By Greg PasciutoBA HistoryGreg is a Stonehill College graduate and aspiring writer and editor from Boston, MA. When he isn’t working his full-time job, you might find him reading, completing creative word searches, or just looking to learn new skills for life. His historical interests are particularly centered on the history of religion and the interactions of different cultural groups. Not limited to a single geographic region, Greg enjoys uncovering the stories of cultures all around.