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“If colonial America was the melting pot of modernity, it was because it was also a fabulous laboratory of images. . . . Just as much as speech and writing, the image can be a vehicle for all sorts of power and resistance.” So writes Serge Gruzinski in the introduction to Images at War, his striking reinterpretation of the Spanish colonization of Mexico. Concentrating on the political meaning of the baroque image and its function within a multicultural society, Gruzinski compares its ubiquity in Mexico to our modern fascination with images and their meaning.
Although the baroque image played a decisive role in many arenas, especially that of conquest and New World colonization, its powerful resonance in the sphere of religion is a focal point of Gruzinski’s study. In his analysis of how images conveyed meaning across linguistic barriers, he uncovers recurring themes of false images, less-than-perfect replicas, the uprooting of peoples and cultural memories, and the violence of iconoclastic destruction. He shows how various ethnic groups—Indians, blacks, Europeans—left their distinct marks on images of colonialism and religion, coopting them into expressions of identity or instruments of rebellion. As Gruzinski’s story unfolds, he tells of Aztec idols, the cult of the Virgin of Guadalupe, conquistadors, Franciscans, and neoclassical attempts to repress the baroque. In the final chapter he discusses the political and religious implications of contemporary imagery—such as that in Mexican soap operas—and speculates about the future of images in Latin America.
Originally written in French, this work makes available to an English audience a seminal study of Mexico and the role of the image in the New World.
Placed from the outset in the realm of the gaze and the visual, the peaceable prologue to this war of images is as unexpected as it is disconcerting. It seems to have followed a different scenario, one that might not inevitably have led to the Islands and continental tragedy, to the massacres, the deportation of indigenous populations, or the destruction of idols. Ethnography, centuries later, would reexamine these emerging intuitions, these nascent trails, these prospects that could be guessed at between the lines. The prologue was a brief respite before a more respectable process of referencing, with its ballast of categories and stereotypes about classical idolatry, could reclaim its rights and swoop down on America's novelties. But at that time, observation and questioning were the order of the day.
The Admiral's Gaze
Monday 29 October 1492. Christopher Columbus had landed two weeks earlier. The Admiral of the Ocean Sea was exploring the Greater Antilles. He marveled at the beauty of the island of Cuba. His gaze lingered on its coasts, its rivers, its houses, its fields of pearls. The Admiral, fulfilled, believed the Continent-of Asia-to beclose-by. "Beauty" (hermosura): the word crops up over and over, becoming the leitmotif of the Discovery. The Admiral's gaze stopped on Cuba long enough for this thought: "They found many statues of female figures and many head-shaped masks, very well-carved. I do not know if they keep these for their beauty, or if they worship them."
First contact with the island peoples had put the explorers in the presence of beings and things they knew nothing about and which surprised them. Columbus had been searching for a path toward the Indies and their gold. He was readying to land in Cipango (Japan) or China, land of the great khan, and had planned on converting people known to be civilized. But none of that happened. Instead of "urbane and worldly peoples," instead of the "great vessels and merchants" he had hoped to meet at any moment, the Admiral discovered men with painted naked bodies who believed the Spaniards to be creatures descended from the skies. Having left behind the dreams and legends haunting their imagination, Columbus and his companions found themselves confronted by "destitute people." These people did, however, own a few objects that attracted the Admiral's gaze. This was enough to initiate yet another discovery marked by a fifteenth-century Genoese sensitivity, as if the Italian eye of the quattrocento were the first to settle upon the Americas.
Among the objects held by the natives-spears, balls of spun cotton, canoes, gold jewelry, hammocks-Columbus spotted what we would call today "representational objects." His curiosity was not aroused by the body stamps-even if they were pointed out and described as early as 12 October 1492-nor by the baskets hanging from the beams of the huts containing, according to him, the ancestral skulls of the family lines. But of other objects, the same question was asked during at least two years: were the statues of women and "the skillfully worked heads in the shape of masks [caratona]" objects of worship, or decorative pieces? "I do not know if they keep these for their beauty, or if they worship them." What are they used for? he asked, and not, What do they represent? As if it were more urgent to identify the function rather than the nature of the representation. Similarly, a year later in the Lesser Antilles, he fretted: "After having seen two crude wooden statues each topped by a coiled serpent, [the Spanish] thought they were images worshipped by the natives; but afterwards they knew they were placed there as ornaments, since, as we indicated earlier, our men believe that they only worship the celestial numen." The description is brief: it notes the composition of the statues, the crudeness of the shapes, no more. Puzzled observers, at first inclined to perceive objects of worship, the explorers were forced to accept the evidence of their own beliefs ("creen los nuestros") or what they believed they understood from the natives' own explanations. The approach was the same as in December 1492 in Cuba, when Columbus inquired about what he thought might be an indigenous temple: "I thought that it was a temple and I called [the natives] and asked by signs if they said prayers in it. They said no." He once again abandoned an initially religious interpretation in favor of what the natives said, without worrying in the least about the uncertainties of verbal and gestural communication, as if these natives navigated as easily as Columbus the registers of religion, the secular, and aesthetics.
Such behavior was, on the other hand, quite natural for a Genoese from Renaissance Italy, where for almost a century artists had multiplied figurative and profane "objects of civilization," all the while producing a considerable array of religious representations. There is nothing surprising in that an Italian from the quattrocento should manipulate iconographic criteria and visual and functional indices that helped him classify such registers and distinguish the profane from the sacred. It was more difficult for him to establish reference points outside of his own cultural background, even if the latter did extend to the Eastern Mediterranean and was enriched by the experience of the Guinea blacks and the Canary Islands natives. Columbus's perplexity and groping explanations can also be explained by the disappointments of the Discovery. Persuaded that he had reached the coast of Asia, convinced that Japan and China and its cities were close, the Genoese had been prepared to meet idolatrous peoples or "sects," that is to say, Muslims and Jews. But reality was completely different. As early as 12 October 1492, he observed that the islanders had no "religion" (secta), and, shortly thereafter, that they were not idolatrous: they possessed no idols. It would subsequently be necessary to reconsider such an assumption.
The Discovery of the "Cemies"
With experience and time, the newcomers finally realized that the natives did indeed revere objects, figurative or not. Around 1496, Columbus and the Catalonian friar Ramon Pane (to whom the Admiral had entrusted an investigation on the Indians' "antiquities") had far more information about the Islands at their disposal. They had reformulated the initial question: instead of trying to establish whether certain figurative items were indeed worshipped, Columbus and Pane turned their examination to the set of objects the Indians revered as a whole.
These things had a generic designation in Taino, the Island language: cemies; when considered individually, they each acquired the name of an ancestor. Endowed with political functions and therapeutic and climatic properties, the cemies also had a gender, spoke, and moved about. Recipients of an undeniable, though uneven, veneration, they were so precious that the natives stole them from one another, and after the Discovery hid them from the Spanish. Each cemi was given a unique origin: "Some contain the bones of their father, and of their mother, and relatives, and ancestors; these are made of stone and wood. And of both types ... there are many which speak, and others that make grow the things which they eat, and others that bring rain, and others that make the winds blow." The cemies of the Islands thus took on an assortment of disparate guises: a receptacle containing the bones of the dead, a piece of wood, a tree trunk, a cemi "with four legs like a dog's," a root "like a radish," "the shape of a thick turnip with their leaves spread out on the ground and long like the caper bush."
These "relief-sculpted stone images," these works (hechuras) of wood represented nothing, or rather, too many things. They were not only masks or statues: that trail of the first few months was erroneous, or more precisely, inaccurate. Everything diverts us, indeed, from the world of anthropomorphic figuration. The only human silhouettes Pane's description evokes are those of the dead, who manifested themselves to the living "in the shape of father, mother, brother and sister, relative or under other forms." Unlike idols representing the devil or false gods, the cemies were essentially things, endowed or not with a life: "dead things shaped of stone or made of wood," "a piece of wood that appeared to be a living thing," objects that recalled memories of the ancestors. They were stones to relieve birthing pains; or whose use brought rain, sun, or the harvests, like those Columbus sent to King Ferdinand of Aragon; or yet similar to those pebbles the islanders kept wrapped up in cotton inside little baskets and that "they feed what they eat." Columbus knew it, and thus took care to avoid the word "idol," denying idolatry to instead denounce the fraud of the caciques handling the cemies. The Catalonian Pane confirmed this: when he wrote of idols, it was clearly a laziness of the pen, or because the term was handy; he then corrected it to "demon"-"to speak more properly"-or to distinguish the cemi from the idol: a cemi that spoke "became" an idol. Pane's text, however, dealt neither with idolatry nor idolaters.
At the same time the Portuguese, at their trading posts in Guinea, were just beginning to explore the notion of the fetish. In many aspects the fetish was equally a god-thing, unique in its origins, shape, gender, and composition. But the Portuguese limited themselves to the usage of a vernacular and medieval term (feitico) applied to practices and beliefs that intrigued them, and, moreover, competed with the word "idolatry." Columbus and Pane dealt with the matter differently, thus earning the right to be called "modern." Instead of following the Portuguese example, or simply tacking the idol category that the classical tradition from the Old Testament to St. Thomas Aquinas offered them onto the unknown, they drew on the autochthonous term cemi originating in the Island culture. It is true that the explorers' linguistic borrowings were numerous (cacique, maize, etc.) and that the Islands spoke "one language" whereas "in Guinea ... there are a thousand kinds of language and one does not understand the other." But the choice of the term cemi indicated more than just linguistic receptivity. It betrayed an ethnographic sensitivity that in fact showed on almost every page the Catalonian monk wrote. By exploring themes as crucial as the body, death, visions, states of possession, and myths of origins, without ever letting his observations warp under the weight of stereotype or prejudice, Ramon Pane was opening the path for a reading of Amerindian cultures that would remain attentive to their specificity.
What should we retain from this reconnoitering phase? That the explorers immediately questioned the images of the Other, their functions and characteristics, and that this question seemed to be drifting toward an original answer. But it was only a digression, quickly cut off. Neither Columbus, nor his companions, nor the powers financing the expedition dreamt of giving themselves up to the delights of ethnography, and the Island paradise rapidly became a hell of brutal exploitation, famine, and microbial shock. No matter what the first observers' curiosity might have been, this was a one-way operation: it was out of the question that the natives practice a "backwards ethnography" and interpret the images of the whites themselves.
But irreparable damage occurred late in 1496. There is no doubt it was the first American conflict in this war of images. A few natives seized the Christian images the Spanish had entrusted to some neophyte guards: "Once they had left the oratory they threw the images to the ground and covered them with dirt and then they urinated on them, saying: 'Now your fruits will be nice and big.' And this, because they buried them in a cultivated field, declaring that the fruit that had been planted there would be good; and all this to revile us. When the young men guarding the oratory saw this, they followed the orders of the catechumens and ran to their elders, who were on their properties, and told them that the people of Guarionex had destroyed and mocked the images."
Columbus's brother punished the sacrilege by burning the culprits alive. The brutality of the Spanish repression-carried out by laymen-expressed the inviolability of a domain that inextricably blended the political and the religious: respect for the white man's images was as intangible as the submission owed to the colonizers. The profanation, however, had been accompanied by a fertility ritual, manifestly assigning an effectiveness to the images similar to that of certain cemies. From this perspective the "sacrilege" betrayed the rapprochement the natives felt between the Christians' images and the local cemies, even up to the benefits they imagined would ensue. It inaugurates the long parade of destructions, appropriations, misappropriations, and misunderstandings weaving through the cultural history of Latin America.
Under these circumstances, what was to become of the cemi? Neither figurative representation nor idol, in fact hesitating between many states (object, thing, image, idol), was it not the remarkable result of an attempted translation, one that turned its back on preconceived models in order to record-without trying to cover up-the unexpected and the disconcerting? A chaos of shapes of laughable worth and grotesque bearing that awakened greed, thing that moved, living object, instrument of domination in the hands of manipulative caciques, but also a constant challenge to reason: the cemi was all of this. Would the brutality of colonization sweep aside this attempt to account for that which had never been seen before? Or were other, further menaces threatening this unique manner of seeing things, so close to how we conceive of the fetish today, this "totalization that absorbs and intensifies entire segments of temporal as well as morphological discontinuities?"
Peter Martyr's Ghosts
A Milanese undertook the unveiling of the mystery surrounding these strange objects: Peter Martyr-who never once set foot on the American continents. Renaissance man, disciple of Pomponius Leto, tirelessly in search of information, journalist before the title was invented (and displaying both the qualities and the faults of present-day journalists), in some cases so hurried as to become superficial, a necessary link between the New World, Spain, and Europe, he is a fascinating character. Born in 1457 on the shores of Lake Maggiore, Pietro Martire d'Anghiera-traditionally known in English as Peter Martyr-entered the service of the Cardinal Ascanio Sforza, went to Rome, then in 1487 to Spain, where he became a follower in the court of the Catholic Kings. He received his priesthood in 1492, the same year Granada fell into the hands of the Christians and the reconquest of Muslim Spain ended. Queen Isabella made him her chaplain. From then on, privy to the discoveries-such as the occupation of the Granada kingdom-he questioned the travelers, met Columbus, Amerigo Vespucci, and Sebastian Cabot, collected their letters, and dissected their accounts. Until his death in Granada in 1526, it was through his letters-the famous Decades-that he broadcast news of the New World to the four corners of Europe, and built up its image. His duties within the Indies Junta (1518), then the Council of the Indies (1524), and his title as "Castilian Chronicler" all gave him access to the best sources. Finally, his ties with the Bolognese, the Venetians, and the Florentines residing in Spain, and his correspondence with the popes of Rome (Leo x, for example), placed him at the heart of an Italian network of lettered people curious about the Indies.
Excerpted from Images at War - CL by Serge Gruzinski Copyright © 2001 by Serge Gruzinski. Excerpted by permission.
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|About the Series|
|List of Illustrations|
|1||Points of Reference||7|
|3||The Walls of Images||161|
|4||The Admirable Effects of the Baroque Image||96|
|Conclusion: From the Enlightenment to Televisa||208|