The Destruction of Pre-Christian Monuments in Mexico

The destruction and mutilation of pre-Christian monuments played an important and very tragic role in the Spanish conquest of the cultures of modern Mexico. Notoriously, the monuments and temples of Tenochtitlan were demolished in such a thorough fashion that very little of the once glorious city remained visible until the discovery of the Templo Mayor in the 1970s. Insight into the mindset of those behind this destructive process of Christianisation can be found in the writings of the bishop Zumárraga, who wrote the following in a letter dated 12 June 1531 to the Chapter of the Franciscan Order:

Know ye that we are much busied with great and constant labour to convert the infidel…five hundred temples razed to the ground, and above twenty thousand idols of the devils they worshipped smashed and burned… (Quoted from Bernal 1980: 36).

We may doubt the enormous figure of ‘twenty thousand idols’, but here is an archaeological example of some mutilated relief sculptures in the Museo Nacional de Antropología in Mexico City:

Mutilated ‘idols’ in the Museo Nacional de Antropología, Mexico City. Photo: TMK, December 2007.

Similar to many other outbreaks of iconoclasm in history, the Spanish response to Aztec images was not entirely uniform or immune to pragmatism. In the case above, the reliefs were re-used in an altar. In the case below, a round, relief-decorated object was transformed into a baptismal font. Yet another example comes from Mexico City’s first cathedral, where Aztec relief carvings were reused as capitals (Bernal 1980: 39, fig. 15). The purpose of these Aztec spoliae clearly ranges from ideological (triumphal even, in the case of the altar) to more pragmatic and opportunistic (in the case of the cathedral).

Baptismal font in the Museo Nacional de Antropología, Mexico City. Photo: TMK, December 2007.

Ignacio Bernal. 1980. A History of Mexican Archaeology. London.

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