Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
September 14, 2018
Alessia Frassani Building Yanhuitlan: Art, Politics, and Religion in the Mixteca Alta since 1500 Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 2017. 256 pp.; 46 color ills.; 52 b/w ills. Cloth $45.00 (9780806157566)

In her microhistory of Yanhuitlan, a town in the rugged Mixteca Alta of Oaxaca, Mexico, Alessia Frassani complicates our understanding of the collaborative and enduring interchange of indigenous and European constituencies in New Spanish society. Although historians attempting to reconstruct the dynamics of an ancient, multiethnic community often discover that their evidence is random and scarce, the documentation of Yanhuitlan, in stone, wood, and paper, is fortuitously consistent. Exploiting this ample data, Frassani explores not only the built environment, primarily in Yanhuitlan’s impressive Dominican monastery (convento) and its still splendid interior, but also the relevant archival material, ranging from a pictorial manuscript to legal suits. On this rich foundation the author builds her thesis on the continuity of sociopolitical and religious patterns in Yanhuitlan over a four hundred year period, an approach to which her title metaphorically gestures. It is in this sense that Frassani’s book departs from other studies on New Spanish monastic complexes that are confined primarily to the sixteenth century. Indeed, this book is a biographical trajectory of an adaptive town and its resilient peoples, a study that is stronger in its anthropological observations than its art historical analysis.

The author’s goal is ambitious, “to contribute to a new narrative of colonial history and art, whose starting point is, inevitably, the present condition of indigenous peoples” (xviii). In Yanhuitlan’s case, the local Mixtecs constitute the indigenous populace who are the major players throughout, as patrons and consumers. The book’s organization nonetheless follows a conventional diachronic order. In the first three chapters, covering the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, Frassani sets the stage for the “adaptive strategy” of the Mixtec elite who consistently negotiated economic and social privileges for themselves and the community at large. The author scrutinizes two important documents in chapter 1, the records of Inquisition trials (1544–46) and the Codex Yanhuitlan (ca. 1550), both previously known and transcribed. While the documents betray a Western-style mindset (the legal framework for the Inquisition trials, for example) or exposure to European pictorial styles and iconography in the Codex Yanhuitlan, local Mixtec practices and glyphic notations persist nonetheless.

Both documents also record subtle shifts in the power alliances engineered between the Spanish landowner (encomendero), the Dominican friars, and the Mixtec rulers (yya or caciques). Among the members of the hereditary Mixtec dynasty, Frassani fleshes out two prominent leaders, Don Gabriel de Guzman (r. 1558–91) and his son, Don Francisco de Guzman (r. 1591–1629), whose power stemmed as much from their pre-Hispanic legacy (arable lands and tribute payments) as from their mastery of Christian learning and Spanish customs. The author underscores the successful mediating role of these Mixtec rulers, and in so doing effectively dismantles two long-held assumptions: first, that the rupture of the Conquest irreparably severed indigenous authority, and second, that Spanish-indigenous relations were polarized and consistently antagonistic. In fact, in Yanhuitlan the author records more intra-Mixtec disputes than between the Mixtecs and foreigners or the “outside” world.

A third fallacious assumption, on the isolation of New World monastic establishments, is similarly disabused by Frassani in her description of the Dominican convento in chapters 2 and 3. Yanhuitlan was located within a global network of mercantile and cultural forces that subsidized and inspired many of its architectural features and interior furnishings. Patronage and aesthetic trends not only followed transatlantic channels but also flowed between metropole and province in Mexico, belying as artificial the traditional center-periphery divide. Yanhuitlan benefitted from the talents of a remarkably international team of artists, including the Extremaduran architect Francisco Becerra, Sevillan painter Andrés de Concha, and Flemish artist and sculptor Simón Pereyns; Concha and Pereyns frequently partnered in multifaceted projects across New Spain. Most of the author’s analysis is directed at the towering seventy-foot main retablo in the church’s eastern apse, famed for its beauty and authenticity. The three-tiered gilded retablo contains the sixteen polychrome sculptures of Christian saints by Pereyns and the original thirteen panel paintings on the lives of the Virgin and Jesus by Andrés de Concha (1575–79). The author singles out two compositions by the prolific Concha for a closer reading of their meaning and function: the Descent from the Cross found at the summit of the altarpiece and the unique Virgin of the Rosary, one of the most popular devotions in the Mixteca Alta. Frassani insightfully explores the complementarity of rhetoric (both written and oral), and the use of artworks in all media to help indoctrinate Christian neophytes. Both the Descent and the Virgin of the Rosary fulfill the didactic and interactive role of visual culture in the New World program of evangelization. If the Descent visualized the reenactment of a holy event on a public-civic stage, the Virgin of the Rosary, just as deeply affective, remained a private means to contemplate the mysteries of the faith. Both helped bridge the divide between the realms of human affairs and the divine presence, as Frassani makes clear.   

Similar private and institutional forms of devotion continue to be traced through the eighteenth century in chapter 4, relying on two disparate bodies of data: an inventory of thirty-five testaments and the church’s thirteen side altars. The testator’s lists of images and beneficiaries provide a window onto the personal devotional habits of the Mixtecs. Frassani’s reconstruction of the stunning assemblage of side retablos, grossly looted and abused in the past century, evinces the enduring patronage of local elite to embellish their sanctuary; her analysis is also a lesson in the value of meticulous archival work and attentive looking, resulting in a fresh and vivified historical record.    

The final chapters 5–7 constitute a more cohesive narrative in which Frassani demonstrates that the voices of the indigenous population can be “read” through several channels: the lengthy lawsuit (1718–20) both affirming and contesting the legitimacy of Mixtec rulership; the urban fabric of Yanhuitlan; and the performative use of eighteenth-century processional sculptures to the present day. Yanhuitlan still adheres to a typically colonial grid plan, laid out along the cardinal directions. While Frassani does not explore the precontact significance of this directionality, she does locate the three most important sites of religious and sociopolitical power along its north-south axis: 1) the Mixtec royal palace (aniñe), a large building with multiple patios and remnants of fine ashlar masonry; 2) the Dominican convento and church; and 3) the Chapel of Ayuxi-El Calvario where Yanhuitlan’s patron saint, a crucifix, is housed. This alignment is visually and physically linked and continues to demarcate the hierarchical structure of the community, although the symbolic importance of this spatial layout does not neatly coincide with the complex intertwining of religious and political authority. Mixtecs could control simultaneously the Spanish council (cabildo) as gobernador and the hereditary rulership (as yya), yet over time the legal disputes eroded the legitimacy of the dynastic lineage and its prerogatives in favor of Spanish rule of law.

Frassani’s boldest thesis, the continuity of certain Mixtec patterns of governance and religious celebrations, is most compellingly argued in chapter 7, which is on the ritual function of eighteenth-century wooden processional sculptures. Although originally eight figures of the crucified Christ and an equal number of carved angels were processed together by each of the barrio confraternities, today the polychrome angels perform primarily on Good Friday and during post-Passion festivities. Dressed in appropriate seasonal clothing  and carrying the barrio’s identifying insignia, these angel figures are unique examples of the adaptation and merger of traditional Semana Santa practices with local inventions. In a move that recalls George Kubler’s caveat regarding disjunction, the author recognizes that while forms may remain stable, their contents are “resignified historically, embodying practices into the lived experience” (111). As the processions retrace routes that wind through Yanhuitlan, the significant topoi of Mixtec power are also reinscribed.

Just as this study crosses disciplinary lines, so will it appeal to a diverse readership, including those interested in Latin American history, religious studies, ethnography, and visual culture. The narrative is straightforward, if at times dense in its recitation of the historical data. While the black and white illustrations are adequate, more color images are always appreciated; ideally, the transcriptions of original documents in appendix A might also have been translated into English.          

Over all, Frassani’s microhistory elucidates the interaction between Spanish and indigenous peoples on a macro level. It counters the triumphalist (Ricardian) view of the “spiritual conquest” that posited the eventual eclipse of indigenous peoples and tilts the delicate balance of power between various constituencies in favor of the Mixtecs. The indigenous elites worked within the Spanish system even as they maintained a core of traditional worldviews and values, the symbolic meaning of their town’s layout, and the ritual significance of their Catholicism. Nonetheless, as the author concludes, there developed “a gradual assimilation of the indigenous system into the larger imperial structure” (92). While acknowledging the corrosive impact of modernity on native culture, Frassani forcefully argues that the Mixtecs did not capitulate but persisted in expressing their communal identity, one that is still viable as a living heritage.

Jeanette Favrot Peterson
Research Professor, Department of History of Art and Architecture, University of California, Santa Barbara