A Bit of History
It is the 16th century, and the Spanish just arrived into the newfound territory. As the months go by and they get to know the natives and their traditions, they realize that among the gods that they venerate is a goddess called Tonantzin. They recognized her as one of the most loved deities among the Aztecs because they thought of her as a compassionate mother. Having found this valuable information, the Franciscans thought that perhaps they could convert the natives easily to Catholicism if they associated the image of Tonantzin with that of the Virgin Mary. According to historian Juan de Torquemeda, this comparison was the key to converting the natives into Catholics.
The Goddess Tonantzin and the Virgin of Guadalupe
Tonantzin is a Nahuatl word that translates to “Our Lady” or “Our Mother”. She was the goddess of fertility and earth and often associated with corn production, an essential ingredient in many native dishes. In traditional imagery, she is depicted wearing traditional white clothing known as Huipil. The legend goes that the goddess Tonantzin made appearances at times at the Tepeyac hill, where the natives built a temple to honor her. There they would offer sacrifices and make parties in her name to keep the lady satisfied. She appeared only to one person at a time and shared secrets about life with them.
The key to replacing the image of Tonantzin with that of the Virgin was that the natives regarded Tonantzin as a loving mother. In fact, they changed the fertility Goddess for the Mexican Virgin of Guadalupe. The temple dedicated to Tonantzin was destroyed and replaced by a small chapel dedicated to the Virgin of Guadalupe.
Iglesia de Santa Maria Tonantzintla
The Franciscans built many churches around the territory during the following century. Among these is the Iglesia de Santa Maria Tonantzintla (Church of Saint Mary Tonantzintla) in Puebla, Mexico. This church is the only one where the Franciscans included the natives by acknowledging their traditions, inviting some of the artisans to take part in the decoration. The result is a church that shows the consolidation of two cultures. The construction began in the early 17th century. However, due to problems between the State and the Franciscans, the construction had to be paused for years until the late 18th century. The church that stands today had its final touches during the 20th century. Throughout the years, conservators have been working hard to maintain the church and its art in the same condition.
The exterior wall colors are mustard yellow and earthy red. The church’s portal and bell tower have a geometrical pattern of blue and white flowers representing native flora. Three colorful figures stand on niches on the portal to welcome the curious and the devoted; these are the Virgin Mary, Saint Peter, and Saint Paul.
The interior’s lavish decoration makes this church one of the tourists’ favorite buildings. Shiny figures of indigenous angels, flowery designs, and other religious figures cover the church from top to bottom.
The nave’s ceiling has designs of flowers, fruits, and vegetables native to that region. Looking at the altar’s dome, one can find many faces looking down on us. The face belonging to the central figure is that of the God of the rain, Tlaloc. The many faces that surround Tlaloc represent people who drowned.
The figures and decorations all have a familiar set of colors, which are characteristic of the Mexican culture. The plaster sculptures and the colorful vibe result in a traditional indigenous art style. Although not as refined as those in other Catholic churches from the same period, the Iglesia of Santa Maria Tonantzitla stands out for its unique indigenous design. There is no wall on the inside without any sculpture or painting on it. In the art world, this is known as horror vacui, which translates to fear of empty spaces. One can get lost looking at the many details that this church offers.
For these many reasons, the Iglesia of Santa Maria Tonantzitla became a symbol of nationalism, cultural diversity, and Mexican baroque. It is a monument that represents the fusion of two cultures.