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Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History Essays

Arts of the Mission Schools in Mexico

Franciscan missionaries landed in Mexico with Cortés in 1519 and were active from the start in evangelizing the native people of the former Aztec empire. After the Spanish Conquest, they set up schools to instruct the children of the native elites as well as workshops to turn indigenous artistic efforts away from idolatry and toward the celebration of Christian rites. One of the native arts that most impressed the newcomers was “feather mosaic” (arte plumario in Spanish, amantecayotl in Nahuatl), practiced by specially trained and gifted Aztec nobles. Hummingbird feathers from the Yucatan had long been a component of tribute payments to the Aztec rulers, and the Spanish appear to have enjoyed the continuation of this custom.

The images created by laying down these infinitesimally small feathers utilized their iridescent qualities to produce a spectacular effect. Only a very few examples of the earliest Christian feather mosaics survive, as the medium is so inherently fragile; only a fraction retain a semblance of their original radiant colors.

The Franciscans also taught an art practiced in Flemish convents, the almost microscopic carving of scenes of Christ’s Passion, often for rosary beads. In Mexico, these carvings, set in gold and enamel mounts in the Spanish or Flemish mode, were sometimes laid down against a background of iridescent feathers.