PCSNY October Lecture–Barbara Mundy

Barbara E. Mundy
Department of Art History, Fordham University

The Fate of the Sacred Book of the Ancient Americas

Unknown artist, The Destruction of Idols (detail), ca. 1575-1582, from Diego Muñoz Camargo, Descripción de la ciudad y provincia de Tlaxcala, Ms Hunter 242, fol. 242r. Glasgow University Library, Scotland.

After the conquest of Mexico of 1519-21, evangelizing Catholic priests targeted native books for destruction, setting their crosshairs on the ritual calendar-books that indigenous priests used for divination. Since the Judeo-Christian tradition held that the Word of God was to be found in a sacred book, native books were considered idolatrous. The evangelizers were largely successful in exterminating the pre-Columbian book, and today, of the thousands extant before the Conquest, only 13 pre-Columbian books survive. Today, Catholic enmity to the native book is often rued, but rarely scrutinized. At the same time, native communities refused to let go of their books, and sacred books were clandestinely created through the 19th century.

Just what was it that made native books so dangerous, so appealing? Today, we can find in the iconography of the native book narratives of creation and pantheons of deities that offer a radically different understanding of the sacred world than one offered by orthodox Christianity. But this is not only what the sixteenth-century destroyers of these books saw.  Rather, embedded in both the format (a screenfold) and in the materials (native amate, or fig-bark paper) were ways of understanding the surrounding world that offered another set of counter-narratives to Christian orthodoxy. This talk aims to expose these additional meanings of the native book, those embedded in format and material, that made indigenous books both so necessary for Catholics to destroy and native peoples to preserve.

Thursday, October 13, 2016
6 PM in the Lecture Hall
The Institute of Fine Arts
1 East 78th Street

Seating is on a first-come, first-served basis.

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