Our Lady of the Assumption, (Asunción de Nuestra Señora), Tecamachalco, Puebla, 16th Century
The Franciscans arrived in Tecamachalco in 1541. The church was dedicated in 1551 and completed by 1557. During this time Andrés de Olmos, Francisco de las Navas, and Toribios de Benavente (Motolinía) resided in this dusty outpost and taught the local indigenous peoples not only the rudiments of Christianity, but also the tenets of European art. At the same time, the diseases brought by the Spanish resulted in unremitting loss of life for the indigenous population. The 16th century saw three major epidemics in Tecamachalco (1520, 1542, and 1577). The authorities estimated that 90 percent of the native population in the area had disappeared by 1580.
For their part, the Franciscans fervently believed that the evangelization of the indigenous population of the New World was essential to precipitate the second coming of Christ. Not surprisingly, Motolonía drew parallels between the epidemics and famine that were decimating the native peoples and the disastrous events described in Revelation announcing the imminent return of Christ. The Apocalypse gave meaning to this tragedy of human suffering.
In 1562, Juan Gerson, a local indigenous artist, created a remarkable series of images depicting the Apocalypse of John. He painted on amate paper, the same paper used by indigenous peoples in their pre-conquest books. He employed brilliant images using a palette typical of pre-Colombian murals: turquoise, white, black and ochre. The finished paintings were affixed to the soffit of the choir loft in the church between the ribs of the vault.
The friars undoubtedly exposed Gerson to illustrated Bibles and prints by Albrecht Dürer, Hans Holbein, and other European artists. While Gerson utilized the works of these European masters to organize the formal layout of many scenes, he did not copy the small, black-and-white, poorly reproduced prints. Instead, he created large paintings imbued with rich, vibrant colors. Gerson simplified forms and interpreted images, making them more accessible to his indigenous brothers. The representation of death, disaster and destruction surely resonated with the local population.