Aztec mural melds cultures
A centuries-old Aztec mural, partially intact, is giving archaeologists a peek at Aztec culture shortly after the Spanish Conquest.
BY MARK STEVENSON
MEXICO CITY -- Salvador Guilliem dangles on a narrow beam over the sunken remains of a mural painted by Indians shortly after the Spanish Conquest. Guilliem, an archaeologist, points out the newly excavated red, green and ocher flourishes in one of the earliest paintings to show the mixing of the two cultures.
The vivid scene of animals cavorting around the edge of lakes that once shimmered in Mexico City was painted by Aztec Indians in the early 1530s during a rare, brief moment of tolerance in an era when Spaniards were obliterating Aztec culture to cement their own rule.
Guilliem, who found the mural beneath the floor of a former Spanish convent, uses the beam to avoid treading on or touching the painting, done on the sides of a water holding pool that was later ceremonially crushed and buried. Because of the burial, the bottom half of the 16-yard-long mural was preserved. But the top half -- about one yard in height -- was broken into about 25,000 fragments, which archaeologists must now painstakingly reassemble.
It's worth the effort. Mexican society itself is a jigsaw puzzle of Indian and Spanish influences, and the mural is like a snapshot of how that rich cultural mix began.
FUSION OF CULTURES
''It's all coming together here in a syncretic mix, a fusion of two styles of thought,'' Guilliem said at the site in the downtown Tlatelolco square, where a jumble of Aztec ruins and colonial-era structures are surrounded by busy avenues and buildings constructed in the 1960s.
At the center of the 16-yard-long painting is a Christian cross in black and white, floating above a colorful, lively scene of fishermen, frogs, fish and other creatures.
To the right of the cross and below it, the Indians painted an Ahuizotl, a mythical Aztec animal with paws resembling hands that was considered a servant or representative of the Aztec rain god, Tlaloc. To the left, there is a jaguar with a stylized plant on its back, upon which rests an eagle -- a reference to pre-Hispanic place names and the kingdoms that ruled before the Spanish came.
Indians also drew gracefully executed depictions of lakeside plants, some of which were used in traditional Aztec medicine.
The story of how and why the mural was created and buried provides a unique glimpse into the culture clash that emerged in the first years after Hernan Cortes and his Spanish troops conquered the Aztecs in 1521.
Archeologists first suspected its presence in 2002 after workers digging a drainage trench turned up pieces of colored plaster. After a year and a half of digging, the work is now about 75 percent excavated.
Archaeologist Eduardo Matos has called it one of the earliest surviving works from the period, saying it was probably painted by Aztec artists who were educated by Franciscan monks.
These Aztec painters managed to have a remarkable degree of self-expression for the era. The Spanish usually required Indians to paint as close to the European style as they could.
But the Franciscan monks at Tlatelolco tried to defend the Indians from enslavement and were eager to learn Aztec customs. The monks also may not have recognized some of the references to older gods and other cultural symbols that the Aztecs wove into the mural.
But even with the early Franciscans' tolerance, Guilliem says some details in the mural reflect a ``conflict of interests between the priests and the painter.''
Most of the human figures -- even some wearing Indian dress -- are depicted with European features and drawn in European style using perspective, rather than the Aztec's one-dimensional profiles. But the European faces are mere outline drawings -- neither filled in nor colored with the still-bright natural tints used in the rest of the mural.
The relative independence of the monks at Tlatelolco was tolerated for only a few decades by Spanish rulers, who began to object to the Franciscans' tactic of educating Indians.
But the artists at Tlatelolco didn't give in entirely. When the pool fell into disuse and the mural was buried around 1600, the Indians performed what appears to have been an entirely Aztec ritual to appease the pre-Hispanic spirits of the painting.