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Missions of New Spain in the 16th

  • James E. Ivey

In 16th-century New Spain (Mexico), missions were the principal part of the Spanish crown’s program to convert Native Americans to Catholicism and transform them into loyal subjects in “New World” Spanish society.

1. Establishment of the missions.

With the Pope’s support, the Spanish Crown viewed conversion of the Native Americans as sufficient reason for their conquest and subjugation, financed and directed by the King. The Spanish explorer/conquistador Hernán Cortés (1485–1547) and a small group of armed men landed on the Gulf Coast of Mexico in 1519 to investigate stories they had heard about large cities on the mainland. After two years of fighting the Mexica, more widely known as Aztecs, and making alliances with other native city-states opposed to them, Cortés succeeded in conquering the Aztecs in Tenochtitlán (now Mexico City) in 1521. This led to an unprecedented missionizing effort to convert the native population of what is today central Mexico to Catholicism.

The Crown selected three mendicant orders, the Franciscans, Dominicans, and Augustinians, to carry out the duties of the Church in the new territory. These orders were called “mendicants” because they had lived by the charity of the people to whom they preached in Europe. In 1524 the first contingent of twelve Franciscans arrived to begin converting the Indians. The first twelve Dominicans came in 1526, and seven Augustinians began work in 1533. By 1559 there were approximately 160 religious houses and nearly 800 missionaries in New Spain. Franciscans missionized central Mexico, and eventually spread throughout most of New Spain. Dominicans evangelized southern Mexico, while Augustinians concentrated on central Mexico in the general area of Mexico City itself. The Jesuits, who were not a mendicant order, arrived later, in 1572, and focused their attention on the northwestern areas of Mexico and in the major cities.

Missions were not intended as houses of contemplation or withdrawal from the world. They were instead the headquarters for a local evangelical effort to convert indigenous peoples to Catholicism. The Spaniards replaced the temple pyramids they demolished with the mission and its church. Their approach to missionization depended on the political and social structure of native groups in each area. In areas populated by sedentary indigenous peoples, Spanish authorities placed missions in or near a population center and persuaded outlying groups of Indians to relocate near the mission. As Spaniards expanded the territory of New Spain northward from Mexico City, they encountered nomadic native groups who moved seasonally from one hunting and gathering area to the next. Missionaries adapted the methods that had worked well in the more sedentary parts of Mexico, attempting to concentrate scattered or seasonal settlements into single towns, or into residential quarters around a mission. The Spanish believed that living in towns was a necessary part of becoming civilized, but a negative aspect of this concentration was that it made native populations more susceptible to disease.

2. Architecture.

Missions were usually first housed in temporary built structures. Depending on the region, initial structures were built of either vertical-log walls (palisado) with thatched roofs, or of adobe bricks with beam-supported flat roofs. As a mission developed, the primary buildings were rebuilt using permanent materials, with stone walls, arched doorways, and vaulted roofs. By the 1540s a standard plan had evolved for missions. It consisted of a church, usually oriented east–west; a residential building (the convento or casa), normally against the south side of the church; and a large enclosed courtyard at the front of the church, called the patio or atrio. Atrios were intentionally similar to the enclosed precincts of Mexica temples, and, like those precincts, were intended for outdoor ceremonies.

George Kubler has suggested that the atrio was derived from the mosque courtyard so common in Spain before the Reconquest. Jaime Lara has proposed that the atrio was taken from biblical descriptions of the temples of Solomon and Herod in Jerusalem, combined with a mistaken belief that some of the ruined and rebuilt structures on the Temple Mount were surviving remains of those buildings rather than more recent Muslim construction.

Adjacent to the convento was the more secular part of the mission, with workshops, barns, and a granary. If Native Americans were being moved to the site, houses were built for them along streets laid out around the mission. The essential elements of these early churches, and the somewhat different architectural approaches used by each of the mendicant orders, may be seen in the Franciscan monastery of S. Miguel at Huejotzingo, begun about 1550; the Augustinian monastery of S. Agustín at Acolman, built about the same time or slightly later; and the Dominican monastery at Santo Domingo Yanhuitlán from the same period.

The convento usually had two stories, with residential cells on the second floor and offices and storerooms on the ground floor. It was commonly a four-sided structure arranged around a central patio, with an enclosed walkway, or cloister, around the sides of the patio. The church was usually built with a single nave and a vaulted ceiling, although variations on this basic plan later became common. A typical church had the main altar located along the apse wall, opposite the main entrance or main portal. A choir loft was usually built above the entrance doorway. A baptismal font was usually placed near the entrance under the choir loft, while a sacristy for the storage of vestments and the paraphernalia for the altar was in a room adjacent to the altar sanctuary. Facades varied in decoration, largely according to the tastes of the builders. Most construction was carried out by native masons and building crews under the supervision of Spanish artisans and the missionaries.

3. Role in the community.

As their program progressed, the Crown granted individual missions agricultural and ranch lands, as well as irrigation rights. As their communities grew, missionaries established small chapels in nearby population centers, visiting them to carry out the necessary operations of the church, for example, saying Mass, conducting weddings and funerals, and registering births. The Crown provided each missionary with a stipend to purchase essential supplies, tools, and manufactured goods. The financial and administrative dependence of the mission system made it a branch of the colonial state. It was an instrument of the extended conquest, critical for subjugation of conquered or allied natives. At the same time, the Church acted as defender of indigenous peoples, carrying out legal actions to protect native lands, cattle, and personal and collective rights under the provisions made by the Crown.

In 1583 the Bishop of Guadalajara proposed a formalized version of the method of subjugating the less settled areas that would consolidate former practices and transfer friars from the central areas of Mexico to the new frontiers. The necessities of missionary life had forced a gradual adaptation of the original ideals of the order to the economic realities of the frontier. The Bishop proposed that the missions be established along with military forts and civilian settlements, as part of the Crown-funded pacification method. This became the standard procedure for most missionary work after the 1580s.


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