With the Spanish invasion of Mesoamerica in the sixteenth century, indigenous societies experienced profound upheavals that permeated all facets of life. Indigenous modes of recording information and recounting the past, including pictorial traditions, oral discourses, and embodied practices were transformed under Spanish rule by the introduction of alphabetic script, giving rise to distinct forms of expression. Sometimes working in conjunction with missionaries, and other times working independently, indigenous artists and scribes drew upon pre-Columbian, colonial, and European traditions— inventing new modes of documentation in which both image and text functioned to reclaim ownership of contested territories, preserve personal lineages and collective histories, and maintain indigenous ways of life. 
Curated by the students of HIAA 1151: Painting Indigenous Histories in Colonial Mexico, a course taught by Mellon Postdoctoral Research Associate (and former JCB fellow) Jessica Stair, the following exhibition centers around six colonial-era indigenous manuscripts from the John Carter Brown Library’s collection, whose dates of creation range from the sixteenth through the eighteenth century. These documents engage four key themes: The Political Force of Images, an analysis of the multifaceted uses of text and images to assert political authority in the Boban Calendar Wheel; Friars Interpret Indigenous Pasts, which considers orality, image, and text in friar Juan de Tovar’s codex; Proselytizing with Image and Text, which features three pictorial catechisms and narrates the use of pictorial and alphabetic writing in Spanish and indigenous Catholicisms; and Preserving Property and Primordial Pasts, which examines the strategic revival of iconographic conventions and materials of the pre-Columbian past in the Codex Coyoacán. Together, these themes illuminate the evolution of indigenous pictorial and scribal traditions in colonial Mexico and provide a glimpse into the complex dynamics of indigenous life under Spanish rule, where pictorial manuscripts functioned as resilient sites of negotiation, contestation, preservation, and innovation.

The Political Force of Images

The Boban Calendar Wheel is an early colonial manuscript that likely played a role in bolstering the political and authoritative claims of an indigenous leader of Texcoco during the first decades of Spanish colonial rule. Historian Patricia Lopes Don has shed light on the historical circumstances under which the manuscript was likely made, suggesting that it was produced between 1545–46 and featured in the legal battle that occurred over the lands of the deceased ruler of Texcoco, don Carlos Ometochtli.1 Texcocan leader don Antonio Pimentel Tlahuitoltzin sought to use the manuscript, among others, to bolster his claim to royal lineage and property.2 The manuscript served both an administrative and cultural purpose, acting as a court document that functioned as a cultural intermediary between the indigenous leaders of Texcoco and the new colonial administrative architecture. The manuscript illustrates a marriage between colonial and indigenous cultural forms, featuring indigenous iconography that centers time, genealogy, and space to serve multiple functions in a culturally ambiguous milieu. By carefully utilizing image and text, the Boban Calendar Wheel tapped into multiple significations for both Spanish and indigenous readers, alike. This multifaceted object, which has received relatively little scholarly attention, presents an early perspective on colonial Mexico that allows contemporary scholars and interested readers to glimpse into the reality of law and life for indigenous colonial subjects. 

Presented by Andres O’Sullivan-Comparan.

Friars Interpret Indigenous Pasts

As part of their larger project of disseminating Catholicism and establishing colonialism in the Americas, friars sought to learn about various aspects of indigenous cultures and often collaborated with native artists to document indigenous histories. Jesuit Juan de Tovar, who was born in Mexico to Spanish parents, composed a manuscript known as the Tovar Codex, which provides a history of the Aztecs; a presentation of religious rites and ceremonies; and an explanation of the Mexican solar calendar in relation to the Christian calendar. The work was written in Spanish and later brought to Spain by Jesuit José de Acosta, with whom Tovar exchanged letters concerning his methods of collecting information about indigenous cultures. The first few pages of the manuscript include their correspondence, which describes how Tovar consulted the elders and lords of Mexico City, Texcoco, and Tula who orally recounted their histories from ancient pictorial manuscripts. 
The Tovar Codex consists of three primary sections. The first, which is written in alphabetic script, relies heavily on the work of Dominican friar Diego de Durán and presents a history of the origins, rites and ceremonies of the Aztecs. The second section is composed of pictures relating to the preceding alphabetic section and also draws upon the work of Durán. The third portion was likely made in collaboration with an indigenous artist and overlays the Christian and Mexican calendars using both text and image. Unlike some of his Spanish contemporaries, Tovar trusted indigenous oral and pictorial modes of recounting the past, which, along with Durán’s textual history, contributed to the composition of his own history.

Presented collectively by members of the class.

Proselytizing With Image and Text

Soon after the Spanish invasion of Mexico in the sixteenth century, missionaries attempted to convert and indoctrinate indigenous peoples in the Catholic faith. Their methods relied on adapting indigenous traditions of picture writing while also introducing new tools, such as the alphabet and oral sermons in Nahuatl for further propagating Catholicism. The forced conversion of indigenous populations was one aspect of Spain’s colonizing project in the New World, and the embrace of Catholic dogma reflects that unequal power structure. However, Nahuas were still able to maintain the use of pictured text, and they continued to reshape and innovate their cultural expressions in response. In producing syncretic expressions of faith, indigenous communities who practiced Catholicism transformed picture writing to produce new types of texts – specifically pictorial catechisms. Long considered to be a solely sixteenth century phenomenon, recent scholarship on the subject has extended their production and use to the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Pictorial catechisms provided tangible material related to church doctrine, while also reclaiming and reaffirming identity by recalling an indigenous past that legitimized the documents’ creators in the contemporary moment. This section details the use of picture writing and alphabetic Nahuatl in colonial Catholic proselytizing contexts, starting with the adaptation of pictorial writing by friars, and the later adaptation by indigenous nobles. Together, these texts present a diachronic account of religious writings in colonial Mexico, establishing the complex negotiations that took place over script and pictorial form between the sixteenth and eighteenth centuries.

Presented by Parker Zane.

Preserving Property and Primordial Pasts

The Codex Coyoacán belongs to a distinct subset of indigenous manuscripts known as the Techialoyans. Although originally misidentified as sixteenth century manuscripts, the Techialoyans are now widely regarded as documents of the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries. Due to the striking stylistic similarities in both image and text, as well as material composition across the Techialoyan corpus, scholars have suggested that they were made under the purview of a single studio or workshop for surrounding communities in Central Mexico.1
To indigenous populations, Techialoyans not only provided important pictorial and textual records of indigenous histories—often recounting the founding of local polities and delineating pre-Columbian dynastic lineages—but also acted as administrative documents to assert ownership over their native territories. Faced with the prospect of displacement and relocation, indigenous communities used the Techialoyan codices as both internal repositories of great historical and cultural importance, and as means of outward defense against Spanish attempts at land consolidation and redistribution.  

Presented by Grace Wilkins.


This exhibition was curated collectively by undergraduate students in the Spring 2020 course HIAA 1151: Painting Indigenous Histories in Colonial Mexico: Andres O’Sullivan-Comparan, Grace Wilkins, and Parker Zane. Course Instructor: Jessica Stair.