FIGURE 22. News of the Europeans arrives in Tlaxcala: Cell 1 of the Lienzo de Tlaxcala.
FIGURE 23. Downcast eyes in the first row of the Lienzo de Tlaxcala. From top to bottom, these details are from Cell 1, 2, 3, 4, and 5.
A final and quite subtle iconographic convention plays an important role in the very first row of the Lienzo. One of the cells in this first row, you will remember—Cell 5—depicts Cortés grabbing the forearm of a Tlaxcalan noble, asserting dominance over him. But other scenes in this row depict Cortés in a far more respectful and circumspect light.
To understand this, consider the very first cell in the Lienzo’s grid. Labeled Tlaxcallá, it depicts four Tlaxcalan nobles receiving news of the arrival of Europeans on the mainland of Mesoamerica (Figure 22). The message is brought to them by an exotic stranger: indigenous, but almost savage, dressed in nothing but a loincloth and sandals, his cheek scarified, his ears unpierced, his long hair unbound. These are all the marks of social inferiors in Mesoamerican iconography: of slaves, or of war captives stripped of their finery.17
Given the clearly costumed hierarchy of the scene, it is suggestive to consider the play of represented gazes. Unlike the four nobles, who look directly at the messenger, the messenger’s heavy-lidded eye looks down at the ground (Figure 23, top). This is not a trivial visual detail. Early colonial accounts from throughout Mesoamerica (from Central Mexico, the Mixteca, and the Yucatan) reveal the importance of visual taboos in Native American societies. Subordinates were forbidden to gaze directly on their rulers. In the royal presence, subjects were to look at the ground.18 The Franciscan friar MotoliníÂa (writing in Central Mexico in 1538-1541) described how those who had audience with the Aztec ruler Moctezuma spoke to him “with great humility and without raising their eyes.” When Moctezuma left his palace, the people in the streets of Tenochtitlan “showed him great reverence and deference, without raising their eyes to look at him.”
The emphasis on the rituals of visual hierarchy in the first small scene in the Lienzo is suggestive. The vignette is perhaps the simplest in the Lienzo: it shows no place signs, only thrones, a letter on a stick, and five people. This simplicity makes the network of gazes all the more striking. Even more surprising is how this scene introduces a theme of visual hierarchies that is explored in the scenes that immediately follow.
The very next scene shows the first meeting of Cortés with indigenous people in the kingdom of Tlaxcala. Once again, the play of gazes is significant. Tlaxcala was a multi-ethnic kingdom, and in this scene Cortés is shown meeting with Otomi nobles (indicated by their feather headbands). But the conquistador does not look at these men. He humbly casts his eyes to the ground (Figure 23, second from top). As the Lienzo tells it, when Cortés first met the people of Tlaxcala, he showed great humility, and presented himself as a social inferior. In the following scenes, Cortés is shown testing out the boundaries of visual propriety, trying to find his place in the hierarchy of Tlaxcalan society. In Cell 3, Cortés looks directly at the Otomi lords presenting him with a bracelet (Figure 23, third from top). In Cell 4, Cortés meets a noble from Tlaxcala’s Nahua ethnic group for the first time—the man’s Nahua identity indicated by the red headband and bouquet of flowers. Once again, Cortés looks humbly at the ground (Figure 23, fourth form top). When the conquistador finally meets the four Nahua rulers of Tlaxcala in Cell 5, he has decided that he can regard himself as the social equal of the Tlaxcalans: he looks directly at the four rulers—even grabbing one by the wrist. Cortés will continue to look directly at his Tlaxcalan interlocutors in the scenes which follow. The interplay of visuality and ethnicity in these four scenes is complex. On first meeting the representatives of Tlaxcala’s different ethnic groups (Otomis, Nahuas), Cortés looks humbly at the ground. In subsequent meetings with members of that ethnic group, however, he regards them, visually, as equals.
But Malinche never casts her eyes to the ground in any of these meetings. She always looks her interlocutors directly in the face, as an equal.
Text by Byron Hamann
17 Houston, Stuart, and Taube 2006, 202-207; cf. Asselbergs 2008, 73.
18 Hamann 2002, 93-94.