Deborah Barkun

Bridget Costello

Elizabeth Damore

Andrea DeGiorgi

Molly Finnigan

Zlatan Gruborovic

Mariana Martin

Michael J. McClure

Sara Morasch

Jeanne-Marie Musto

Daria Ovide

Kim Peters

Abigail Perkiss

Lauren Rosenblum

Debbie Wang


The summer travel grant administered by the Center for Visual Culture enabled me to conduct preliminary field and archival research for a dissertation on the Dominican patronage of colonial religious structures
in Oaxaca, Mexico. Dominican mendicants played a pivotal role in the sixteenth-century colonization and evangelization of the Zapotec and Mixtec populations of Oaxaca. Within decades of their arrival in New Spain, a small population of friars succeeded in converting nearly all of
the region’s indigenous inhabitants to Christianity. To accommodate the spiritual needs of the converts, numerous conventos (missionary complexes) were erected throughout Oaxaca. The typical convento consisted of several elements arranged within a walled atrio (patio): a single-naved church, friars’ residence, cloister, open-air chapel, posas (small chapels) and portería (covered porch).

During the preliminary phase of my dissertation research, I visited many
of the colonial religious structures in the Valley of Oaxaca. The
following churches were chosen as candidates for additional research:

San Pablo, Mitla (founded 1544)
Virgen de la Asunción, Tlacolula (founded 1552)
San Jeronimo, Tlacochahuaya (founded 1558)
Preciosa Sangre de Cristo, Teotitlán del Valle (founded 1575)

(All four structures are located in the colonial municipo of Tlacolula, approximately thirty kilometers east of the city of Oaxaca).

When constructing these four conventos, Dominican friars and indigenous builders appropriated many native architectural features and sacred symbols. Colonial architecture was undoubtedly an architecture of conquest; the presence of such visual references to local religious and cosmological beliefs (often in a subordinate position) asserted a western dominance over the indigenous populations.

For example, San Pablo (Mitla) was built directly over the foundations of a destroyed Zapotec temple; the church’s dramatic placement among the ruins of the pre-conquest sacred site surely conveyed a forceful message to the conquered populations.

But, as their appearance indicates, the colonial conventos simultaneously facilitated the continuation of the ancient religion. Embedded in the western façade of Preciosa Sangre de Cristo (Teotitlán del Valle) are stones decorated with native religious symbols. By incorporating spolia from pre-conquest temples into the façade, the friars (or indigenous builders) successfully transferred the sacred power of the native site to the colonial church. Such decorative elements linked the new religion to the old faith, thereby expediting the conversion process and preserving ancient beliefs.

My dissertation will examine the patronage history of these four colonial structures to determine how the Dominican friars (and indigenous builders) manipulated architectural forms to create a space which articulated military conquest and advanced spiritual conversion. A recognition of the persistence of pre-conquest imagery is essential to understanding the status of the mendicant friars and indigenous builders in colonial society. By allowing me to examine, photograph and formulate ideas about this imagery, the travel grant has advanced my dissertation research on the motivations and collaborations of the mendicant friars and indigenous builders in colonial Oaxaca.

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