Before the Emperor: Mirrors and Shields

FIGURE 23. Cells 8 and 15 (far left, top and bottom): Iconolatry and iconoclasm in Tlaxcala and Tenochtitlan.

FIGURE 23. Cells 8 and 15 (far left, top and bottom): Iconolatry and iconoclasm in Tlaxcala and Tenochtitlan.

FIGURE 24. Cells 42 to 45 (top row) and 49 to 52 (bottom row): The last appearance of Corts, in context.

FIGURE 24. Cells 42 to 45 (top row) and 49 to 52 (bottom row): The last appearance of Cortés, in context.

FIGURE 25. Cell 42: Tenochtitlan at the center of the Lienzos grid.

FIGURE 25. Cell 42: Tenochtitlan at the center of the Lienzo’s grid.

FIGURE 26. Cell 29: Tlaxcala and the First Sunrise at the center of the Lienzos cloth.

FIGURE 26. Cell 29: Tlaxcala and the First Sunrise at the center of the Lienzo’s cloth.

FIGURE 27. Cell 29: Tlaxcala and the First Sunrise (detail).

FIGURE 27. Cell 29: Tlaxcala and the First Sunrise (detail).

FIGURE 28. Central Mexican Calendar Stone. The Four Motion sun of the present Age of Creation is in the center, surrounding it are the hieroglyphic calendar names of the suns of the four previous (failed) Ages of Creation. Photo of YPM Ant 19231 courtesy Peabody Museum of Natural History, Yale University, New Haven, Connecticut, USA.

FIGURE 28. Central Mexican Calendar Stone. The Four Motion sun of the present Age of Creation is in the center, surrounding it are the hieroglyphic calendar names of the suns of the four previous (failed) Ages of Creation. Photo of YPM Ant 19231 courtesy Peabody Museum of Natural History, Yale University, New Haven, Connecticut, USA.

FIGURE 29. Visual structures in the Lienzo de Tlaxcala. Left pair: distribution of Malinche (shaded cells on left) and Santiago (shaded cells on right). Right pair: Tenochtitlan (left) and Tlaxcala (right) as the two centers of the Lienzo de Tlaxcala.

FIGURE 29. Visual structures in the Lienzo de Tlaxcala. Left pair: distribution of Malinche (shaded cells on left) and “Santiago” (shaded cells on right). Right pair: Tenochtitlan (left) and Tlaxcala (right) as the two centers of the Lienzo de Tlaxcala.

FIGURE 22. Cells 49 to 51: Battle scenes.

FIGURE 22. Cells 49 to 51: Battle scenes.

FIGURE 30. Eyes and Mirrors in the Codex Laud (page 11r).

FIGURE 30. Eyes and Mirrors in the Codex Laud (page 11r).

FIGURE 31. Mosaic mirrors from Mesoamerica (not to scale). On the left, a Classic-period mirror from the site of Kixpk, Guatemala (courtesy of The University Museum, University of Pennsylvania; accession # NA11610). On the right, a Postclassic turquoise mosaic mirror-shield from Central Mexico (from Saville 1922, frontispiece).

FIGURE 31. Mosaic mirrors from Mesoamerica (not to scale). On the left, a Classic-period mirror from the site of Kixpék, Guatemala (courtesy of The University Museum, University of Pennsylvania; accession # NA11610). On the right, a Postclassic turquoise mosaic mirror-shield from Central Mexico (from Saville 1922, frontispiece).

FIGURE 32. Cell 27: European and Mesoamerican shield types.

FIGURE 32. Cell 27: European and Mesoamerican shield types.

FIGURE 33. The kingdoms of the Holy Roman Empire in the coat of arms of Emperor Charles V.

FIGURE 33. The kingdoms of the Holy Roman Empire in the coat of arms of Emperor Charles V.

FIGURE 34. Cell 37: Quilted cotton armor.

FIGURE 34. Cell 37: Quilted cotton armor.

The artists of the Lienzo used its seven-by-thirteen grid to amplify the meaning of the scenes it contained. Indeed, the very use of a seven-by-thirteen grid is significant. Seven times thirteen is ninety-one, which is the sum of all the numbers from one to thirteen.24 If the Lienzo were indeed commissioned in 1552, it was created as a thing to be brought before the Emperor, Charles V. We argue that the Lienzo was created to be an enchanted, enthralling artifact, designed to entrance the Emperor and thus make him pliable to the demands of Tlaxcalan ambassadors.25

Looking with care at the spatial connections between the different cells reveals a number of subtle patterns. Consider the pairing of iconolatry and iconoclasm in cells 8 and 15, stacked on top of each other (Figure 23). Above, Tlaxcalan nobles are converted to Christianity. To the right of the Host is an image of the Virgin and Child and a crucifix. The same pairing of Virgin and Child with crucifix occurs directly below, one cell down—but the story has moved to Tenochtitlan. This scene shows an attack by the Aztecs on the palace where the Spaniards held Moctezuma hostage. Amidst a hail of arrows and stones, sacred Christian images are being consumed by flames. The pairing of cell 8 and cell 15 visually contrasts Tlaxcalan conversion with Aztec iconoclasm.

The attack on Moctezuma’s palace triggered a chain of events that culminated with the flight of the Spaniards from Tenochtitlan. Their escape is shown in a series of cells that begin just to the right of Cell 15, a sequence which unfolds in a beautiful play of positive and negative space, of water and land and shields (Figure 20). The narrow canal-crossed streets of Tenochtitlan (cell 17) become one of the causeways (cell 18) connecting the island-capital of Tenochtitlan to the mainland, where (cell 19) the fleeing army enters a protective corridor of shields (chimaltin) held by indigenous allies.

As a third example of these compositional nuances, consider the band of water that flows along the bottom and up the right-hand side of cell 51 (Figure 24). This creates a visual moat between the cells below and to the right, but its upward flow connects cell 51 to the row above, which shows watery scenes of the conquest of Tenochtitlan. Significantly, Cell 51 is the last time that the Lienzo deals with expeditions led by Hernán Cortés. The rest of the Lienzo deals with Spanish-Tlaxcalan expeditions under other Spanish captains. In other words, the channel of water in Cell 51 both divides that cell from the rest of the story which follows, and links it to scenes of Cortés’ great victory in the row above.

Many other fascinating and subtle patterns interconnect the Lienzo’s cells. Perhaps the most important patterns in the Lienzo concern issues of centrality. The seven-by-thirteen format creates a central column (the fourth), a central row (the seventh), and thus a central cell within the grid as a whole: cell 42. Compositionally, this cell’s contents are unusual; so visually striking are they that cell 42 can be picked out from a distance (Figure 25). At the center of this cell is an architectural platform on a round island, surrounded by a round lake, and framed on four sides by lakeshore communities. This is a schematic map of Lake Texcoco and its central island—the island on which was built Tenochtitlan. Much of the Lienzo’s narrative is about how an alliance of Tlaxcalans and Spaniards conquered the Aztec empire: fighting their way to its capital city, retreating in defeat, coming back a second time for victory, and then spreading out across Mesoamerica to conquer the provinces once ruled from the island. Cell 42 is about the second, successful assault on the Aztec capital. Tenochtitlan was the dominant political power in late prehispanic Mesoamerica, and so its importance is signaled by its physical position at the exact center of the Lienzo’s grid. By stressing the centrality and importance of Tenochtitlan, the authors of the Lienzo underscored the magnitude of what they—the Tlaxcalans—had helped the Spaniards to achieve: the overthrow of the largest and most powerful empire in Mesoamerica.26

But the Lienzo, of course, is centered on Tlaxcala’s history. And so it is not surprising that its creators embedded a second center within its imagery—a second center that is actually far more important to the document as a whole. If cell 42 is at the exact center of the grid, moving two cells up brings us to the exact center of the cloth—originally about 2.5 meters down from the top (or up from the bottom). Cell 29 is visually flagged in a number of ways (Figure 26). First, to the left and the right are double-wide cells which, like the unusual composition of Cell 42, stand out from a distance to the viewer. The importance of Cell 29 is further underscored by its alphabetic label: we have returned to “Tlaxcallan.” Remember that the scene at the top of the Lienzo presents a schematic map of Tlaxcala (Figure 13), and the scene in its very first cell is also labeled as taking place there (Figures 7 and 12). Compositionally, the Lienzo presents Tlaxcala as the starting-points of its narrative as well as the central pivot around which all other events radiate.

Cell 29 does not simply place Tlaxcala at the physical center of the Lienzo’s story. It also signals a turning-point in the narrative. It contains a deceptively simple scene (Figure 27). In the center, Cortés speaks with one of the four rulers of Tlaxcala, perhaps Xicontecatl. Malinche stands below. Floating above all three, oddly, is a battle standard. A radiating circle of green quetzal feathers bursts from a golden center. This circle stands out visually from a distance, easy to spot. But why is a feathered battle standard hanging in the air between Cortés and Xicontecatl? Its details are very interesting. Bursting out from its golden circular center are four V-shaped rays. These are sunbeams. This battle standard takes the form of a gilded, feathered sun. Cell 29 shows a golden sun rising into the sky above Cortes and Xicontecatl (and Malinche, down below). The depiction of a sun rising in Tlaxcala, at the exact center of the Lienzo, is no trivial detail. In origin stories told throughout Mesoamerica, sunrises symbolically separated a past age of barbarity from the civilized age of the narrator’s present.27 Ages of creation—and human-like beings—had existed before the present. But these prior ages were all flawed, incomplete. Their inhabitants did not practice agriculture, for example, or did not know how to properly honor the gods. These prior creations were, therefore, destroyed to make way for the properly-ordered present. Typically, strange suns burned in the sky of these previous creations. These vanished suns, plus the Four Motion sun of the present, are often depicted on Central Mexican Calendar Stones (Figure 28).

A new political order was often said to begin with the dawn of a First Sunrise. After the first attempt to conquer Tenochtitlan failed, Cortés and his joint European-indigenous army retreated to safety in Tlaxcala. According to an account written in Tlaxcala in 1562, Cortés then promised his loyal allies that Tlaxcala would have an elevated status in the new colonial order.28 What cell 29 probably shows, then, is the conversation in which Cortés offered special privileges to the Tlaxcalans. A New Sun, therefore, dawns above an image of the covenant between Tlaxcalans and Europeans, setting the foundation for Tlaxcala’s privileged position in the colonial New Spain.

In addition to marking the exact center of the cloth, cell 29 also divides the Lienzo into two halves. This spatial division has important consequences for our understanding of the document as a whole. Cell 29 marks the beginning of Malinche’s virtual disappearance from the Lienzo. Up until this point, Malinche has appeared in 19 of the 28 scenes. In contrast, she appears in only 2 of the 58 scenes which follow (Figure 29, first image on the left: shading indicates cells where Malinche appears). Her virtual disappearance cannot be explained because the scenes after cell 29 focus on battles. Up until this central point, Malinche has appeared in battle scenes again and again (Figure 2). Nor can her disappearance be attributed to “actual historical events.” We know from alphabetic accounts that Malinche was present at many of the events which are shown after cell 29 (such as accompanying Cortés on the second, successful assault on Tenochtitlan). The authors of the Lienzo, then, intentionally write Malinche out of Tlaxcala’s history after the First Sunrise in the document’s central image.

There are several ways to understand her disappearance. A number of prehispanic narratives from Mesoamerica—and from the Americas generally—involve primordial accounts of a female-dominated age replaced by a male-dominated age, or tell how a male hero defeats a powerful female predecessor.29 The Lienzo’s gendered transition may draw on prehispanic narrative roots.

This change also relates in complex and contradictory ways to the colonial order. One of the hallmarks of the Spanish regime was the predominance of men in official positions of political power—a masculine bias which had not been so extreme in prehispanic times.30 Malinche’s disappearance after this scene may reflect this new reality. Yet at the same time the Spanish legal regime seems to have initially empowered women in its courtrooms.31 The new power of women under Spanish rule seems to have caused some anxiety in Tlaxcala. Tlaxcala’s city council minutes from 29 April 1555—the same minutes which may record the commissioning of the Lienzo in 1552—describe plans to send a commission to Mexico City to greet the Viceroy and to complain that lordly teccalli in Tlaxcala “are coming to ruin because of new prerogatives assumed by women.” A year later, the same minutes record a request for an inquiry as to whether a woman had ever been a ruler in Tlaxcala, or ever headed a lordly teccalli in the past (These complaints, of course, were voiced by an all-male institution modeled on Spanish political forms). Twenty years later, Tlaxcalan historian Diego Muñoz Camargo suggests that female property ownership and control of teccalli was a new, colonial phenomenon.32 The erasure of Malinche, then, may be an anxious attempt to assert the fundamental androcentrism of the new colonial regime.

The gendering of the Lienzo into a first half and a second half relates in complex ways to what Federico Navarrete has observed about the role of Christian supernaturals in its imagery.33 Navarrete argued that the Lienzo incorporates into its history the actions of two Christian supernaturals. One was female: the Virgin Mary, manifested in Malinche (a Nahuatl transformation of the name María), both as interpreter and as the mountain of La Malinche shown at the center of the main scene (a mountain decorated, you will remember, with an image of the Virgin Mary). The second supernatural was male: Santiago Matamoros (Moor-Slayer) transformed in the New World as Santiago Mataindios (Indian- Slayer). He is manifested, Navarrete argues, in the figure of a charging spear-wielding Spanish knight, trampling severed body parts underfoot (Figures 2, 22, and 24).

By joining the pieces of the Lienzo together again, we can see the profoundly spatial nature of Navarrete’s observations (Figure 29, left pair, left side). The first half of the Lienzo is dominated by scenes involving Malinche / María / Mountain, scenes that focus on dialogue and intercession—Malinche was a translator; the Virgin was and is an abogada, a lawyer who pleads with God on behalf of her human worshippers. And as we saw, indigenous women had power in colonial courtrooms that they did not have in colonial political institutions.34 In contrast, the second half of the Lienzo is dominated by scenes involving the charging Spaniard as Santiago, scenes that focus above all on warfare. Indeed, the basic template of the “Santiago” scene is repeated 49 times in the second half of the Lienzo: a charging Spaniard on the left, a mountainous place sign on the right (Figure 29, left pair, right side). Careful eyes can detect this visual rhythm when looking at the Lienzo from a distance. The differing appearances of Malinche and Santiago, then, further underscore the way cell 29 divides the Lienzo in two.

The fact that the Lienzo has two centers has even more implications. Both centers divide the Lienzo into two different halves. As we have just seen, cell 29 divides the Lienzo into cells dominated by Malinche and cells dominated by Santiago. In contrast, cell 42 divides the Lienzo into differently-colored halves; the cells that follow cell 42 use large amounts of yellow, green, and beige pigments, which contrast with the far more subtle coloration of cells 1 to 42. Focal point, upper half, lower half: this, multiplied by two, is the basic spatial layout of the Lienzo (Figure 29, right pair). This is also the basic spatial layout of Mesoamerican representations of eyes and mirrors, which are depicted as circles with an upper half, a lower half, and a central focal point. Figure 30 shows a page from the prehispanic Codex Laud, a Central Mexican divinatory almanac. In the center, the skeleton-monkey being wears a red and white mirror around its neck. Directly below, in the lower margin of the page, is painted the head of the personified Rain. His red and white round eye stares out from within a round blue “goggle.”

Significantly, disembodied eyeballs were also used in prehispanic and colonial art to mark the surfaces of reflective things. This probably relates to a linguistic pun in Nahuatl; the same word, ixtli, was used for both eye and surface. A shining surface (ixtli) is therefore marked by an eye (ixtli).35 Dana Leibsohn has argued that eye-marked surfaces attached human eyes to them through a kind of visual homology.36 Shining surfaces were “eye-catching” or “eye-popping” things. They drew humans and nonhumans together in a kind of sympathetic resonance: shining eyes attracted shining eyes.

What all this suggests is that the Lienzo, at its deepest structural levels, was conceived as a giant mirror, a giant staring eye. From a Mesoamerican perspective, the eye-like structure of the Lienzo’s imagery would have had the power to draw human eyes to it, ixtli to ixtli, in sympathetic resonance. The Lienzo’s imagery was thus made irresistibly attractive. The macro-visual image of the Lienzo as a giant mirror, a giant staring eye, may seem absurd. But from a Mesoamerican perspective this would have made perfect sense. One type of mirror common in prehispanic Mesoamerica was made out of mosaic (often turquoise or pyrite).37 The tessellated surfaces of these mirrors, made up of dozens of stone tiles, looked a great deal like the tessellated appearance of the Lienzo, made up of dozens of painted cells (Figure 31). Furthermore, it is well documented that Mesoamericans linked written surfaces to mirrors, and thought about reading as a kind of seeing. Written documents, like the mirrors used in divination, allowed one to see into the past and future, to see things distant in time and space.38 Finally, the Lienzo has a mirrored relationship to one of its probable sources, the Texas Fragment. You will remember that the four scenes of the Texas fragment seem to have inspired the last four scenes in the first row of the Lienzo (cells 4-7). But when the artists of the Lienzo copied the Texas Fragment, they made one major change: they reversed the order of all of the figures in the scenes (Figures 8 and 9). The Lienzo’s relation to the Texas Fragment scenes is like that of a mirror, reflecting all of those images backwards.

And all this does not exhaust the cleverly designed structure of the Lienzo. If, on one level, it was conceived as a giant mirror, it was also conceived as a giant shield. Representations of shields are something of an obsession in the Lienzo. They are constantly depicted—only 8 of the Lienzo’s 87 small cells do not contain representations of shields. The Lienzo’s artists carefully distinguish the forms of European versus Mesoamerican shields. This is well-illustrated in cell 27, where round Central Mexican chimaltin, lobed European adargas, and oval European escudos alternate in the ranks of the massed soldiers on the left (Figure 32). Indeed, the obsession with representations of shields within the Lienzo’s grid is underscored by the massive shield that dominates the whole composition: the coat of arms of Emperor Charles V. Like the whole Lienzo, the coat of arms of Charles V is divided into dozens of cells by vertical and horizontal lines. Each of the cells in the coat of arms bears a distinct image, and most of these images have an explicit geographic symbolism that refers to the kingdoms that made up the Holy Roman Empire (Figure 33). This presentation of cellular geography finds echoes in the Lienzo, most of whose cells are labeled with place names and contain prehispanic-style place glyphs. As mentioned above, Charles V granted the Tlaxcalans their own coat of arms in 1535. But here, in the Lienzo, Tlaxcalan artists created a new historical heraldry on a massive scale.

It may seem strange to create a shield out of cotton cloth, but this would have been an obvious protective material in the minds of both Mesoamericans and Europeans. Prehispanic Central Mexicans had developed a style of quilted cotton armor extremely effective in repelling arrows. This quilted armor appears again and again in the scenes of the Lienzo (the quilted material indicated by a grid of lines; Figure 34). It was even adopted by European conquistadors for their own protection, being lighter and cooler than armor made of metal. Cotton cloth made for an effective shield on the battlefield. And in the royal court as well. If the Lienzo de Tlaxcala had indeed been commissioned on 17 June 1552, it was an object intended to help Tlaxcalan emissaries assert and defend Tlaxcalan rights before the Emperor Charles V. Given this context for which it was most likley created, the Lienzo’s dual nature as mirror and shield make perfect sense. As a mirror, it sought to fascinate the Emperor, to draw his eyes to its complex, interconnected surface and thus seduce him into honoring Tlaxcalan demands. But as a shield, it sought to defend the rights of the Tlaxcalans in the Imperial Court. The Lienzo, then, is a perfect apotropaic device. It draws and entraps the eye, stunning the onlooker and rendering him fascinated, defenseless, malleable.39

Text by Byron Hamann
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24 Brotherston and Gallegos 1990, 122.

25 The arguments in this section are based on a longer discussion in Hamann 2009.

26 Magaloni (2003, 28-29), following Brotherston (1992, 92-93) points out that this scene is laid out like a quincunx-cosmogram of the universe, and presents the conquest of Tenochtitlan as a cosmic apocalypse out of which a new, Christian era of creation was born (see also Navarrete 2008, 67). Both authors deal with fragmented images, so the do not realized the physical centrality of this scene in the Lienzo as whole (which further supports their arguments). As we will see shortly, the Lienzo contains a second image of cosmic apocalypse and renewal, centered on Tlaxcala itself.

27 Hamann 2002; Hamann 2008a, 122-138; Hamann 2008c, 803-808, 813.

28 Gibson 1952, 158-162.

29 See Bamberger 1974; Carrasco 1987, 132-136; Pohl 1999,183-184, Hamann 2004, 101-107.

30 McCafferty and McCafferty 1988.

31 Kellogg 1995, 104-5

32 Cosentino 2002, 238-241.

33 Navarrete 2007; Navarrete 2008, 62-64.

34 On Mary and the saints as Christian abogados and abogadas, see Christian 1981, 55. These terms are still commonly used today in both Latin America and Spain.

35 Peterson 1988, 287-288.

36 Leibsohn 2007.

37 Saville 1922; Taube 1992; Taube 2000.

38 García-Zambrano 1994, 221; Monaghan and Hamann 1998; Hamann 2008b, 58-66.

39 Of course, these same qualities would have made it an effective object in New Spain as well, whether before Europeans or Native Americans.