This article revisits the seminal murals at Ozumba, a re-posting from our sister blog.
Ozumba, the porteríaThe venerable Franciscan convento at Ozumba, a small town south east of Mexico City in the shadow of the volcano Popocatépetl, dates from the middle years of the 16th century.
Beyond its arcaded front (portería) lies a broad vestibule, or anteporteria, which is decorated with polychrome murals on all sides from floor to ceiling.
Although these murals have been neglected, altered and repainted over time, and probably date from different periods, they remain an extraordinary and unique pictorial document of formative historical events in what has been called the Spiritual Conquest of Mexico, and the leading figures who participated.
The sequence consists of four main panels and two smaller ones that document the key episodes, in which the Franciscan Order played a leading role.
1. Three Friars
The first narrow fresco in the cycle inside the entry portrays the three original Flemish Franciscans to arrive in Mexico after the Conquest: Pedro de Gante, Fr. Juan de Tecto and Fr. Juan de Aora, precursors to the main Franciscan missionary cohort.
2. The Twelve with Cortés
Awaiting the Apostolic Twelve—the main Franciscan contingent to arrive in 1524—on the causeway leading into the city was the conquistador himself, Hernán Cortés, at the head of a retinue of high ranking Spaniards and native nobles.
To the astonishment of the assembled Indian lords, all the Spaniards, including the great Cortés himself, promptly fell to their knees before the humble friars, headed by Fray Martín de Valencia, their leader and future Guardian of nearby Tlalmanalco, thus emphasizing the importance of the Franciscans in the evangelization of Mexico.
The Spaniards shown are leading conquistadors, including Cortés, Pedro de Alvarado and Raphael de Trejo, together with the Mercedarian friar Bartolome de Olmedo who accompanied Cortés to Mexico during the military conquest.
The native lords, although shown modestly dressed, hold flowers and may include portraits of leading Aztec nobles like Cuauhtémoc or Ixtilxochitl.
3. The Arrival of the Twelve
On June 24, 1524, the main contingent of twelve ragged Franciscan friars finally reached Mexico-Tenochtitlan, the new capital of colonial New Spain, then rising from the ruins of the Aztec island city. Exhausted, they had walked barefoot from Veracruz on the Gulf coast 250 miles to the east.
The stupendous task assigned to these Apostolic Twelve, who had been sent at the specific request of Cortés, was no less than the evangelization and conversion to Catholicism of the vast native population of New Spain. The Twelve Franciscans shown include presumed portraits of all the friars as well as two lay brothers Juan de Palos and Andrés de Córdoba.
Above the doorway into the convento is a horizontal mural, probably a later, 17th century addition. This allegorical fresco shows St. Francis supporting an image of La Purísima, additionally burdened by the globes symbolizing the Three Franciscan Orders.
He is flanked by Franciscan writers John Duns Scotus and Sor María de Agreda, supporters of the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception of the Virgin Mary.
5. Los Niños Mártires
One of the best known episodes of the Spiritual Conquest is that of the Niños Martires. The story goes that shortly after the conquest, in 1527, Axotecatl, one of the Four Lords of Tlaxcala—allies of Cortés in the defeat of the Aztecs—sent his three sons to be educated in the Franciscan monastery of Tlaxcala.
On their return, the young men set about smashing idols and reproaching their father for his polygamy and excessive drinking. The enraged lord beat his son Cristóbal and burned him to death. The other two boys, Antonio and Juan, fled but continued their preaching and iconoclastic ways, until they too soon suffered a martyr's fate. The boy martyrs are identified by inscriptions and are shown in a rural landscape being killed by the villagers by different methods in graphic detail.
Churches in the background represent the towns of Tecali and Tlaxcala itself. Note the broken idol on the lower right.6. The Apparitions of the Virgin of Guadalupe
Another mural, a later addition, depicts details of the Apparitions of Guadalupe to Juan Diego on the Tepeyac hill. On the left, the main illustration shows Juan Diego’s cloak, or tilma, imprinted with an image of the Virgin. Mexican Archbishop Zumárraga stoops to inspect the miracle and roses fall from the tilma (at one time probably a painted cloth, now effaced.)
The remaining three Apparitions are shown in miniature on the right of the main panel.7. The Flagellation of Cortés In the final, narrow panel, to the right inside the entry, Cortés is shown again, this time kneeling and being beaten by a friar in front of a group of native lords. A cautionary scene emphasizing Franciscan authority.
text © 2015 Richard D. Perry
color images by the author, Niccolò Brooker and Alejandro Linares García