I have been having so much fun learning about Mesoamerican art this semester and really broadening my horizons as a scholar. We just really started getting into colonial art, and though it is so sad to see the beautiful native culture get taken over by Spain and Christianity-I can’t lie and say that the art that has come out of it is incredibly fascinating.
Converting a huge group of people from a complex polytheistic religion to a complex monotheistic one (on top of a huge language barrier) was not an easy or peaceful task. As Spaniards took over and started converting the native peoples of the Aztec, Incan, and many other Mesoamerican empires, art was the number one tool to teach the ideas of the Christian faith. There are certain ideals of the religion, however, that are hard to convey no matter how hard you try. One of them, which even I don’t understand if I’m honest, is the idea of the trinity.
There is one God, but Jesus, The Holy Spirit, and God the Father are all part of that concept. It’s a hard thing to display-this idea of oneness within many. The typical iconography we see from Europe comes from a set list of symbolism: a dove, a white man with a white beard, and a younger white man with a brown beard. But as native artists tried to paint this concept in the way they understood, we got something a little different. They gifted us with something like this:
These beautiful pieces depict the trinity in a way we’ve never seen before. We have a man with the features we usually associate with Christ–but there’s something a little… different. We see three faces for one body, representing the three parts of God. If I’m going to be honest as someone who didn’t grow up going to Sunday school, this was one of the most understandable ways the trinity has been represented. Especially when I try to put myself in the mindset of someone who has only ever known a religion with many gods, the idea of both many and one would be really hard to grasp, let alone in a time of violent colonization, disease, and confusion.
Though kind of freaky to look at, I give major props to these artists for turning such an established idea of imagery into something new (and to some, improved). It’s through things like this that we see the personality, tradition, and culture of the native Mesoamerican’s push through the overwhelming blanket of colonial Christianity. These paintings honestly speak a lot for themselves, and I could look at them for hours. Is it just me, or once you get past the initial “woah this man has three faces”, aren’t they kind of comforting?
For reference I’ve put a typical rendition of the trinity, the trifacial trinity, and some really beautiful Aztec art so you can see the relationships between them.